By Courtney Mathos, missionary to Bolivia & Tracy Paver, missionary to Chile
During the third week of August, Bolivians celebrate the Festival of the Virgin of Urkupiña. Like most Bolivian holidays, it is rooted in tradition and is celebrated with parades, a Catholic mass, and a pilgrimage to a hillside in Quillacollo. Behind the festival is the legend of a poor shepherdess who was watching over her family’s sheep. One day, a woman and a little boy appeared before this shepherdess. The woman told the shepherdess to bring rocks home from the hillside, and along the way, the stones turned into silver. Of course, this silver blessed the shepherdess’ family immensely and pulled them out of poverty. When the parents and priests asked the young shepherdess about the woman and little boy, she told them where she had last seen the two, and they set off to find them. As they neared the hillside, the young girl could see the woman and little boy on top of the hill and cried out, “Urkupiña!” which in Quechua means “already on the hill.” The woman and boy disappeared before the parents and priests got to them. The town of Quillacollo later built a shrine on that hill, as many believed that the young woman who appeared to the shepherdess was the Virgin Mary. Legend also says that in exchange for all the silver the Virgin provided, she took the young shepherdess’ voice.
Today, Urkupiña is celebrated throughout Cochabamba with huge parades and floats, followed by a mass at the Catholic Church, and a pilgrimage to Quillacollo. Along the way, street vendors sell little trinkets of things that Bolivians might want to be blessed with in the coming year–houses, passports, diplomas, cars, or household appliances. Once they get to the hillside in Quillacollo, Bolivians will search for rocks to take back with them. They hope that the stones will bless them throughout the year. However, these stones and trinkets are more symbolic of a loan than a blessing, for once Bolivians receive their desired ambition, they must return the rocks and trinkets to the hillside of Quillacollo.
This festival is another example of the hopeless religion in which Bolivians have put their trust. As Christians, we know that our greatest blessing can be found in Jesus Christ. Through Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross, God offers us the free gift of salvation, and that is a blessing that once received, we never lose or have to give back. Our salvation is not a loan. Now it’s our responsibility to share that truth with those who don’t have it. Will you share Jesus with the many Bolivians who don’t know?