It’s Your Birthday, Mampujan Style

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So, one of the things I do in Mampuján that was not part of my job description is serve as official photographer for all birthday parties. Besides taking all of the photos, I sometimes also make the cake, or at least try to teach people how to make their own cake. I am now an expert on birthday parties!

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Children and adult birthday parties are alike except for the size of the plastic chairs arranged in a circle around loudspeakers. Everyone arrives at least an hour late, dressed in their very best with hair slicked back or artfully braided and takes a seat. Gifts are given to the birthday child, who arranges them on the cake table. The goody-bag or treats are on the left, presents on the right, cake in the centre. Always. Each child’s head is sprinkled with confetti and a paper hat is placed on top.

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Throughout the duration of the party, the mother, or her helpers, pass out trays of Mampuján treats, to which each child takes one or two. Lollipops, popcorn, and a variety of deep-fried dough are customary. When I first arrived in the community, I was a little traumatized by the first birthday party I attended, when fights almost broke out among the mothers over whose child was receiving the most treats and the most deserving to eat said treats. However, since the arrival of reparations and the general slight betterment of the economic situation, such disagreements are less common. For the adults, arroz con pollo (chicken and rice) and some crackers are staple party fare, along with kool-aid or beer, depending on the time of day and guest demographics.

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Then, dancing. Loud music is a staple feature of every party. If the birthday child attends church, the music has a Christian message and dancing consists of jumping up and down or playing games like pop-the-balloon-between-your-bodies-in-time-to-the-music-because-we-aren’t-really-dancing. If the birthday child does not attend the church, the music is decidedly worldly and the dancing is a perfect imitation of adult movements at the cantina, complete with pelvic thrusts and hip shakin’. People here have rhythm in their blood and still don’t understand why my hips just can’t move like that. Christian children are generally forbidden to attend non-Christian parties because of the music issue. At first I scoffed at the legalism inherent in this statement, but after living here for a while, I understand the desire to protect innocence just a little bit longer.

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At the end of the party, it is time to take a picture of the birthday child with the cake, at the table. The lavish display will be printed and framed. The child blows out the candle, gets icing put on his/her face, and thanks people for coming. Everyone is given one of the decoration balloons, a goody bag and sent home. The cake is cut privately, and the birthday child goes to each home in the morning to give people their slice.

I may be leaving Mampujan in 21 days, but if anyone wants a coastal style birthday party, I can help! Or at least take your picture.

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