Loja monigotes - paper mache, fire, and luck

Monigotes for sale on a sidewalk in Loja Ecuador
Monigotes - a holiday tradition to mark the changing of the year

If you look up the word "monigote" in an online Spanish-to-English translator, you'll discover it could refer to a rag doll or paper doll, or might also be a dummy, or even a doodle. In Loja when one speaks of a monigote it describes something that is a combination of all those things.

We're talking about an effigy -- sometimes life-size, sometimes bigger or smaller than life-size -- made of paper mache and often wearing real clothing, and painted (or doodled upon) to create a likeness. The likeness may be a famous person (such as Sylvester Stallone or Rafael Correa) or it may be an imaginary person (think Spiderman or the Bart Simpson) or it may be a mythical creature, such as a dragon.

Some people even make monigotes in their own image. Why would anyone want to make an effigy, let alone an effigy of themselves? Well the tradition here in Ecuador is to set the monigote on fire at midnight of New Year's Eve, and then to jump over or through the burning fire. The intent is to 1) rid one's self of the bad things of the closing year and 2) garner good luck for the new year. Think of it as hitting the reset button on your life.

Monigotes for sale on the street, Loja Ecuador
Monigotes may be quite simple while others are highly detailed, with rippling muscles and individual fingers. Some are also quite large - for parades or neighborhood competitions - and may be articulated. These larger effigies have "skeletons" of wire or cardboard under their "skins."

Some people make their own and it can be a great activity for the kids. For others, the creations are a business that begins six months before New Years Day. Those who do this to supplement their living have sometimes devoted twenty or more years to the production of monigotes. On average, each figure takes about three days to complete, but more complex ones obviously take much longer. Most sellers will offer a range from small and simple to large and complex so buyers can find something that fits their budget.

Now even though these things are lots of fun, I must also issue a caution if you decide to participate in one of these cleansing-by-fire ceremonies. Besides the risk of catching your own clothing on fire when jumping over the flames, there are potentially toxic chemicals released into the air, such as toluene, lead, mercury, and white phosphorus. Do not stand in the smoke. Also be cautious about nearby flammables, like dry grass, which might catch on fire from sparks.

Helping people to understand and appreciate the culture of Loja, Ecuador, is one of the main goals of "Life in Loja." I welcome your comments.


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