Kings for Three Days author Jean Muteba Rahier Q&A

Jean Muteba Rahier is an associate professor of anthropology and the director of the African & African Diaspora Studies Program at Florida International University. His book Kings for Three Days: The Play of Race and Gender in an Afro-Ecuadorian Festival, examines the complexities of Afro-Ecuadorian culture, as revealed through the annual Festival of the Kings. He answered some questions about the book.

Q: What are a few ways Ecuadorian culture is unique from that of neighboring countries such as Colombia or Peru?

Rahier: In the current context of multiculturalism, it might be appropriate to talk instead of Ecuadorian cultures, as the plural. It is usually recognized that Ecuador has two Afro-Ecuadorian cultures, which are in fact quite different from one another, and which correspond to the two major black communities of the country: the province of Esmeraldas, on the coast, south of Colombia; and the Chota-Mira Valley, in the northern Andes (province of Imbabura and province of Carchi). This book focuses on an Afro-Esmeraldian festivity. This focus provides an opportunity to discuss Afro-Esmeraldian culture in general. As I explain in the book, the province of Esmeraldas is the southernmost extremity of a vast cultural area that covers the Pacific coast of Colombia and that reaches up north the province of Darién in Panamá. This inclusion in a vaster cultural area doesn’t preclude the existence of Afro-Esmeraldian cultural particularities along with original socio-economic and political realities.

Q: What is the “Festival of Kings?”

Rahier: The Festival of the Kings is nothing but the celebration of the Catholic Epiphany, which in the Roman Catholic Church is based on the legend of the adoration of the Magi Kings Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthazar. In Esmeraldas, as is the case in other Latin American contexts, the legend was reinterpreted in such a way that the three Magi became Kings each of one of the main racial groups that compose most Latin American national populations: whites, blacks, and “Indians.” In the Esmeraldian context, the Festival is celebrated during three days: January 6, 7, and 8. The official Catholic calendar  recognizes only one day for the Epiphany: January 6.

Q: What was your first exposure to the Fiesta de los Reyes?

Rahier: It was in the mid-1980s in the village of La Tola, one of the two villages this book focuses on. I quickly thereafter enjoyed an opportunity to participate in the Festival in Santo Domingo de Ónzole. This led me to appreciate the local dimensions of festivities.

Q: The Festival has Roman Catholic roots; how important is the religious component of the Festival in Ecuador in modern practice?

Rahier: It is important, of course. But we have to keep in mind that the way religiosity, and particularly Catholicism, is lived varies a great deal in different places. In Esmeraldian contexts, Catholicism survives without the presence of priests, who only rarely visit villages.

Q: Would you compare the role-playing that happens within the Festival to parody?

Rahier: It’s not a question of comparison. Parody is an integral part or objective of
the Afro-Esmeraldian Festival of the Kings. If you don’t understand that, you can’t make sense of the Afro-Esmeraldian Festival of the Kings.

Q: Are gender role boundaries pushed within the constructs of the Festival?

Rahier: Yes, indeed. They are simply inverted, particularly in the village of Santo Domingo de Ónzole. Women organize the Festival; they take over local authority and humiliate men good humoredly. The Afro-Esmeraldian Festival of the Kings is a carnivalesque festivity.  Carnival always comes with a number of inversions. Gender inversion is usually a fundamental characteristic of this kind of festivities.

Q: Is there a more political component to the festivities in different regions?

Rahier: There is a political component in all festivities, anywhere. It is sometimes
more obvious in some cases than others, obviously. My analyses of the Festival in Esmeraldas emphasize the political aspects of the performances.

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