Bilbao— Aste Nagusia

Aste Nagusia in Bilbao grew thanks to the participation of the public

In the 1990s, Bilbao successfully overcame hard times and transformed from an industrial town into a services-oriented city that is a center of culture and tourism. Similarly, Bilbao adapted to the times years before that when it updated its Aste Nagusia festival.

By the 1970s, Bilbao’s Aste Nagusia was outdated and nearly obsolete. Except for carnival rides and some traditional dance performances, the celebration was restricted to closed-off areas where people could watch bullfights, theater, boxing, and a circus. However, after Spain’s transition to democracy, the festival broke out into the streets thanks to increased public participation.

Since 1978, the organization and planning of Bilbao’s Aste Nagusia has been a collaborative effort involving several groups known as konpartsak, which consist of all kinds of organizations (including political ones) from different neighborhoods and the city government. The festival’s program is a slate of diverse events for all interests and age groups. The performances and party atmosphere never end in venues like Plaza Nueva, Plaza de Bizkaia, Plaza de Unamuno, Plaza de la Encarnación, Uribitarte Pier, El Arenal, Etxebarria Park, and the area around Arriaga Theater.

Today, Bilbao’s Aste Nagusia has become so popular that in 2009 it was chosen as one of ten Treasures of Spain’s Immaterial Cultural Heritage, earning first place on the list. The current-day format of the festival originated with a contest held by the city government in 1978 during the democratic transition. Bilbao’s government took submissions of ideas for a more inclusive festival to revive the outdated Aste Nagusia celebration. The winning project was submitted by Txomin Barullo, one of Bilbao’s pioneering konpartsak, and included an expanded role for citizen groups, many of which were born from the variety of sociopolitical views of the time. Ever since then, the thirty-or-so konpartsak have been at the heart of the festival. They celebrate in their txoznas (tents) set up in El Arenal and descend on the city throughout the nine days of the festival, starting on the Saturday after August 15th, the holiday in honor of the Assumption of Mary. This model was only interrupted once, in 1980, when the city government decided to organize the festival by itself, but a boycott by the konpartsak—who did not set up their txoznas or participate in any of the events—destined them for failure.

Since 1978, more ceremonies have been incorporated into the celebration, some of which have been taken from other festivals. The txupin (flare) announces the official start of the festival—similar to the chupinazo at San Fermín in Pamplona—and is always set off by a woman, known as the txupinera. Also, a fictional character named Marijaia was created as a symbol of the festival, much like Celedón in Vitoria-Gasteiz.

The txupinera is chosen from the female members of a konpartsak which is chosen at random. In addition to setting off the initial txupin, she is responsible for lighting a flare each morning that signals the start of a new day of festivities. To set her apart from the crowd, the txupinera has her own uniform consisting of a red dress coat with big shoulder pads, a black collar, epaulettes, and two rows of gold buttons; a black wool skirt; black patent leather shoes with white socks; and a red beret with Bilbao’s coat of arms. Interestingly, the outfit was inspired by the uniform of the Carlist troops who attacked the city in the early 19th century.

Another central figure in the festival, especially on the first day, is the pregonero or pregonera (herald) of Aste Nagusia. Since the mid-80s, this figure has assumed a role in several other ceremonies as well. Since 1988, the pregonero has also had their own uniform. Although it’s not true, it is said that the outfit is somewhat similar to the uniform of the liberal militia that defended the town against the Carlists during the Siege of Bilbao: a yellow jacket, a black bicorn hat with a feather, a white sash, and white pants or a white skirt during the day, which is black for ceremonies.

Since the first year of the new and improved Aste Nagusia in 1978, Marijaia has been the official symbol of the festival. This character is a plump woman with her hands raised as if she is dancing, and it was designed and created by Mari Puri Herrero. Since 1997, Marijaia has had her own song, “Badator Marijaia,” composed by Kepa Junkera with lyrics by Edorta Jiménez.

Main photo: Misko

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