La Fiesta de San Roque, known more commonly now as La Fiesta Grande de Tarija is an incredible spectacle of colorful costumes, religious tradition, and mass participation. The almost month-long festival begins on August 16th each year and concludes with a massive procession on the second Tuesday of September.
This would be my first large festival experience which also happened to fall on the birthday of one of my friends and fellow RYE student from France, Tao. Tao’s host family held a party for him at their very nice home, which consisted of lots of lots of great food, some of Tao’s friends, and other RYE students from our town. It was lots of fun and of course involved the required faceplant into the cake which is a tradition here that has proved to be very amusing! It makes me a little nervous for my birthday though!
Unfortunately, that day I was starting to catch a cold so I was pretty tired heading into the evening. Because the party had gone longer than expected, I missed the first few hours of the main Chuncho processions but managed to catch sunset and the night activities. Many blocks long, the colorfully decorated streets, participants, and many people brought central Tarija to a standstill. It was amazing to feel the almost pounding energy of drums and dancers. As night fell, the crouds gathered in front of the Iglesia San Roque and we waited for the thousands of Chunchos to enter the square. First a slow trickle became a constant stream of more and more completely decked out and costumed people filling the square.
This festival, the largest and most popular of the year, is centered around the pilgrimage and promising of the thousands of Chunchos who dress in colorful clothing and dance and sing in procession through the streets accompanied by musicians, and the beat of drums.
This festival is in reverence of San Roque, a Frenchman, and descendant of the Christian Kings of France. Born to a wealthy city governor in 1295, San Roque inherited all his parent’s wealth and upon their death distributed that wealth to the poor. With pilgrim’s habit and staff, he then traveled to Italy to help the plague-ravaged people. San Roque dedicated himself to the sick and ended up catching the plague himself.
During colonial times, an epidemic of leprosy ravaged the city of Tarija. To calm the anguish of the relentless scourge, those interested by the cures of the French invoked the aid of San Roque. It is said that the epidemic ceased soon after and that is why to this day each year many people renew their promises to San Roque and make their pilgrimage. During the festival, the image of the saint is paraded around the city accompanied by the massive procession of Chunchos to visit temples and hospitals. The final night involves thousands of Chunchos assembling, dancing, and singing in unison at the foot of the Iglesia San Roque Tarija. Their costumes represent those of the victims of the leprosy that ravaged the city so long ago, and the tradition is one passed from generation to generation.