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Donkey Beauty Contest Draws Easter Crowd

  • Manuel Rueda

The residents of a town on Colombia´s Caribbean coast celebrated Easter again this year the way they often do, by holding a beauty pageant. But this special contest does not crown the prettiest woman or the most handsome man. It awards the best dressed donkey.

Peter Vitola has been dressing up donkeys for more than a decade. On Easter Sunday, his donkey Juancho was decked out with what looked like a wooden coffin on his back. On his sides, a smiling grim reaper and three plastic jugs that look like bottles of rum. After making drunk man´s faces for the cameras, Vitola explains the message behind his donkey´s costume.

"I chose this character because sometimes we have to battle rum addiction," said Vitola. "Rum is bad for health" he says, "people get drunk and lose control."

Vitola knows that the jury here is not really judging the donkey´s beauty, what counts is how the costume conveys a sense of sarcasm, its message and its creativity.

Over 30 donkeys were entered in the contest, hoping to be crowned the king or queen of the festival. They´re dressed as dodgy businessmen and popstars bearing peace banners. There´s even an entry that alludes to the economic crisis, it´s owners hold a placard that says "we´ve been run over by poverty"

It's all very carnival like. And like many carnivals around the world, the donkey festival has Christian roots.

Julio Díaz teaches at a local highschool. He´s one of the festival´s organizers and knows the history of the donkey pagent.

Diaz says that in the 1920s people began to parade an effigy of Judas around San Antero´s streets. They wanted to punish him for betraying Jesus. So, every Easter Saturday, they took him on a donkey around the town and burned his effigy at night.

As the years passed many donkeys riders joined in. They began to adorn their animals with makeup, wigs, and talcum powder.

What began as a somber procession became a lively week-long festival that came to include a baseball tournament, a literary meeting and several street parades.

The local bishop wants all of this to be done on a different day. He says festivals like this one are turning Easter into a big party, and driving men away from god.

But the donkey festival's supporters are not willing to budge. Sitting on his front porch, San Antero Mayor Norbely Martinez spoke about his town´s appreciation for the hard working animal.

"We are a rural district...the donkey´s a vital part of our economy," he said. "Farmers use it to bring their yucca from the fields. There used to be no aqueduct here, so donkeys also fetched our water for us"

San Antero has some 30,000 people and over 2,500 donkeys that local residents say are being well cared for.

And it seems most locals are quite happy to honor the donkey. They say it´s a biblical animal. A donkey helped Mary and Joseph to flee to Egypt, said one bystander. And another donkey carried Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

Writer Alberto Salcedo Ramos recently gave some workshops at the Donkey Festival's literary meeting. He´s got his own reasons to back the festival.

"It´s a beautiful and loyal animal, that is often mistreated" says Salcedo. "An animal that men have unfairly turned into a symbol of ignorance."