Backstage was chaotic. Barack Obama was fighting with his handler. Shakira had been happily eating off the floor but became surly when she was interrupted. It took three men to push her up the ramp onto the makeshift stage.
Donkeys and beauty contests are both common sights in rural Colombia, but only in the small Caribbean town of San Antero are the two combined in a pageant where locals dress their animals as celebrities and slyly poke fun at Colombian society.
“This is our homage to the donkey because they are the means of transport for our small farmers and fishermen — and we’re here to enjoy the party!” said Keila Murillo, standing on the sidelines of the chaotic parade of donkeys through the town earlier this month.
Donkeys are prized in rural areas of a country where hundreds of villages are only accessible by jungle trails or mountain paths. “The donkey is essential for the life of the countryside and our economy,” said local businessman Cristobal Carvajal who founded the festival 25 years ago.
Participants spend up to a year designing and creating their donkeys’ costumes. The stakes are high: first place in the donkey pageant nets about US$1,700, or around six months salary for most Colombians.
When the real US President Barack Obama visited Colombia last month, a local politician tried to give him a baby donkey. Obama did not take the donkey, but sent a letter of thanks.
At the pageant, Obama’s donkey namesake was draped in a US flag and a USA tie. Others carried sharper political messages: one wore a dress with “No more kidnappings” written along the side — a reference to the scores of people kidnapped for ransom by criminals and factions in Colombia’s four-decade civil war.
Three donkeys were dressed to represent the hundreds of thousands displaced during the last rainy season — the worst natural disaster in the country’s history. Hundreds were killed in the floods, and the donkeys’ costumes reflected a widely-felt belief that the region had been abandoned by Colombia’s central government. One donkey was weighed down under a collection of old household goods, an old television, a broken radio and a fan, surrounded by a destitute family who carried signs saying: “Mr President, remember us. We are Colombia too.”
“People have to realize that a tragedy happened. The rainy season passed and the displaced are forgotten, but the problem hasn’t gone away,’’ said Nestor Pinzon, dressed as a member of the destitute family.
The sly humor is part of the pageant, said Roberto Montes, one of the judges. “Through the donkeys, there is criticism of society and how people are mistreated.”
In the end, the prize went to the donkey dressed as a famous Colombian preacher.
Barack Obama’s handler, who seemed as if he had been drinking, stormed off. The other donkeys seemed unperturbed and continued eating grass.