SAN FRANCISCO DE YARE, Venezuela (AP) — The descendants of African slaves donned masks and bright red costumes as they danced through the streets of this small Venezuelan town on Thursday for its annual commemoration of Corpus Cristi.
Young men beat drums and shook maracas as the “devils” paraded through the streets and people gathered to celebrate Corpus Cristi, a Roman Catholic holiday celebrating the transformation of the body and blood of Christ into bread and wine.
The ritual, which begins when a priest emerges from the town’s 18th-century church to bless the men and boys dressed as devils, is followed by two days of drunken revelry.
It continues with the dancers stomping and whirling, raising papier-mache masks painted a rainbow of colors toward the sky.
During the procession of “Diablos Danzantes,” or “Devil Dancers,” priests carry sacramental bread through the narrow streets of San Francisco de Yare.
Women and girls in red dresses adorned with holy crosses made of palm leaves walk alongside the procession with burning candles.
The Carnival-like dance, in which the devils pay penance and ask for relief from physical ailments, symbolizes the ongoing struggle between good and evil. It originated in southern Spain in the fifth century, when the Catholic church used the dance to convert pagans to Christianity.
In Venezuela, the tradition dates to 1742, when liberal priests used it to include African slaves who were not permitted to worship in the same church as their white masters.
Descendants of slaves in San Francisco de Yare, now joined by others of mixed race, have preserved the religious tradition in this South American nation of approximately 30 million.