High up in the chilly mountain plains of Bolivia, the functional mining city of Oruro is not known for its beauty—but it is a place transformed annually by El Carnaval de Oruro, the best-known carnival celebrations in the country.
This year, Oruro-born artist Rilda Paco found herself at the center of a festival scandal, all thanks to her provocative artwork of the city’s patron saint, the Virgin of Socavón (also known as Our Lady of the Mineshaft).
A UNESCO-recognised Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, the carnival draws visitors from all over the world. Performers dressed as bears unicycle through the streets while troupes of dancers in sequined costumes parade through town, performing extravagant folk dances telling stories about the country’s history. The parade ends with dancers paying their respects at the sanctuary of the Virgin of Socavón, who is revered by the city and its miners.
On 10 February, an explosion at a street food stand left eight people dead, including two children, and at least 40 injured. (A local man is currently being held by police on charges including murder and femicide—it is thought that he planted the bomb to kill his partner and their daughter.)
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Paco watched the news unfold with horror. “There was [footage of] a woman carrying a child’s body; he looked like a rag, and I felt really bad,” she told Broadly.
She felt that news networks weren’t giving sufficient coverage to the tragedy—and was shocked when the carnival continued without a blip. “It seemed kind of inhumane to me. I was asking, ‘Have we become so insensitive that we don’t feel other people’s pain?’”
Frustrated and angry, Paco began drawing a piece to highlight the drunken excess and problems associated with carnival. Three hours later, she published the finished work on Facebook. It shows the Virgin of Socavón, her face blank, wearing black stockings and a red thong. At her feet are three traditional Carnival characters, two of them waving bottles of booze.
Paco says she wanted to highlight the hypocrisy of those responsible for the drunken excesses and violence at a celebration that is supposedly in honor of the city’s patron saint—and their impact on women and children.
Domestic violence is a marked problem during Carnival. UN Women, Bolivia’s Special Force Against Violence, and a number of private partners launched a dedicated campaign raising awareness of violence against women during the time of the festival. Despite their best efforts, there were three femicides in the city of El Alto over the period of this year’s carnival.
A 2017 report from the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security reports that Bolivia has the highest indices of intimate partner violence in the Latin America and Caribbean region. According to the Bolivian attorney general’s office, there were 109 femicides in the country last year.
Paco says she chose to paint the Virgin in lingerie to highlight the objectification of women during carnival. Women performing traditional dances such as caporales wear corset-like bodices and miniskirts, which displays their underwear when they twirl.
“Carnival and other celebrations for saints are the only time when a woman is allowed to show her underwear. If a woman does that at any other moment, she gets called a prostitute, easy, a slut,” Paco said.
Paco expected her artwork to go unnoticed. It wasn’t the first time she had posted drawings criticizing Carnival; her previous work included a cartoon of a drunk couple at a police station, blaming each other for the disappearance of their child during the festival. This time, her work caught the eye of TV show Al Rojo Vivo, which asked her to give an on-air interview explaining the artwork.
When she checked her Facebook inbox after her interview was broadcast, she saw a message from a friend asking if she was OK. Attached was a link to a press conference held by local authorities; they were planning to take legal action against Paco for the offence caused by her work. A joint statement by the local government of Oruro, the Catholic Church, and a number of folklore associations declared that they would pursue legal action against the person who “dared to disparage the most holy Virgin of Socavón.”
Then, the messages began to arrive: insults, rape threats, and even death threats. “They were really descriptive, saying exactly what they were going to do to me,” Paco said. Her photo and a link to her Facebook account were spread on social media, and details of her mother and her three-year-old niece were published online.
The messages weren’t all negative. She also received messages of support, including some from Bolivian feminist group Mujeres Creando and her university faculty. Her supporters set up a solidarity page featuring tributes to her work from other artists. It was titled Todxs con la Imilla (Spanish for “Everyone with the Imilla;” a word taken from Quecha for a young woman or girl who is defiant or cheeky).
Bolivian minister of justice Hector Arce quickly stepped in, tweeting that although Paco’s work was “impertinent and unacceptable,” legal action should not be pursued because of Paco’s constitutional right to freedom of expression.
The authorities in Oruro have declared Paco, who has lived in La Paz since she was six, persona non grata in the city, and she is not sure if she will be able to return.
Paco was astonished at the vitriol leveled at her. “I thought people’s mentalities had changed,” she said.
She says that she’s prepared to apologize for any offence caused, but only to those who are “genuinely devout”—not those slinging misogynist abuse at her in the name of a mother figure. And Paco is still keeping the image up online—in fact, it’s her current Facebook profile picture.