CAVALCANTE, Brazil — For three long years, Vandeli Matos was an emperor in waiting. The symbolic coronation of the 33-year-old finally occurred this week when the Kalunga quilombo — as Brazilian communities descended from runaway slaves are known — gathered for the first time since the pandemic began.
It was part of a festival that Kalunga’s 39 far-flung communities hold every August — or had held until the pandemic prevented the annual week of roaring festivities celebrating Our Lady of the Abbey.
Thousands of pilgrims from all corners of the vast Kalunga territory flocked to the municipality Cavalcante, some 180 miles north of the capital, Brasilia, for this year’s coronations and other rituals.
Families set up in small wattle and daub houses, inhabited only during the festival. The structures, decorated with balloons, paper flowers and brightly colored fabrics, form a half-moon around the town’s chapel, where religious ceremonies take place.
“We tried to maintain the tradition the way it was,” said Irene Francisca, 55, who is better known as Tuta das Flores, one of the women overseeing this year’s decorations. “When we were born, this party already existed. This way of decorating with flowers was passed on to us by our mothers and grandmothers.”
Kalunga is Brazil’s largest quilombo, spreading across 1,000 square miles (2,600 square kilometers) in the Valley of Souls (Vao de Almas, in Portuguese). Its history began more than two centuries ago, when slaves fled the region’s mills and mining pits and settled in the hard-to-access valleys. Their descendants have occupied the area ever since, with a population now estimated around 10,000 people.
Houses in Kalunga territory are distant from one another, and connected by chewed-up dirt roads only four-wheel-drive vehicles can manage. Each year, Our Lady of the Abbey is the occasion for Kalungas to convene and mingle.
It’s a Catholic celebration of the Virgin Mary, but African slaves — forcibly brought to Brazil and prohibited from worshipping their own deities — embraced the ceremony while integrating some of their own traditions and beliefs from the opposite side of the Atlantic Ocean.
In Cavalcante, families take advantage of the rare presence of a priest to marry couples and baptize children, who dress in white. A lit candle symbolizes their encounter with Jesus Christ and entrance into the Catholic community. After the baptisms, musicians accompany the families to their homes.
The festival’s climax comes with the coronations of the Divine Holy Spirit and of Our Lady of the Abbey, represented by two emperors and a queen, picked randomly each year. On Monday, it was the turn of Matos, Adonildes da Cunha and Nilda dos Santos. They led their community along the pilgrimage’s final stretch to the chapel.
Associated Press writer Diane Jeantet contributed to this story from Rio de Janeiro.
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