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  • Unmasking Class, Gender, and Sexuality in Nicaraguan Festival
  • Cymene Howe
Unmasking Class, Gender, and Sexuality in Nicaraguan Festival. By Katherine Borland. (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2006. Pp. xi + 223 figures list, acknowledgments, notes, references, index.)

Nicaragua has a long tradition of masking. There are, of course, the masks of performative genres where characters are made through their clever use of guises. In another sense, though, Nicaraguans often take a certain pride in their ability "to mask," to dissimulate, or to blunt the edges of the troubled times they have often faced—making the best of difficult political and economic circumstances. "Unmasking" is then a most appropriate metaphor to frame Katherine Borland's analysis of folkloric tradition in her excellent, readable, and timely book Unmasking Class, Gender, and Sexuality in Nicaraguan Festival. Borland's text makes important contributions to the scholarship on performance, gender, sexuality, neo-liberalism, and folkloric celebration in Latin America. She uncovers how the producers and performers of folkloric festival negotiate an apparent paradox, as they hope to both conserve notions of the nation, tradition, and culture, while also fostering innovations on these social categories.

Borland situates her study in Masaya, recently proclaimed the "capital" of folkloric tradition by the Nicaraguan government. Masaya has long been understood by Nicaraguans and outsiders alike to be the epicenter of indigenous culture in the Pacific region and an important site where much of the ethos associated with Nicaraguan national identity is crafted. The official designation of folkloric capital is a convenient one for the framers of state and nation, and Borland interrogates the assumptions that underlie the politics here. Only by acknowledging the various shifts in attention, financial support, and the ideological climates that shape festival in Nicaragua do we understand the complexities of performative statements about indigenous identity, tradition, and national culture.

From the Somoza era through the period of the Sandinista revolution and into the present, Masaya's festivals have served as points of negotiation and contestation, as local values become dramatically juxtaposed against international influences. Nicaragua's festivals in the 1990s, however, have not simply been a return to a pre-revolutionary worldview. Politically, popular culture continues to belong neither to the left nor the right. Given the country's dire economic situation, it is clear that "the burden of creating culture without remuneration is greater than it once was" (p. 78). Maintaining a folkloric event that is intertwined with both global capitalist orders and nationalist invocations requires that the festival creators alternately negotiate, resist, and incorporate new approaches to their craft. There is an impetus to assert authority over the production of heritage and tradition, making each performance a play for, and upon, cultural identity.

Borland's book presents a series of vivid case studies of key festival celebrations in Western Nicaragua, providing a comprehensive and richly narrativized discussion of these folkloric staples. She productively weaves together the complexities of the nation and neighborhood, political rivalries and symbolic capital. These venues, where culture is being explicitly articulated, fall in and out of line with national and political narratives. As such, these folkloric interventions are themselves an ethnographic space where tradition moves, changes, and is actively pushed and prodded, often rapidly so.

Borland's book enriches discussions concerning modernity, festival, and culture without [End Page 330] sacrificing careful attention to the socioeconomic and political dynamics that always condition these social processes. As Borland shows, Nicaraguans are explicitly and agentively selecting which global values, goods, and beliefs they will incorporate into folkloric events. Folkloric tradition is thus made and re-made in Western Nicaragua; through this process, tradition itself is unmasked, shown to be neither timeless nor immune to human agency, political influence, and shifting values. Masayans, though they may be the officially designated guardians of national culture, instead negotiate between older local understandings of Nicaraguan culture and new narratives, from in and outside of Nicaragua, to tell the tale of the nation.

Scholarly approaches to folklore and folklorization in Latin America have argued that festival revival often occurs in reaction to several dynamics, including an apparent global homogenization, contestations of the social world order, assertions of local autonomy, or as a way to conjure more...


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