The afternoon sun ignited the dust clouds as silhouettes danced along the mountain path between Salasaca and Pelileo. They passed like a pack of wolves closing in on its prey, with swords in the air and aguardiente (cane alcohol) on their breath, circling around a giant cross erected on a spot which their ancestors declared as sacred in the distant past. Caporales, or Reis Pishta, is an indigenous fiesta celebrated by the residents of Salasaca in the Ecuadorian Andes every February and involves several days of intense preparation, ritual meals in honour of Mother Earth, brightly coloured costumes and a reaffirmation of the system of reciprocity amongst the villagers. Unlike other fiestas, however, Caporales has a dark, sexual energy which transforms the young men of the community into savages. On the day of the fiesta, all rules of proper conduct and morality fall by the wayside, making the streets a dangerous place for women who get caught in the path of the mob. Tradition has it that the young men, with their faces painted black and dressed like warriors, are reenacting the violent conquest by the Spanish when indigenous women were sexually mistreated. While this may be true, the fiesta's rituals also seem like an excuse for local men to get drunk and inappropriately give in to their sexual urges. Women who get caught in the crowd are often surrounded and groped. There is little recourse to authority in the heat of the festival. Sometimes tradition is ugly.
Younger boys perform an equally bizarre role to play in this chaotic jamboree. They dress up to look like indigenous women and some carry guaguas de pan, small sweet pastries made in the shape of babies, on their backs. They follow El Caporal, or the leader of the fiesta procession, who is dressed in colourful finery and carries a hoe. This processing weaves its way through the countryside in the shadow of the Tungurahua (or 'Throat of Fire' volcano whose often smoking top reminds the villagers of its awesome power. The manifold images of the horses, guinea pigs, swords, crosses, sweet pastries, black faces and red ponchos all clash in an ambiguous role play intended to represent pre-Colombian rituals and the violent Spanish conquest. Though it's difficult not to judge the actions of local young men, the people of Salasaca maintain that they're following an ancient tradition passed from fathers to sons.