A Bolivian researcher, she arrived in the UK fourteen years ago. Being far from her home country she began to take an interest in her roots, which lead to her study Latin American identity. More specifically, she is an expert on the Andean Carnival of Oruro.
Ximena Córdova was born 36 years ago. Although she is a native of Bolivia, when she was very young she moved to Venezuela, where she was brought up.
As an adult Córdova left Latin America and moved around a number of European countries before deciding to settle in Britain, fourteen years ago.
The distance between her and her home country lead Córdova to reflect on who she was and what it meant to be Bolivian. To get to know her roots she set out on a journey that has allowed her to study Latin American identities to such an extent that she is now holds a doctorate and is an expert in one of her homeland’s most important traditions, the Carnival of Oruro, considered by UNESCO to be an example of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
In conversation with The Prisma in Newcastle, Ximena talks about discovering her origins and how she was welcomed by the city in which she has made her home for the past fifteen years.
Why did you decide to study the Carnival of Oruro?
It caught my interest because it is an explosion of humanity. We think of the carnival as one big party, as a place just to have fun, but there are other very important sides to the festival like community spirit or the sense of collective historical memory.
In my country there is a great deal of attachment to the indigenous traditions, and treasures from the Andean regions have been protected. For example, people have now realised that the capitalist model has its disadvantages and in the face of this, the indigenous peoples of the region have always talked to us about focusing on the individual and looking after the world around us.
It was an emotional journey, and one that allowed me to feel the spirit of Bolivia, the language of the carnival and the universal human symbols represented through food and dance, for example.
I had the opportunity to experience it with the Union of Slaughterers, as the group of “mañasos” butchers is known, which is one of the oldest established groups in Oruro. It is thought to have been in existence since 1904 and one of the first to dance “La diablada” (one of the oldest and most traditional of more than 18 different types of dance performed throughout the festival).
I saw for myself how it brings the generations together, both young and old and from all social classes. They taught me to dance and helped me dress up as China Supai, the so-called bride of the devil. This is just one of the characters that appears in the carnival alongside devils and bears, for example. Oruro was a very important mining community during the colonial era and the last century. Many people came from the surrounding countryside to work in the mines and it was from these journeys that the carnival and the processions in honour of the mine workers’ deities evolved.
It can teach values like gratitude and reciprocity in a world where we have grown accustomed to receiving and then complaining when we don’t get what we want. It also teaches us to give thanks for our well being.
On its most religious level, during the carnival we make a promise to the Virgin Mary, telling her we will take part for three years and behave like “a good Christian”.
Talking about your experience as a migrant, how was your arrival in the UK?
I came here because of someone and when that relationship ended I stayed. I had the advantage of being able to speak the language so I could make my own way and find work, so I did a bit of everything until I began my studies. Both my children are British, and to be honest, I hadn’t anticipated that happening.
It’s been a real education, like being at university, and I’ve made a lot of friends and acquaintances.
I have been able to travel to faraway places that I could only have dreamed of going to from my home country, and I’ve experienced other cultures. I have also learned a bit more about who I am, where I come from, and what I have to give.
Is England a multicultural country?
The big cities are definitely multicultural, but not the whole country. I live in Newcastle where multiculturalism is not so pronounced. But, up here the people are generous and they have their own cultural identity and traditions.
Personally, I’ve never experienced being badly insulted, but I know people who have. I think that people here are tolerant towards difference. Amongst many other things, I really like the work ethic of this culture. The Latin American and British communities are getting along well right now, and there is a mutual respect and desire to learn from one another.
The richness of our dance and musical traditions has allowed Latinos to express something of our own culture in this country.
But dance has a limited reach and Latin American culture is so much more than this, and it can sometimes only serve to create unhelpful stereotypes.
Not so very long ago we weren’t really very visible because we were scattered amongst the British, but that isn’t the case any more and you can see that Latin Americans have their organisations and their preferred lifestyles. But at the same time we are having to start thinking about what these group preferences might be. Our own diversity is a complicated issue, to the extent that I am always questioning my own identity, especially after living here for so many years.
My children’s experiences of multiculturalism will be more profound because, of course, they are from here, but at home they are being brought up in the Latin American culture, and at school they share with children from all over the world. In the future they’ll be the ones to teach us the meaning of respect.
(Translated by Viv Griffiths)