On the 19th January, people come from all over the country to Diriamba, which is 45km from the capital Managua, to celebrate the feast of the city patron, San Sebastiano (St Sebastian). Thousands take to the streets of Diriamba, which owes its name to Cacique Diriangen the legendary Nahuati Indian chief, to accompany the dance of the Toro Huaco, the icon of the celebration.
Maria Guadalupe adjusts her hat, which is decorated with peacock feathers, and gets ready to leave. The Mass will soon be over and she, along with the other pilgrims, will be pushing their way through the crowd of people dancing, while the huge Sebastiana, a bronze bell that rings only in January, is swinging in the right tower of the Minor Basilica of Saint Sebastian in Diriamba. After the celebration of the Mass, people start dancing to the rhythm of marimbas, drums and to the sound of whistles. It is the 19th January and the Saint Sebastian festival has officially begun.
Maria Guadalupe, who is wearing a mask which covers her face and holding a small whip called the tajona, starts dancing to the sound of piteros, which are small drums. The locals, dressed up in colourful costumes wearing feathered hats and Spanish styled leather jackets and boots, certainly do not go unnoticed.
The Toro Huaco dance traditionally leads the procession at the Saint Sebastian festival. The dancers, mostly women and children, thank their Patron Saint for the graces they received from him by performing dances. Between them twirls a man sporting a cow’s mask attached to a kite-like structure he holds over his back. The dancers alternately charge and retreat from this cow, employing a methodical stamping step. The Toro Huaco mask enters the church, greets the Patron Saint of Diriamba and then goes to the streets while dancing. The syncretism of the cultural traditions and the religious beliefs, of the profane and the sacred, finds its best expression in the Saint Sebastian festival of Diriamba.
The Toro Huaco is a patronal festival linked to the legend that, according to the writer Edward Escobar Barba, is called ‘El Cacaste’. This legend narrates that the Nicaraguan Indians, due to the oppression of which they were victims and in order to alleviate its negative effects, practiced cattle rustling when their food supply was short. They generally acted in the night, under cover of darkness, wearing multiple layers of clothing to protect them against the cold, boots to protect them against the bites of snakes and masks to prevent them from being recognised. They entered the lands of the Spanish settlers and quartered cows, leaving only the bones. However, in the nights of the full moon, no matter how hungry they might be, they would not dare steal and kill cattle, since they believed that the carcasses of the quartered animals came back to life, and attacked anybody bumping into them. The legend explains why the street dance performances are led by a horned mask representing the skeleton of a cow on the occasion of the Saint Sebastian celebration.
Nicaraguan writer and researcher Edward Escobar Barba, referring to Toro Huaco emphasised the symbols involved in the dance. The bull allegedly represents strength and fertility, the word huaco, in Nicaragua and other Spanish speaking countries in South America, often refers to a treasure, which is not supposed to be necessarily material. As far as the dance is concerned, the writer noted that dancing was one of the first expressions of human beings to communicate with each other and with their gods: “Dance was a form of language to communicate the real, mystical and religious experiences. I would say that the bull (toro) represents, in this case, the brute force of nature which man has to measure up against”, he said.
Barba also reminded that masks were representations of deities and were used by shamans performing rituals to enter the world of gods in aboriginal traditions. Masks, therefore, were used not only to hide the identity of an individual, but their mythical functionality opened the doors of religious celebrations.
The master of the national folk dance, Ronald Abud Vivas said that the Toro Huaco dance “is a war, magical and mystical dance, a preparation for combat, a tribal dance through which the aborigines measured up against danger feeling confident that they could succeed; this is why a magic ritual was performed”.
The ritual however, due to transculturation, suffered some modifications and so the worship of idols became the worship of saints, and promises substituted spells. According to Abud Vivas, huaco represents the phantasmagoric and it coincides with the cacaste legend. “This legend may have been invented to prevent cattle rustling, the assumption that Toro Huaco is a war dance is supported by the fact that it is performed by dancers that form two lines facing one another, moreover the guttural sound ‘ruuu’ emitted by dancers, is regarded as a war password. The music is indigenous – a drum calling to war and a whistle evoking magical laments”, the dance teacher explained. He also clarified the reason why those particular costumes are worn by dancers, “the hat decorated with peacock feathers is the only real traditional item of the costumes that the Toro Huaco dancers wear. It symbolizes Ouetzalcóatl, the feathered serpent, because I believe that indigenous dancers did not wear trousers and even less, checked shirts”.
After centuries of tradition, today the Toro Huaco is the icon of the Saint Sebastian festival. The magic of this dance has undoubtedly survived through history, as you can tell by watching the peacock feathers – you get lost into the world of rhythm, colour and the faith that each dancer oozes out.