In Uruguay, February 2 marks the feast of Iemanjá, a religious holiday celebrating the goddess of the sea. Iemanjá is considered one of several Orixa (deities) by people who practice Umbanda, a variation of Yorùbá spiritual practices brought to South America by African slaves and adapted over the years to incorporate local animistic traditions. During the celebration, thousands of devotees and onlookers flock to Montevideo’s Playa Ramirez, a popular beach, to pay homage to the goddess with singing, dancing, prayers and offerings.
During this year’s celebration, I arrived at the beach late in the afternoon as festivities were well underway. Pilgrims had set up outposts all along the shoreline, and were making preparations to ferry their offerings into the Rio de la Plata via handmade boats. Their vibrant creations of styrofoam, wood and paper varied in size from tiny, handheld floats to giant vessels more than a meter long, each ornately decorated in blue and white trimming and containing an assortment of trinkets and food items as gifts to Iemanjá.
All along the beach, throngs of curious bystanders gathered to participate in the festivities, and the faithful lined up to receive blessings from (or have their fortunes told by) Umbanda priests and priestesses.
Walking among the assembled masses, I soaked in the pulsing rhythm of candombe drums and cowbells as I watched groups of pilgrims dance themselves into trance-like states. I could feel their fervent energy all around me, as they made their way to the water’s edge and waded into the choppy surf to set their floating offerings adrift. As the last rays of fading sunlight spilled over the cloud-shrouded horizon, people lit candles in shallow holes dug along the detritus-littered shoreline and offered up prayers to their ocean mother.
Check out the high-resolution versions of these and other shots from my trip to Montevideo in my Flickr set.