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Blanca Morales pulls out bins of miniature statues of cars and houses and bags of money at her home in Corona, Queens for the upcoming Bolivian festival known as Alasitas. During Alasitas participants buy miniature representations of the things they want in the New Year with the hopes of getting the real thing.
For the second year in a row Morales is organizing the Alasitas festival. In Bolivia and Peru the festival typically runs for two weeks, but the Queens version is a one-day event, this year on January 25. And while participants were once more likely to buy miniature foods and other basic necessities, Morales’ bins contain tiny houses, cars, money and diplomas—just a handful of the offerings for this year’s Alasitas.
The indigenous festival of “wishes and dreams” was first celebrated in New York twelve years ago when the president of the Bolivian Civic Cultural Community Mirtha Cabrera began hosting Alasitas in her house with her husband, Eduardo Medrano. The festival quickly outgrew their home and expanded to the couple’s restaurant in Elmhurst, Queens until Cabrera and Medrano handed over leadership to Morales.
At noon on Saturday the festival will begin at the Veterans of Foreign Wars building on 108th street in Corona, when a local priest will bless the miniatures—a job once reserved for a shaman. Vendors will be on hand to sell miniatures, souvenirs and traditional foods. The Bolivian community in Queens is small enough that organizers spread the word through emails, flyers and word of mouth.
Ekeko, the Andean god of prosperity and luck, presides over Alasitas. He is most often represented as a short, chubby man, carrying multiple bags of food, houses, cars, land, and money. Morales’s Ekeko is about a foot tall, with gold teeth and a green bow tie. He carries a yellow car and a bag of confetti hang from his back, and an orange house is slung over his shoulder. He has a satchel filled with money and an additional basket with a Ziploc bag of money, which Morales calls “dream money,” and an even tinier car.
Bolivians are still a minority among Hispanics in the U.S., but Queens has a thriving Bolivian community. According to the 2011 American Community Survey, of the 4,339 Bolivians who live in the New York City metro area, 60 percent live in Queens.
The popularity of the Alasitas festival reflects both the community’s growth and the ways that immigrant traditions evolve when they are transplanted to the U.S. Eduardo Medrano said that in Bolivia, people used to be skittish about Alasitas because it is an indigenous festival, but it’s reception in Queens has been much warmer. “In Bolivia the people that pretended to be white didn’t want to be associated with this type of tradition and culture, therefore it was looked upon as less. In New York, being from Bolivia itself is more important than being not white; we are more accepting of others.”
Alasitas is a word from the Aymara language that means, “buy me.” But the miniature items are even more powerful if they are given as gifts. Medrano grew up in Bolivia and says the miniatures reflect modern life. The houses are more elaborate: they have 2 stories, balconies and a car parked in a tiny walled-in yard. “In Bolivia we used to buy small versions of sugar, rice, vegetables. Here we buy a little more than that; it’s probably our capitalistic point of view. We don’t buy that alone; we buy a replica of a small store,” he says. “The dream that we had in Bolivia of owning enough in the United States becomes owning that plus.”
The Alasitas festival is free and open to the public, and begins at 12:00pm on Saturday January 25Th at 51-11 108Th St., Queens, NY.
Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation and the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation.