Festival de la Mejorana, Guararé, Panama
El Festival de la Mejorana or El Festival de Guararé has been celebrated since 1949, at the end of September in the town of Guararé, 172 miles (277 kilometers) away from Panama City.
What is la mejorana?
But what is a Mejorana? Lots of Spanish speakers don’t even know this word. That’s because it’s a traditional Panamanian instrument, which looks like a small guitar, and has only five strings. According to EducaPanama, the festival is named El Festival de la Mejorana after this traditional instrument, elevating the folkloric theme of the festival.
The Origin of El Festival de la Mejorana
When you talk about traditions, they’re usually centuries old, but this one isn’t. In the year 2021, this festival has got 71 years under its belt—which is still quite an achievement.
But what started it all?
In 1949, Dr. Manuel Fernando Zárate got together with a group of guarareños (people from Guararé) and proposed the idea of celebrating the Panamanian culture, because as he studied in France and saw many cultural events, he understood that Panama could do the same with an over-the-top event containing contests and dances.
Around the same time, a religious miracle had occurred in the eyes of Zárate. One of his daughters had been critically ill and he spent many a long night praying to the Virgin Mary to cure her. When Zárate’s daughter miraculously recovered her health, he decided to combine the cultural festival with El día de la Virgen de las Mercedes on September 24th.
Now the magic happens annually in Guararé.
Where is Guararé?
Guararé is a small town located 172 miles away from Panama City. The town itself consists only of 10 square miles (16 square kilometers) of land and houses a population of around 4,500 people.
It’s a coastal town with the Pacific Ocean lapping at its eastern shores.
If you plan to visit for the festival, there is no shortage of activities to do!
Activities at El Festival de la Mejorana
El festival de la Mejorana is celebrated throughout the week of September 24th, providing you with plenty of opportunities to explore its wide array of activities.
This amazing Panamanian festival includes:
- musical performances
- popular dances
- bull runs
- a cart parade
- other folkloric expressions
El Festival de la Mejorana: The Calendar of Events
According to Festival De La Mejorana, Panama Tipico, in 2021 the festival begins on a Sunday (September 19th) at 10:00 AM—although the pandemic may push the celebration online to a virtual platform, similar to the experience in 2020.
In any case, many different cultural and religious activities collide at this yearly festival , making it unique and entertaining.
If you love Panama, or the Latin culture in general, El Festival de la Mejorana should be on your bucket list of must-accomplish life experiences!
Prepare for the Bull Run
On Sunday morning, around 10 a.m., los guarareños gather around the town center, where they build the barriers within which they’ll run from the bulls later that week. The streets of the town of Guararé start preparing for the biggest festival of the year.
Wood and rubber hoses are the materials chosen to build the barriers that will endure bulls crashing their heads (or even some unlucky people) on them. After the corral is built, there’s nothing else left to do but to wait for Monday.
On Monday night, after the town has been waiting for the festival to start for almost a year, the streets and sidewalks of the small coastal town start to gather people who march from one place to another. In the middle of it all stands La Virgen de las Mercedes—the patron of Guararé—who’s surrounded by flowers and people, some of whom are veiled. On both ends of the procession, you see school bands, regular people, and last year’s festival’s Queen accompanying the Virgin Mary.
The procession ends with La quema a la Virgen de las Mercedes. Handmade fireworks light up the streets of the town and the black sky above it to close the second night of El Festival de la Mejorana.
Take a look at Telemetro.com’s awe-inspiring 3-minute video on 2018’s celebration.
Praises to La Virgen de las Mercedes
On Tuesday (or the third day), El Festival de la Mejorana continues with a mass in honor of La Virgen de las Mercedes. Two hours later, las loas (the praises) begin. Mejorarenos (Mejorana players) play la mejorana and sing décimas to La Virgen de las Mercedes.
Décimas are a kind of poem that have 10 verses of eight syllables each. In which the 1st verse rhymes with the 4th and 5th , the 2nd with the 3rd, the 6th with the 7th and 10th, and finally the 8th with the 9th.
Las loas por cantadores de décimas y mejorarenos (the praises by décimas singers and mejorarenos) kickstart the contests at El Festival de la Mejorana.
The Coronation of the Queen of the Festival
Wednesday holds only one activity, but a very important one. La coronación de la reina del festival (The Coronation of the Queen of the Festival).
The Queen of the Festival wears dresses, jewels, flowers, and more—all in the name of extravagance and lavishness. The objective of this is to attract more visitors every year.
According to DestinoPanama.com the first queen, Fanny Correa, spent $125 in 1949 to win that year’s title. 69 years later, Zaray Córdoba spent the largest sum ever to become 2018’s Queen: an astonishing $112,828!
Mercedes Díaz is the current Queen of El festival de la Mejorana who was elected in 2019. 2020 did not have a Queen since the festival was held in a virtual way due to the pandemic.
Check the other 66 Queens of El Festival de la Mejorana.
La Romería en honor a Manuel Zárate
On Thursday guarareños and some other visitors make a pilgrimage in honor of the founder of the festival, Manuel Zárate.
The Bull Run
La corrida de toros or the bull run is the cultural event that is held on Thursday at El Festival de la Mejorana. Trucks loaded with bulls appear and unleash the angry animals onto the people who are waiting for them inside the corral built four days earlier.
People on the stands watch as the brave runners escape from the animals. Every once in a while, a person gets hit by a bull, and might even lose consciousness. It’s a wild thing! The winner, though, takes home a prize.
Thankfully, the animal abuse previously associated with this event has been reduced since 2012, when they officially prohibited the slaughtering of the bulls.
The Saloma and Screaming Contest
Yes, there’s a screaming contest! El concurso de grito is not just yelling—it’s “yelling” salomas. Salomas are a kind of singing which resembles screaming (or vice versa).
Salomas are like a Latin version of Swiss yodeling.
This video is perfect to illustrate what Salomas sound like and what actually happens during this contest.
Concurso de décimas cantadas
Do you remember décimas? Those ten-verse poems? Well, on Thursday there is another competition in which, instead of simply reciting them, they sing them as well.
Symposium at the Manuel Zárate museum
Within the 10 square miles of Guararé, Panama lies a museum in which Manuel Zárate’s belongings rest for passersby to learn about him and his legacy.
On Friday, the calendar of activities starts with a symposium, folklore, and tourism within this museum, so Panamanians and tourists can get to know who Manuel Zárate was and what he accomplished in his life (besides creating the most important festival in Panama).
Gran Atolladera y corridas de vacas
After such a cultural and educated event, Friday afternoon continues with an atolladera (a quagmire). According to GenteFOLK the origin of this quagmire started back in the 19th century, before the festival was even invented. People would have Bull Runs two days and rest one day, which they called el día sereno (the calm day).
On El día sereno people would gather around the center of Guararé and bring animals with them to start playing. The floor was muddy because September is rainy in Panama so they would get really muddy too, while playing. This tradition has been kept and it’s part of El Festival de la Mejorana.
Friday night presents the dressing contest for men and women.
Men wear la camisa de coleta which is typically a white shirt with buttons from the neck to the abdomen, with long sleeves and decorative ornaments. Additional items include pants, sandals, and Panamanian hats.
Women, on the other hand, wear la pollera montuna festiva which is a beautiful Panamanian dress decorated with flowers all over it. On their head, they wear flowers as well.
On Saturday, many different contests are held, for kids and adults. Since it’s the weekend, Saturday is one of the busiest days of El Festival de la Mejorana.
It kickstarts with a drum contest (concurso de tambor), then they continue with an accordion contest (concurso de acordeón), then a written décima contest (concurso de décima escrita), afterwards and of course, it wouldn’t be El Festival de la Mejorana without a mejorana contest, would it?
At night, there’s a folkloric dance contest, called el concurso de bailes folklóricos.
Saturday also has a bull run, a tribute to folkloric cultists, and the preparation for the cart parade.
The Cart Parade
On Sunday, the streets of Guararé become crowded again to witness the cart parade. This event is similar to a procesion, but instead of being something religious, it’s more cultural.
In the parade, lots of ornamental carts, some of which carry a passenger or two, pass in front of thousands of eyes. Decorations range from beautiful and colorful flowers, to mejoranas, accordions, and many other icons of Panamanian culture.
This is also a contest! And later that day, the best cart wins.
As a farewell event to this beautiful week of parties, dances, contests, and cultural tradition, Panamanians and tourists get together one last time to appreciate la gran noche clásica de violines (the grand classical violin night).
Afterwards, Guararé reverts back to the small, calm town it is during the rest of the year, and its inhabitants begin the wait for next September when a new festival de la mejorana can commence.
Sharpen Up Your Travel Spanish
Are you excited to celebrate El festival de la Mejorana in Panama (even if it isn’t this year)? If so, you ought to practice your Spanish so you can get to Guararé fully prepared!
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