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At this annual festival in Colombia, donkeys play dress up

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Colombians are proud of their culture and their quirks. That's why the country holds annual festival to celebrate everything from coffee to crabs and cornflour pancakes. What about BJ Leiderman, who writes our theme music? We celebrate him. But as John Otis reports, Colombia's most unusual festival pays tribute to the donkey.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: I'm at the donkey festival here in the Caribbean coast town of San Antero. It's a mix of music, booze and burros wearing ridiculous costumes. Some of the jackasses are dressed up as corrupt politicians. Others poke fun at religious figures or celebrities.

So this little white donkey is dressed up in socks and tennis shoes on its hoofs, and it's wearing lipstick, eyeshadow, earrings. And it's got a flower in its hair.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

OTIS: As the festival gathers steam, hundreds of the pack animals parade through the streets.

Sort of like the running of the bulls, except it's donkeys.

Ironically, all this rowdiness began a century ago in San Antero as a solemn Easter procession. It involved a single donkey carrying an effigy of Judas Iscariot, who was then burned in the town plaza for betraying Jesus. Eventually, the event turned into an homage to the donkey itself. Throughout Latin America, they serve as sure-footed beasts of burden for farmers who can't afford trucks or motorcycles to haul crops and supplies.

ENO GARCES: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "San Antero is the land of donkeys," says Eno Garces, whose burro is competing in the festival's beauty pageant. "They serve as our vehicles."

LEONARDO MACIA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Farmer Leonardo Macia says, "they're like your kids. You love them." Colombians even wax poetic about donkeys.

EUSTORGIO DIAZ: (Reading in Spanish).

OTIS: That's festival organizer Eustorgio Diaz reading one of his poems. It's about a donkey that feels underappreciated.

DIAZ: (Reading in Spanish).

OTIS: "You only give orders that I must follow," the donkey complains to his master. "Why can't you be nicer?" Catholic church officials sometimes complain that the raucous alcohol-fueled fiesta makes a mockery of Holy Week. But Diaz claims there's a religious connection, pointing out that donkeys sometimes show up in the gospels.

DIAZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover," Diaz says, "he didn't ride on a horse or a camel. He took a donkey."

What's more, the Donkey Fest draws thousands of tourists to San Antero, as well as legions of farmers who ride into town on their trusty burros to compete for cash prizes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: That's one of the judges reading the names of the contending burros. Some seemed less than thrilled to be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF DONKEY BRAYING)

OTIS: Perhaps they're protesting the bucking donkey contest, which, given their small size, borders on animal cruelty.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Next, come races and a braying contest in which owners imitate their animals. There's also a competition for best-looking burrow.

The owners of these donkeys are now getting ready for the beauty contest. They're clipping their manes and brushing their coats and spiffing them up.

All this may seem a little over the top.

MACIA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: But because they're such hard workers, Macia, the farmer, insists that even donkeys deserve their day.

For NPR News, I'm John Otis in San Antero, Colombia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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