Christmas in Bolivia

One of the most beautiful aspects of Navidad in Latin America is that each country has its own traditions, but they all still have the underlying feeling of Hispanic Christmas. Christmas in Bolivia is no exception.

Like many parts of Latin America, the Christmas season in Bolivia lasts from December 24th to January 6th. The Misa de Gallo (Mass of the Rooster) is perhaps the most important event of the Christmas season for Catholics. As in many parts of the world, Bolivian Catholics attend a midnight mass.

After the Misa de Gallo, a meal is shared as a family. The main dish is traditionally a spicy soup called La Picana, which has chicken, beef or lamb, and pork, and Bolivians serve with corn and potatoes.

On Christmas morning, breakfast is generally buñuelos, or fried dough, served with a drink such as api (made of corn) or hot chocolate.

Traditions of Christmas in Bolivia

In homes, Bolivian Christmas decorations often center around a pesebre, or Nativity Scene. Also called a nacimiento, mangers can be simple, with just the primary characters of the Christmas story, or more elaborate, with up to hundreds of figures.  Pesebres are sometimes made of local gourds which are hollowed out.

Another important aspect of la Navidad en Bolivia is the Spanish Christmas songs, or villancicos. Because of the large number of indigenous people in the country, these traditional songs are not only in Spanish, but are also in languages such as Quechua and Aymara.

The carols are so ingrained in the culture that even people who don’t speak the Quechua and Aymara languages are familiar with them. On Christmas Eve, children will sing and dance to these carols in their homes.

Traditions regarding Christmas trees and presents vary among parts of Bolivia. For example, in certain regions, Christmas trees are common both at home and in cities, as public decorations; in others, no.

Also, some families exchange gifts on Christmas Day, others after eating dinner on Christmas Eve, and yet others on Three Kings Day (Jan.6, Epiphany).

Poverty and Christmas

Activities for underprivileged children are common at Christmastime in Bolivia.

Activities for underprivileged children are common at Christmastime in Bolivia.

Bolivia is a very much a developing country, with more than half the population living in poverty.

In fact, many families do not exchange Christmas gifts at all due to a lack of resources. As such, it’s not surprising that many Christmas traditions have to do with the poor.

For example, it’s common for social organizations to organize campaigns to collect food and toys for families.They also organize parties called Chocolatadas where underprivileged children are served hot chocolate and treats, and are often given presents.

Poverty has impacted Christmas in Bolivia in other ways. For example, in cities it’s common to see people from rural areas who arrive in hopes of receiving a handout from those in the holiday spirit of giving.

Poor children also sing and dance to villancicos on the streets as they ask for money.

Gift Baskets for Christmas

Another important and touching tradition is that of the traditional gift basket that employers give to their employees.

Large enough to be shared with families, the Canastón de fin de año is filled with basic groceries, as well as traditional Christmas goodies, especially cidra (non-alcoholic cider) and panetón, a sweetbread with raisins, nuts, and dried fruit.

Employers give this basket as an end-of-year appreciation for hard work, the gift is particularly special since bonuses are not generally offered throughout the year.

Perhaps the most joyous aspect of Christmas in Bolivia are the famed fireworks, or pólvora. Said by some to rival Fourth of July celebrations in the United States, these bright colors light up the night on Christmas Eve.

Have you spent Christmas in Bolivia? Tell us about it in the comments!

The Legend of El Chonchón in Chile

If anyone has ever told you they were all ears, be thankful that you weren’t in Chile.  In this South American country, the legend of El Chonchón has turned these humble organs into a creature that can make your skin crawl.  its cry means death.   The other name for this evil spirit is Tue-Tue, after the warning sound that it makes while flying on moonless nights.

Almost as frightening as the call of El Chonchón is its appearance. Simple, but scary: a human head with huge ears, which it uses as wings to fly.  Terrifyingly, its body stays at home. The creature also has feathers and claws, making it a species of horrific bird.

Not content to be horrible to look at, the Chonchón also has a bloody habit. It stalks the sick, flying near their rooms doing battle with their spirits; if it wins, it sucks the sick dry.

The Origins of  El Chonchón

El Chonchón is one of the Latin American myths and legends that are part of indigenous mythology, specifically Mapuche.  This group of indigenous people is from the south-central part of Chile, as well as southwestern Argentina.

The name Mapuche refers to a number of groups who share a common language and social structure which together make up about 80% of the indigenous people in Chile.

As such a large group of people, it is not surprising that they have a complex and established set of beliefs, with a mythology that talks of the different spirits and gods in their culture.

Mapuche legends have made their way in broader Chilean culture – the group is 9% of the population of Chile. In fact, the legend of El Chonchón has since been incorporated in Chilean folklore and even that of parts of Argentina.

Importance of El Chonchón

El Chonchón stalks the ill, doing battle with their spirits.

El Chonchón stalks the ill, doing battle with their spirits.

More than simply a legend, El Chonchón has a relationship to important figures in Mapuche mythology.It is considered the transformation, representation, and servant of a kalku (calcu), a Mapuche witch that performs black magic and has the secret to flight.

The transformation of a kalku into a Chonchón is due to the application of a special magical cream that it puts on its neck, massaging it until the head loosens and is able to fly on its own.

Some versions have the witch saying, “Sin Dios ni Santa María (With neither God nor Holy Mary),” adding an element of Catholic Hispanic religion to this indigenous tradition.

Other post-colonial additions include the saying of certain prayers to provide protection from the creature or to make it fall to the ground, thereby associating the creature with witchcraft which served the Devil.

The Legend of El Chonchón may be based on a local bird, with the most mentioned being the mochuelo and the queltehue.

Have you heard of El Chonchón? Tell us about it in the comments!

What Is the Story of Mariachis?

If you’ve ever been to Mexican restaurant with live music, there is a good chance that you’ve gotten to hear the famous mariachis. These roaming musicians, easy to spot in their sombreros and black and silver charro clothing, are the best-known of all kinds of Mexican music.

In fact, mariachis and their music may be one of the most recognized Latin art forms worldwide. Since 2011, this form of music has been recognized as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

Importance of Mariachi

Mariachis themselves are an important part of any Mexican celebration: weddings, quinceañeras (15th birthday parties), birthdays, celebrating Mother’s Day in Mexico, etc. They even play in churches on feast days in celebration of saints and the Virgin Mary.

here is the story of mariachis, they figured heavily in the movies of the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, spreading their popularity throughout Latin America.

You can find mariachis as a significant part of celebrations in many countries outside of Mexico, including the southwestern United States and other regions with large Hispanic populations. Indeed, the festival Mariachi USA is over its 25th year.

Origins of Mariachi Music

Mariachis in their traditional black outfits.

Mariachis in their traditional black outfits.

As a form of mestizo folk music, its origins are not fully known. Jalisco is often considered to be the home of mariachi, although it is possible that it originated throughout the entire region of western Mexico: Jalisco, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Nayarit, Aguascalientes, Colima, and Michoacán.

The first written mention of mariachis is in the mid-1800s, in a letter by a priest. In it, he complained about the noise that these folk musicians made.

The most common instruments in a mariachi ensemble are: guitarrón (bass guitar), guitar, vihuela (small guitar), violin, and trumpet.

Although for many of us, the horn section of a mariachi is one of its most iconic aspects, they were only added to the mariachi ensemble in the early 1900s, due to the influence of recording devices and radio.

Origins of the Word “Mariachi”

There are actually a number of theories about the origins of the word “mariachi.” For many years the word was thought to come from the French word for marriage (mariage), due to the popularity of mariachis at weddings. This explanation has now fallen out of favor.

The word is now considered to be of indigenous origin.

One explanation holds that The Coca tribe, which spoke a version of Nahuatl, had a religious song called “María ce son,” which eventually became Mariachi and “son,” or song.

“Mariachi” itself came to mean “el indio está contento” – the Indian (native American) is happy.

Other possible origins of the name include derivations of the name of a local wood, which, according to theory, was used to make either guitars or the dance platform for the groups.

“Mariachi” is unique word because it can refer to the group of performers, to an individual musician, or to the music they play (son de mariachi) even though, mariachis play a number of kinds of music, including polkas, corridos, rancheras, boleros, and huapangos.

If you have a favorite traditional Mexican song, don’t hesitate to ask: there is a very good chance these accomplished musicians will know it.

Have you had Mariachis at an important family event? Tell us in the comments!

La Guayabera, A Must-Have Shirt from Hispanic Culture

If you Google a photo of a recent summit of heads of state, for example, the Cumbre de las Américas (Summit of the Americas), you’ll notice something interesting. While some of the leaders will be wearing suits, as expected at such a formal occasion, you will also see leaders wearing a loose, white button-down shirt with four pockets and embroidery – worn long and untucked. Called la guayabera, this shirt is considered formal attire and is completely appropriate.

La guayabera appears to have first come about in the late 18th or early 19th century, and like so many aspects of Hispanic culture, the history of la guayabera shirt has different versions.

Cubans claim it’s Cuban, Mexicans claim it’s Mexican, and there are even those who say it came from the Dominican Republic, where it’s called a chacabana.

Origins of La Guayabera

La Guayabera, a formal Hispanic shirt.

La Guayabera, a formal Hispanic shirt.

However, most histories point to Cuba as the original creator of the guayabera, although the exact story varies.

In one, a husband asks his wife for a shirt designed so that he could carry around important items such as handkerchiefs and cigars. In another, a Spanish immigrant created the style of shirt.

Stories of the Mexican origin of the shirt are generally tied to the coastal areas of Veracruz and the Yucatán Peninsula. These regions both had considerable trade with Cuba, and it’s likely that guayaberas arrived in Mexico near the turn of the 20th century through these trading routes.

Despite the likely Cuban origins, Mexico clearly contributed greatly to the popularity and the spread of la guayabera, particularly in the 1970s.  In Mexico, it’s called a Mexican wedding shirt, since they commonly wear it at weddings.

The Yucatán, where it’s called a camisa de Yucatán (Yucatán shirt), is also believed to have added the iconic embroidery to the shirt, making the embroidered guayabera truly a mix of Latin cultures.

One part of the story that stays fairly consistent is the origin of the name. Given the size and number (four) of pockets, it’s believed that they were used to carry guavas (guayabas). However, it’s also possible that the name came from Cuba, from the people called the yayaberos who lived near the Yayabo River.

The shirts themselves can be short- or long-sleeved, and they can be any color. Most common, and most formal, are white shirts.

One of the hallmarks of the guayabera is its trademark folds, generally accompanied by detailed embroidery.

Wearing a Guayabera

One reason that so many Latin men prefer guayaberas is their comfort. They are lightweight and men wear it untucked (hence the straight hem), and even have side vents – great for those who may have put on some weight! And of course, you can carry anything in those four pockets.

The shirts can be made of any lightweight fabric, but traditionally they have been made of linen or cotton, both cool choices in the warm climates of the best Cuban beaches and coastal Mexico.

Given the recent increase in destination weddings to Latin American tropical locations, guayaberas have become wedding attire for a new, non-Hispanic generation of couples.

Men choosing this kind of attire for their wedding, not traditional in their own culture, do so as a nod to the country where they are getting married. Many also appreciate the guayabera’s more informal look, as well as its comfort in hot climes.

As a symbol of Latin culture, this shirt has become even more acceptable amongst those looking to unite Latin America. Hence its recent popularity by the region’s presidents and others, who years ago may have chosen a suit for formal occasion but now often choose guayaberas.

Are you a fan of guayaberas at formal occasions? Let us know in the comments!

Mexican Chocolate – Moctezuma’s Greatest Legacy

You probably know that chile peppers and corn are native to Mexico, but did you know that chocolate is from Mexico, as well? When you hear the word “chocolate,” you may think of the famed Swiss candy, but without the Aztecs and Moctezuma, that would never have existed.

Moctezuma, sometimes spelled Montezuma, was the Emperor of the Aztec empire when the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés entered the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán in 1519. When Cortés and his men arrived, Moctezuma greeted them with great fanfare.

Mexican Chocolate and the Fall of the Aztecs

Although there are now historical records to contest this, tradition holds that the Aztec people considered Cortés to be the reincarnation of their god Quetzalcoatl.

Believing Cortés to be a god, Moctezuma treated him to the finest foods that he had to offer. Among these: chocolate, fruit of the cacao tree which, according to the legend of Quetzalcoatl, the god himself is said to have bestowed on humanity. Banished for revealing this secret of the gods, he was to return one day, as a white-faced god.

Although Cortés had never heard of chocolate, its consumption dates back to 1900 BC in Mesoamerica. The Aztecs even gave chocolate its name: it likely comes from xocolātl, a word in Nahuatl that means “bitter water.” Although we generally consume chocolate that has been sweetened, in its natural state it is indeed quite bitter.

Plus, the Mexican chocolate that Cortés and his men encountered was very different from the chocolate that we know today.

For starters, the chocolate of that time was only served as a drink. It was a frothy, spicy beverage, with chile peppers, spices such as vanilla, and corn meal, sweetened with honey. It was much like the still-traditional drink atole.

Importance of Cacao

Cacao was highly valued and even used as currency.

Cacao was highly valued and even used as currency.

Given its particular flavor and texture, Spanish conquistadors appear not to have enjoyed early Mexican chocolate very much.  However, it was clearly an important part of the culture very valued by the Aztecs.

The upper class enjoyed chocolate and used it in religious ceremonies and even traded as currency.

Surprisingly, the Aztecs themselves did not produce the cacao needed for chocolate, as their climate wasn’t suitable. As an imported product, it was even more of a luxury.

Cacao seeds were also required by the Aztecs as taxes or tributes from those they had conquered. Moctezuma himself was a great fan of chocolate and was said to drink up to fifty cups of it each night after dinner, from a golden cup.

Recognizing its possible applications, the Spanish took the precious ingredient back to Europe despite not understanding its appeal – just in case. There, they added sugar and voilà: the chocolate we know and love.

Beyond its delicious taste, chocolate has lots of health benefits. For example, cocoa beans have high levels of flavonoids, which have antioxidant, protective effects.

Dark chocolate may also help with the circulatory system and reduce blood pressure. And, not surprising to those of us who love a good chocolate break, it may help cognition.

In addition to his critical role in the Spanish conquest of Mexico, Moctezuma was also responsible for increasing the size of the Aztec Empire. Still, it’s clear that one of his biggest legacies is the spread of this Latin food throughout Europe, and then the rest of the world.

What’s your favorite way to eat chocolate? Tell us in the comments!

The Chupacabras Legend – Mexico & Puerto Rico

The Chupacabras may be the most famous of all Latin American legends. And that’s saying a lot for a culture rich in folklore and myths. Even non-Hispanics have heard of this fierce creature, which is blamed for the death of livestock and pets throughout the continent.

The word “chupacabras” comes from its supposed favored victim: it means goat-sucker (chupa: suck and cabra: goat). In some places, it’s known as a chupacabra (no “s”). Despite the name, they are said to kill other animals, as well: cats, dogs, ducks, hogs, and other domesticated animals.

History of the Chupacabras Legend


Believe it or not, the chupacabras legend is a recent one. When we think of myths and legends, we usually think of those that have been seen or spoken of by our great-great-grandparents.  Not this legend.

The first reported attack of the chupacabras was actually in March 1995 in Puerto Rico. Eight sheep were drained completely of their blood, which was sucked out through three wounds on their chest.

Not much later, a woman named Madelyne Tolentino, also in Puerto Rico, claimed to have seen what is now known as the chupacabras, near a village that experienced a massacre of some 150 domesticated animals.

Deaths of animals at the hands (or teeth) of the chupacabras have since been reported in most Spanish speaking countries in Latin America. Given its origin, it’s best known for being a Puerto Rican legend, but it’s also considered a part of Mexican folklore.

Reports of the chupacabras came as early as 1996, just a year after it was first reported in Puerto Rico. Since then, the creature of Mexican legends has returned a number of times, always attacking large groups of livestock.

What Does the Chupacabras Look Like?

Researcher Benjamin Radford, who spent two years investigating the chupacabras legend, has noted that there are three different physical descriptions that are associated with the creature.

The first and perhaps the best-known is the original one, given by Tolentino, the first woman to “see” a chupacabras. It looks a bit like an alien, and may actually have been inspired by a sci-fi movie that Tolentino saw. It’s tall, stands on two feet, and has spikes down its back.

The second is more tied to recent sightings of the creature, as well as supposed chupacabras that have been captured: a coyote or dog-like animal.

And then, the catch-all third, for people who have seen “something” and feel that it was a chupcabras. Pretty versatile for one mythical creature.

Recent Sightings of the Chupacabras

Of course, Latins have had reason to believe in the chupacabras legend for years, but one of the most famous recent sightings was in 2014, when a Texas couple found a hairless animal that they didn’t recognize. Noting its claws, its “unusual” (ugly) appearance, and its shrieking sound, they claimed it was a chupacabras… but it turned out to be a hairless raccoon.

Unfortunately, it’s common for real-life creatures that are considered to be chupacabras to turn out to be sick animals, such as dogs or coyotes with mange, a horrible disease that eats away at their flesh.

So the next time you hear of someone who has found a chupacabras, recommend they take it to the vet instead.

Do you believe in the Chupacabras? Tell us in the comments!

Should We Raise a Macho Man at Home?

The concept of the “macho man” has strong roots in the Spanish and Portuguese cultures. In fact, the word machismo stems from the Latin word “macho” which means male. However, its definition has changed over the years.

The word macho now means strong masculine pride, which is the concept the Latin culture has iconized over the past five decades.

The question is: should Hispanic families continue supporting this culture in their households?

Understanding the Concept of Machismo in Hispanic History

Will they grow up to be macho men?

Will they grow up to be macho men?

Despite the negativity surrounding the concept of machismo, it’s not really as abusive as it sounds. For centuries, men were the default leaders of a household since they brought food to the table.

Today you may be offended by the outdated concept of men being the leaders of the household, but male leadership may be part of what continues to keep Hispanic families together. Proving this is a statistic from the 2012 U.S. Census America’s Families and Living Arrangements, which states that 72% of Hispanic kids in the U.S. live with their fathers whereas only 49% of African American children have their fathers in their lives.

Going further back in time, manliness in Spanish-speaking countries was associated with honor, responsibility, courage and chivalry.

In Matthew Gutmann’s 1996 book “The Meanings of Macho: Being a Man in Mexico City,” Latin American males believed machismo to mean taking care of children’s responsibilities, acting polite, respecting their women, and possessing non-violent behaviors.

Because of the dominance of their gender, younger males are spared from chores like cleaning or cooking. They’re also given more freedom, allowed later curfews, and provided with larger allowances.

What Being a Macho Man Means Today

The last few lines you just read are just a little of what being a macho man today means.

Open any dictionary and you’ll see that hyper-masculinity is associated with aggressive behaviors, being oversexed, chauvinistic and committed to gender normative roles. While some mothers encourage these characteristic to a degree, others frown upon them.

However, you need to understand that machismo has a positive and negative side. It’s up to you to cultivate the positive characteristics while avoiding the negative ones, especially those which your children watch on TV.

The notion of male superiority can drive a macho man towards exercising control over their female partners’ life, leading to domestic violence or abusive relationships.

Another newly uncovered flaw of modern machismo is death for gay Latinos. According to, homophobia and label-fear has driven many to lead double lives due to cultural obligations rather than sacrifice their egos by coming out. This, in turn, causes the spread of STDs and HIV/AIDS among all three sides. Due to the lack of awareness, Latino macho men have died and claimed others’ lives as well.

So, before your son embraces the negative aspects of machismo, make sure he understands exactly what this Hispanic tradition meant rather than what it currently means.

Teach your son to be more considerate, helpful and gentle, especially when treating other women aside from you. Only then can you really have a real macho man who’ll always make you proud.

Are you raising your son as a macho man? Tell us in the comments!

Using Papel Picado Banner for Your Day of the Dead

Mexican folk art is filled with vibrant colors, and one of the best examples is papel picado (cut paper). The idea is to hung papel picado banners to wave in the breeze and you can use this handmade art form to celebrate important personal events such as weddings, quinceañeras, baptisms, as well as holidays such as Easter and Christmas.

Outside of Mexico, it is perhaps most associated with the Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) where it plays a prominent role in decorations.

History of the Papel Picado Banner

Papel picado banners add a festive Latin touch to your celebration.

Papel picado banners add a festive Latin touch to your celebration.

The papel picado history goes back to both the Aztecs and ancient China. Before the arrival of the Spanish in Mexico, the Aztecs traditionally created a paper called amatl, which they then cut with stone knives. These images were generally religious, featuring Aztec deities.

With the arrival of the Spanish came the inclusion of Mexico in international trade routes. One good which arrived was tissue paper, called papel china (Chinese paper) due to its origins. This new, fine paper was soon incorporated into the Mexican folk art tradition as papel picado.

Papel Picado Technique

Creating traditional papel picado is a technical, time-consuming process that requires special tools, lots of experience, and a steady hand, not to mention a great deal of patience. The entire process can take 30 or more hours for one set of 40 pieces of papel picado.

The first step is to draw a pattern, focusing not only on design but also on physics: it has to be able to support itself once the paper has been cut away. Next, the pattern is placed on a stack of tissue paper, which sits on top of a thick lead platform.

The next step is to cut away the pattern using a series of specially made, sharpened chisels, each of a different size and shape. Once the negative space has been removed completely, the papel picado is complete.

Make Your Own Papel Picado Banner

Papel picado is a great addition to any Day of the Dead party, and it’s also a lot of fun for kids to try as a craft.

Since most of us don’t have specialized chisels at home, scissors will have to do. There are a number of different ways to create a home version of papel picado, but this is my favorite because it creates a series of squares, much like papel picado artisans create. Thanks to for the video and instructions.

Printed pattern templates
Colored tissue or crepe paper in several colors, cut to letter size
Masking tape

1. Fold template in half, with drawing on the outside.
2. Take 4-5 pieces of paper and fold them in half.
3. Assemble them like a book, with template on the outside. Tape the top so it won’t move.
4. Cut through the outside of the template.
5. Cut out the rest of the template. Continue to fold the “book” to access the inside shapes.
6. Unfold, remove tape, and flatten out the sheets.
7. Make your banner: Lay tape sticky-side up. Place sheets on half of the tape. Fold over to seal.

And lastly: Hang your papel picado banner over your Day of the Dead altar!

Want to know more? Hispanic Culture Online is one of the Web’s best resources on the Day of the Dead. Check out our archives here.

How do you plan to celebrate Day of the Dead? Tell us in the comments!