Becoming Cuenca

It’s Everyone’s New Year’s Eve

Jan 1, 2024

Year’s end is neither an end nor a beginning.

Certainly not in Cuenca.

And more importantly, New Year’s Eve is celebrated by all together. What I mean is that people in Cuenca for the most part do not go to a hotel end-of-year bash, nor do they drunkenly watch a ball or acorn drop at midnight in the middle of the city (I have never understood the huge attraction for that one).

Not surprisingly, New Year’s Eve is celebrated with family, and many times with friends.

When with friends, it can become a huge gathering. That is especially true for the New Year’s Eve celebration for 2024.

On social media, Dirección Municipal de Cultura de Cuenca announced 25 road closures for New Year’s Eve. The city’s graphic showed roads would be closed throughout the city to celebrate the end of 2023.

“The end of the year is in Cuenca. And for the FIRST TIME it will be celebrated with parties in 25 neighborhoods! This December 31, in every corner will have music, color, and tradition. The monigotes will open the way to good luck because 2024 is for Cuenca,” their graphic said.

Soon after that, another list appeared, with even more road closures throughout the city. All of this was done because New Year’s Eve is one of the biggest events of the year in Ecuador.

And monigotes have a huge part.

They are serious business!

Frankly, monigotes are big bucks in Cuenca.

They say New Year’s Eve in Cuenca is like the Fourth of July, Halloween, and Christmas all wrapped up together.

Monigotes come in all shapes and sizes. Most are made with paper mâché, which is usually a combination of water, wheat-flour, and white glue.

You can find everything from figures from the most famous movies or television series to Lionel Messi (Maybe they are for the French fútbol fans) to Disney characters to some made with old clothes and sawdust. Others have no faces so you can pick out a face to put on it.

They are sold throughout the city. You will find them on street corners, in plazas, and in parks. Our hometown was promoting more than 30 stands to buy monigotes at just one location!

Historically, Parque Lineal Yanuncay is a huge place to find monigotes. Just a block from our barrio, the green space is an easy place to hit the jackpot.

There were probably two dozen vendors set up with their tents (We are in the rainy season), with thousands of monigotes scattered about. There is definitely something for everyone, even for the pickiest person.

By the afternoon, there are usually hundreds of people trying to find that perfect monigote. There is a festive atmosphere as people peruse the offerings. Being Latin America, there is music amplified by loudspeakers.

The monigote represents the “Año Viejo” (Old Year) and all of the bad people and things that came into their lives during the old year.

In the afternoon of New Year’s Eve is the Old Years Contest. Organized by Amistad Club, the Union of Journalists of Azuay, and supported by the Directorate of Culture of Cuenca, neighborhoods participate in this great and competitive tradition that has been going on for 47 years.

In 2023, there were 27 neighborhoods participating. Each neighborhood picks something that is relevant to the year. Winners are chosen by a jury of experts.

The Tres Puentes neighborhood’s theme was “Radares” (Radars). Ana Perez and her friends had two huge – and I mean huge – monigotes set up in front of her family’s home on Av. Don Bosco. On the left was the former mayor of Cuenca, and on the right was the new mayor, Christian Zamora. Tears were coming down the former mayor’s face and he was crying, “Ay. Mi radarcito.”

I told Ana (on the far right) that the scene was hilarious with the former mayor crying about his “little radar” that Mayor Zamora gave a knockout punch to (Pow!). The current mayor had run on getting rid of the radar guns on one of the city’s busiest streets… which he did quickly once in office.

Ana had me laughing hysterically when she showed the monigotes of a Tranvía slamming into a yellow taxi. It seems that a taxi is always turning in front of a Tranvía. I told Ana she had a winner with that scene and that hopefully, the judges have the same sense of humor as the two of us.

As you can see, everything in Cuenca is about community. It is what sets the city apart from the United States and its individualistic culture. This is one big reason expats love living here.

Just before midnight, people go outside and burn their monigotes. It is a great way to leave problems and sadness behind.

Then, some people jump over the fire of the burning doll for good luck (Is it bad luck if you catch your pants on fire?).

A good American friend of ours, who has lived in Cuenca longer than us, recently told me about her experience with burning monigotes.

“My first year here some kids grabbed my hands to leap over a flaming monigote that was shooting firecrackers. I was wearing a long skirt and my hem caught fire! As I completed my jump, I was immediately doused with a cold bucket of water,” Jan told me. “No harm done, except to my hem and my pride. But I never wore a skirt again!”

Another friend in Cuenca laughingly said, “We always hear about crotch burns being treated at local emergency services…”

Ecuadorians feel they are starting “Año Nuevo” (New Year) with a clean slate. Every new year is an opportunity to start over. New life and new feelings!

It has been said this tradition dates back to 1842 in Guayaquil.

Spread by the bite of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, yellow fever hit Guayaquil. Half of the population fled in terror and over 4,000 people died.

Harsh health measures were taken to the city that foreign visitors and sailors knew as the “Pesthole of the Pacific.”

One measure was the burning of the clothes of the infected people being placed in a doll to help rid the city of the viral hemorrhagic disease.

The other story about its origins starts in Guayaquil, too, when 41 percent of the yellow fever cases admitted to the municipal hospital from 1880 to 1895 were fatal. It didn’t help there were only 35 doctors for a population of over 50,000.

During those 15 years, family members stuffed coffins with the clothes of the dead, and set them on fire, symbolizing purification from the disease and new beginnings.

The yellow fever vaccine did not come into use until 1938 when South African-American virologist and physician Max Theiler succeeded in cultivating yellow fever virus in both mouse and chicken embryo tissue. The vaccine is on the World Health Organization’s “List of Essential Medicines.”

Whichever origins of the monigote is correct, you could say that the rest is history.

The twentieth-century British poet and pacifist Edith Lovejoy Pierce said, “We will open the book. Its pages are blank. We are going to put words on them ourselves. The book is called Opportunity, and its first chapter is New Year’s Day.”

A Cuencano said, “We Ecuadorians think that fire is a purifier of evil and the new year will come with new hopes.”

In our first year in Cuenca, the wonderful owner of La Yunta Restaurante, Sole Riquetti de Gould, brought out a couple of sky lanterns. Also known as Kongmíng lantern or Chinese lantern, it is a small hot air balloon made of paper, with an opening at the bottom where a small fire is suspended.

When lit, the flame heats the air inside the lantern, thus lowering its density and causing the lantern to rise into the air. The sky lantern is only airborne for as long as the flame stays alight, after which the lantern sinks back to the ground.

How these lanterns fit into Ecuador’s New Year’s Eve traditions, I have no clue. All I know is that it is rather popular these days.

As a prelude to the burning of the monigotes, from noon on December 31st, Ecuadorian men across the country dress-up in drag. Wearing wigs and using balloons to accentuate their chests, walking around in high heels and short skirts, they then take to the streets.

No… Not male hookers.

The Viudas (“Widow of the Old Year”) stop car traffic to ask for small change before letting the drivers continue with their day. It is my understanding that the money that the Viudas collect goes into a communal pot for the party later that night.

Another popular tradition in Ecuador is “Las 12 Uvas” (The 12 Grapes). Just one minute before midnight, each person eats twelve grapes, making a wish before each bite.

While the tradition originally symbolized the 12 apostles (the primary disciples of Jesus according to the New Testament), people now wish for happiness, wealth, or anything else they desire. The goal is to have good luck in the new year.

Make sure you fill a suitcase full of clothes and run around the block at midnight. This is done after the bells of the church have rung 12 times. They say that this ritual is sure to bring new adventures and lots of traveling.

There are so many lesser-known traditions. One of them is wearing red or yellow underwear. Red is supposed to bring love, and yellow brings wealth. This superstition is practiced in many Latin American countries.

Another relatively unknown tradition among expats is putting money inside one of your shoes. It is to get your money right in the new year. Notice all of the symbolism?

Our friend, Jan, knows about these traditions as she celebrates the new year with her Ecuadorian neighbor. “We run around with our luggage, wearing our yellow or red underwear,” Jan told me. “And we carry money in our pockets and shoes for prosperity.”

Those judges for the monigotes contest probably have a great sense of humor. An open-bed truck full of purple and yellow clowns with one hanging off the side came to the Tres Puentes neighborhood just before 9 p.m.

The clowns, otherwise known as judges, jumped off the truck that is normally used for hauling propane gas tanks. And the neighborhood festivities began.

Latino dance music blared into the air and the clowns started dancing in the middle of Av. Don Bosco. Ana and some of her neighbors started dancing with clowns.

Ana’s mother was walking through the crowd with a pitcher of an Ecuadorian liquor. She was offering it for free for anyone who wanted to partake.

It was such a joyous and uplifting neighborhood experience. I truly have never seen anything like it.

The “Really Big Show” (Apologies to Ed Sullivan for stealing this) starts precisely at midnight. Well… Some get a jump start.

Boom.

Boom.

Boom.

Hundreds of families across Cuenca shoot off fireworks.

And that may be a major understatement of the number of people shooting off their fireworks.

Never have we seen such a fireworks display.

Yes… There is Sydney’s gorgeous fireworks display over the Opera House and harbor.

And there is the massive pyrotechnics display in Rio De Janeiro.

But what our hometown had New Year’s Eve night was rather unique.

It seemed that every one of the 660,000 residents of the city was shooting off fireworks.

In any direction, the Cuenca skyline was filled with fireworks that Cuencanos had purchased to celebrate the beginning of Año Nuevo. There were so many going off at once that the air was full of smoke in just a few minutes.

If Cuencanos did not have fireworks to shoot high into the sky, they were burning Roman candles with Mario.

And of course, the monigotes.

The fireworks often last into the wee hours of New Year’s Day. If you have access to a rooftop terrace, then the views across the city are spectacular.

Our very good friend, Lin, concurs. As all of us watched the fireworks from 360 degrees, Lin told Joanna that in her six years in Cuenca, the fireworks were by far the best she had ever seen. Joanna exclaimed to me she had never seen such a pyrotechnical display.

No doubt last night was the best New Year’s Eve we ever had.

The goal of all of these traditions is about one special thing: Leaving all the bad things of the old year behind to start the new year with hope and optimism.

And of course, surrounded by the people you love and care.

This is a family-oriented country.

Cheers to a new year and another chance for us to get it right.

A lot more information on life in Cuenca can be found in my book, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life.” Some say it is the most thorough book out there concerning moving to and living in this beautiful city.

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Salud, mi amigo.

 

Una Nueva Vida – A New Life

- by Stephen Vargha

There are over 80 professional-quality photos shot by me to give you a clear ‘picture’ about life in this historic mountain city.