Celebration …and Mourning

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Cuenca is Old!

We just celebrated the 461st year of the founding of Cuenca, Ecuador. And I used to think my hometown of El Paso, Texas, was old! Basing El Paso’s founding on the establishment of its first military outpost, the city was created in 1854. That was just nine years after the entire state of Texas was formed.

April 12 marks Cuenca’s founding as a Spanish city in 1557, but historians say the community of current-day Cuenca was established by the Cañari more than 4,000 years ago. The Cañari called the city Guapondeleg, and the Incas, who overthrew the Cañari and reigned for 75 years, dubbed it Tomebamba.

Being in town for my first foundation celebration was a treat. The weeklong festivities ranged from parades and demonstrations to concerts and fireworks. And oh man, does Cuenca love a parade!

Just shy of six months residency in this quaint, colonial town, I have seen more parades than I saw in my lifetime in El Paso. And that Texas city’s annual Sun Bowl parade is a pretty big deal.

Here, parades are generally marching bands, folkloric dancers and an occasional float that consists of a decorated truck or trailer. Every high school and college has a band, and all of them march. The bands are predominantly made up of drummers, with a scattering of horns thrown in. While band members generally wear sensible shoes, it was a first for me to see so many female marchers in short skirts and sky-high heels. In a town known for cobblestone streets, broken pavement and unrepaired potholes, these marchers got my vote for courage and dedication.

The most fun parade was the “Night of Lanterns” in the downtown historic district. Preschools throughout the region sent their youngest marchers dressed in yellow or red, the colors of Cuenca’s flag. These tiny Cuencanas carried handmade lanterns or torches, many featuring lit candles. With thousands of onlookers, and despite the rows of parents escorting the children on each side of the street, I could not help but feel anxious until each reached the finish line and adults extinguished their flames.

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Still, the most heart-stopping moment came as a tiny band of dancers began their choreographed routine. Suddenly, a boy of four or five entered the scene. He was wearing a dappled black and white, cardboard cow on his head. The crowd cheered as he danced in and around the tiny dancers. Then someone – as hard as it was to believe – LIT fireworks on the top of the cow “hat” the child was wearing. Within seconds, his head appeared to be ablaze and he continued his merry dance.

All kinds of thoughts ran through my head, not the least of which was that this would never have happened in the U.S. But almost daily, I am reminded I no longer live in the U.S. I stood silently, praying that someone would soon put an end to this spectacle. After what seemed like forever, they did. And the parade went on.

Cuenca was dressed up for its birthday, as it does each time the locals celebrate a holiday. More than 400 flags were hung along downtown streets and at the entrance to the city. Special lighting, again in the city’s colors, was used to showcase Cuenca’s most important buildings such as government offices and cathedrals.

We had multiple vendor fairs throughout the city, outdoor concerts, dozens of street food carts offering a wide array of tasty local treats, and even a “cuy fair,’ celebrating the local delicacy – guinea pig.

The celebration was ramping up on Friday, which marked the official holiday with the closing of offices and schools. That was when Cuenca city officials announced that all government-sponsored events would be cancelled in honor of three Ecuadorians murdered by drug traffickers in southern Colombia. The cancellations followed an announcement by Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno of a four-day mourning period for the victims.

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The two Ecuadorian journalists and their driver were abducted March 26 in Ecuador, near the Colombian border. The team was covering recent attacks on Ecuadorian soldiers by suspected drug traffickers in the area. The drug cartel known as the Óliver Sinisterra Front has taken credit for the kidnapping and murders.

Cuenca seems a world away from Colombia. In reality, we are less than 450 miles from our shared border by car. Granted, that drive would probably take twice as long as it does in the states due to mountainous routes and hazardous roadways. The country of Ecuador is itself small, a little more than half the size of the big state of Texas.

As evidenced by its birthday celebration and by its president’s remarkable response to the loss of human life, Ecuador does things in a BIG way. For this former Texan, that says a lot.

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