LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — Juan Ricaldi may not yet be rich, but he's the very image of the god of abundance in the eyes of celebrating devotees in the Bolivian capital.
Ekeko is rendered as a short, pudgy, mustached man who wears traditional Andean clothes and carries baskets of grains. Every year, thousands of Bolivians head to the feast of Alasitas that is held in his honor to buy miniature cars, houses and toy dollar bills symbolizing their dreams of prosperity.
The festival with roots in Aymara indigenous traditions also crowns an artisan who dresses up as the best rendition of Ekeko. This year, 12 men competed in the contest for a prize of about $140 and a refrigerator. They danced, paraded on stage and answered trivia questions about Andean culture, while a crowd cheered them on with fireworks and a brass band blared.
Ricaldi, this year's contest winner, said he is proud to win the prize because "I carry the soul of the Ekeko" inside.
"Four years ago, I bought a plot of land, and my biggest dream is to build a house there for my mom, who is 87," he said, speaking at the stand where he sells miniature paintings and books that he makes by hand.
The Aymara indigenous word "alasita" means "buy me." Miniature items, from kitchen appliances to paintings, are purchased at the fair and placed at home around versions of Ekeko, who the Aymara believe will bless them with better lives in the coming year.
"I thank Ekeko because he has always helped me," said Cornelio Colque Huanca, who sells plants at the Alasita and came in fifth in the competition. "Everything I have asked him, he has given to me. That is why I always wanted to dress up as Ekeko."
Alberto Macias Rios, 65, said he'd felt confident that his short height would help him win the top prize. But he said that even participating in the contest filled him with joy because the festival is a part of his life.
"I grew up with the Alasitas accompanying my mother when the fair filled various streets and avenues of La Paz," he said.
The pre-Columbian tradition was recently included in UNESCO's representative list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity.