photo courtesy of artist

Tinkus San Simon

Bolivian tinku parade Northern Virginia
Photo Credit: photo courtesy of artist
photo courtesy of artist

Northern Virginia is the epicenter of a vibrant Bolivian community that took root in the United States starting in the 1980s. As of the 2010 census, over 30,000 Bolivian Americans reside in the state. This constitutes the largest Bolivian-born population of any state in the country. Dance traditions are a major focus of cultural continuity for Bolivian immigrants in Arlington and the surrounding region. Here, community gatherings featuring competitions between vividly costumed cultural fraternities, followed by a rollicking parade with music reverberating from speakers stacked in the backs of pick-up trucks, have become a well-known feature of the cultural landscape, and a huge attraction for non-Bolivians as well.

There are hundreds of forms of folk dance in Bolivia. Some convey historical themes—for instance, La Morenada, which depicts the experience of slaves in the silver mines and vineyards—while others reflect religious experience, as in La Diablada, a Carnival de Oruro dance about the struggle between good and evil. The specialty of Falls Church’s heralded Tinkus San Simon is the tinku, which hails from the Potosi region. The name tinku comes from the indigenous Andean languages Quechua and Aymara, and means something akin to “encounter” or “coming together.”

The first tinkus were a form of ritualized combat, stretching back perhaps a thousand years, through which towns and clan groupings could resolve concerns like political succession or water rights. Any blood shed was considered a sacrifice to Pachamama, or Mother Earth, ensuring a bountiful harvest. Ritual tinku continues only in a small region in the high plains of southwestern Bolivia, but festive versions of tinku are now performed as a national dance across Bolivia. Today’s festive tinkus retain heavy, almost martial drum rhythms and athletic, fiercely swinging arm motions and kicks that recall the tinku battles. The spinning, percussive motions of grouped “blocks” of male and female dancers are highlighted by elaborate, colorful costumes with swirling embroidered skirts, traditional sandals called abarcas, and, for the men, leather hats called monteras, modeled on the helmets of the conquistadores, which they use to strike the ground to draw strength from Pachamama.

The word tinku refers to both the dance and the dancer, thus the name Tinkus San Simon Filial Virginia is a shorthand that indicates these are the people who dance the tinku of the San Simon fraternity, Virginia chapter. The Virginia branch is one of more than 20 San Simon fraternities worldwide. For Bolivian emigrants these fraternal groups provide social aid as well as a means for resistencia cultural—maintenance of cultural traditions in a new homeland. The tinku parade at the National Folk Festival will feature their performing troupe of five male and five female dancers, surrounded by a parade group of over thirty more dancers from the San Simon fraternity, including young people who have learned the tradition from family and friends while growing up in the United States.

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