My Big Fat Bolivian Wedding

27 Aug, 2010 | Deborah Bender and Rishum Butt

Culture

"And so the prince in shining armour rides gallantly upon his white stallion across strange and foreign lands, high and low, all in search of his beloved, so that he may take her and wed her in holy matrimony...”

As beautifully romantic a story as this may seem, such stories tend to remain in the realm of fiction, and thus I have dubbed it ‘the fairytale curse’. The unfortunate truth for young girls in the UK is that we are more likely to find our Prince Charmings mounted on a J-reg Ford KA than mounted on his noble steed. But despite this gas-guzzling reality, the fairytale dream lives on, and all little girls are taught to dream of a prince charming and white wedding. On my arrival here, I asked myself whether Bolivian princesses are slaves to the same ideals.

Certainly the time, care, and effort that is expended in planning and hosting a Bolivian wedding may rival what we are used to in the UK, but a Bolivian matrimonial ceremony is certainly not the average ‘White Wedding’ that British kids remember from their Disney-days. Bolivians remain attached to the practices and traditions of their ancestors, which like religion, are a syncretic blend of pre- and post-Hispanic influences.

In a blending of new and old, many brides today have exchanged the pollera and ruana for a more contemporary white wedding dress. Still, in a delightful blending of cultures, the gift-giving tradition of pinning money on the bride and groom persists.

However, the ingenuity with which traditions is intermixed with the ‘new’ practices that we are more accustomed to in the West may give some surprising and altogether amusing results. Marriage is universally considered a fundamental rite of passage, but in the Aymara and Quechua traditions it is the most significant social event in an individual’s life: a step down the aisle into adulthood, taken with huge symbolic gravitas and enriching the community life culturally, spiritually, and alcoholically.

Following the religious and state formalities, the real wedding festivities begin late in the evening. This is when aunts, uncles, and relatives you probably didn’t even realise you were related to hit the dance floor, sometimes too literally for comfort, as the customary alcoholic offerings to Pachamama pouring over the ground transform the environs into a beery, treacherous ice-rink. Although the first dance for many couples in the UK may mark the beginning of a wonderful and fruitful marriage, the obligatory opening waltz by the bride and groom in Bolivia is less emotion-stirring than comical. Let’s not forget that heels and slippery floors do not go well together.

The Paceña and Chuflay is a-flowing, and if you don’t have an alcoholic beverage in hand already, you’ll be sure to have one very soon. Refusing a drink might well cause offense, as a result of which many guests pass the night pouring it down raucously in reciprocal demonstrations of respect and appreciation for their neighbours. The rate of alcohol consumption is similar to that in the Indian Sikh tradition where a lot of drinking and a lot of dancing makes for quite a spectacular and enjoyable wedding.

Wedding Dress

Some Bolivian customs do bear resemblance to those that are somewhat mechanically carried out in the ‘White Wedding’ tradition, for example, the throwing of the bride’s bouquet to all the ‘single and ready to mingle’ ladies in the room. However, how often do you see this happening to the dulcet tones of Shania Twain’s ‘Man, I Feel Like A Woman’? No, you can never criticise the Bolivians for choosing context-inappropriate music.

Wedding Passout

Bolivia and the UK share many matrimonial customs. It seems that the mandatory “sleeping uncle” is one of them.

This chaotic jubilance may disappoint the dreamy young girl’s ideals of elegance and sophistication, but the genuine celebratory behaviour is what sets Bolivian custom apart. Refusing to be dominated by Western trends, it neatly integrates elements of the white pomp with its own practices and eccentricities. And rightly so: in a nation as colourful and diverse as this, to restrict oneself to ‘white’ only would be despicably reductive. Incorporating both gleeful capering and precarious drunkenness with figurative weight, what in the UK is a stilted performance, an unattainable fairytale curse, here becomes reality in all its accident, beauty and bedlam.

Wedding Cake

Even the wedding cake has been influenced by western trends. If you look closely, you will see that a single ribbon dangles from each cake. Inside the cake attached to each ribbon is a small trinket. One of the trinkets is a small gold ring. Similarly to bridal bouquet tradition, the girl who pulls the ring from the cake is applauded as the one who will be the next to marry.

Unconventional? Perhaps. But fundamentally, Bolivians know how to throw a great party.

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