Maria Nuitter Espinal: “We want to keep the tradition alive” | Own words

I am an artist from a small fishing and tourism village called Puerto Colombia, located in Choroní, Venezuela, forty miles west of Caracas. The village has only three streets, but is well-known for its celebration of the Burroquite. As a teenager, I was encouraged by my father and a teacher named Augusta Chavez to love my cultural traditions. As a result, I toured throughout Venezuela with the Choroní Dance and Drums Foundation, performing various folk traditions such as the May Cross, St John the Baptist, the Christmas Shepherds, and the Burroquite. These performances included drumming and various folk dances.

The Burroquite tradition goes back beyond what I can remember. People from the village say that a man used to come from the nearby mountains to dance the Burroquite in various festivities, like New Year’s Eve, to celebrate our village patron, St Clare of Assisi. He did not show up to dance for two years, and since I was an active performer in Choroní, my family told me, “Let’s bring joy to the village.” From then on, I became Choroní’s Burroquite, and have danced with La
Campanera, my donkey, for the last twenty-five years. I began with the company of my family, who are musicians — my numerous sisters, my nephews and nieces, my children, and of course, my husband, Vivi. 

Over time, more people joined the Burroquite for the New Year’s Eve celebration. I visited every house in the village with my parranderos. We toasted, we danced, we played maracas, and sang in celebration of the new year. That’s the spirit people have towards their traditions. A town that doesn’t maintain its traditions becomes a difficult place to live.

Over the years, some family members settled outside Choroní, and I started performing with a group of young musicians who played drums and trombones in the street, El Parampampam. This encouraged more youth to come out and join us during the main festivities throughout the year. 

In my town, there are between thirty and forty children who I teach to dance the Burroquite. Why do I do this? It’s because we want to keep the tradition alive with its original characteristics — the Choroní’s Burroquite dances parranda and to the sound of drum beats. In Los Llanos, the burroquite dances joropo. Therefore, we don’t want to see the burroquite dancing reggaeton.

It’s my duty to communicate to children in schools, and everywhere I go, that the Burroquite’s manifestation is originally a man dressed as a woman, with a hat with long braids and a bag hanging from her side. Although each child has their own dancing style, there is a pattern to follow. It’s essential to listen to the music to get the right movements, since the song gives the cues to know when to turn or kick as you dance to the rhythm of the drums and trombones. 

It’s important to me that the Burroquite tradition continues. The Traditional Burroquites Collective have organised nationwide Burroquite gatherings for over five years. Hundreds of Burroquites from Apure, Mérida, Caracas, Barlovento, Marizapa, and Margarita come to Choroní each year. As a result, other Burroquite groups and collectives have done the same and the tradition has gained visibility in various parts of Venezuela. 

In 2016, after arduous research and interviews, out of 1,500 burroquites and sixty collectives, only twenty-one were declared part of the national cultural heritage of Venezuela, including the Burroquite of Choroní. A formal act was held in Caracas where they gave us a decree, and a diploma that has given me the support to take Choroní’s Burroquite to Spain, Curaçao, and Aruba. We also travelled by bus from Choroní to Chile, where I had a fantastic experience dancing with the huasos — Chilean cowboys — and their traditional dance, the Cueca. I also met a Senegalese percussion group. I wanted to be in Africa, and Africa was there with me, playing the drums in their impressive costumes.

I’ve been coming to Trinidad for the last ten years, since my daughter lives here with her family. At first, I didn’t dare to bring out my burroquite during Carnival. I performed at schools and orphanages, but never Carnival. I respect people’s traditions, and if I want my culture to be respected, I must begin respecting others. Then in 2020 I met the right people, and I was invited to play with a group of Moko Jumbies. I had never imagined myself in one of the world’s greatest Carnivals, performing Choroní’s Burroquite with my grandson, Thiago Salomon, a born dancer.

To me, it’s important to pass my traditions to my grandchildren, who live in Trinidad. I teach them the Venezuelan culture and they also learn the traditions of the place they are living now. There are too many influences that can lead them away from their traditions, especially when they are young and feel other kids can ridicule them. Therefore, the more they know, the more they will have the confidence and pride to be part of it.

When I see my grandson dancing with passion because he mirrors my passion, I know a little piece of my country is here with us. 

I feel identified with Venezuela when I dance the Burroquite, as it embodies so many things. The mix of races — Black, Indigenous — and the music. We connect as Venezuelan immigrants, since our country is rich in cultural traditions. Wherever I go with my husband, my suitcase has my maraca, flag, and donkey, and then Vivi and I share his suitcase for our clothes. And wherever I am, I’ll dance and sing.

Long established as a form of traditional masquerade in Trinidad, the Burrokeet — which depicts a small donkey and its rider — was originally brought across the Gulf of Paria by Venezuelan migrants in the nineteenth century. The original Venezuelan Burroquite is still performed in communities across Venezuela, and ultimately traces its roots back to the Iberian Peninsula.

Interview translated from Spanish by Raquel Vasquez La Roche