November 14, 2019

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Learning to be the Llama

It's hot and nervous inside Folklorama's famous mascot

Opinion

Welcome to Jen Tries, a semi-regular feature in which Free Press columnist Jen Zoratti will try something new and report back. In this instalment, Jen Tries... being the Folklorama Llama.

I am in the change room upstairs at the Lyric Theatre in Assiniboine Park, and I am surrounded by the glamorous women of Grupo Rumel, the Chilean folkloric dance group. They’ve just performed at the Folklorama kickoff and are still in their bright, midriff-baring costumes. They do not look sweaty, despite it being a humid 26 C. They are dewy.

Meanwhile, I am getting into a costume that involves decidedly more clothing. I am about to make my debut as the Folklorama Llama.

The beloved mascot is a fixture of Canada’s largest and longest-running multicultural festival, which starts Sunday and runs until Aug. 18. He’ll travel to every pavilion over the course of the two-week event, handing out high-fives and snapping photos. (As I will quickly learn, everyone, young and old wants to get their photo taken with the Folklorama Llama).

ANDREW RYAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>The Folklorama Llama is just waiting to come to life prior to the festival’s kickoff on July 28 at the Lyric Theatre.</p></p>

ANDREW RYAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The Folklorama Llama is just waiting to come to life prior to the festival’s kickoff on July 28 at the Lyric Theatre.

The Folklorama Llama dates back to 1986. There are several reasons why the llama was chosen as an emblem for a festival celebrating multiculturalism. For starters, llamas are curious and social animals. They can adapt to different climates, which is why they can be found all over the planet. They are also great travellers; Indigenous people in their native South America have used them as pack animals for generations.

Also, llama rhymes with Folklorama.

The llama costume involves many parts. Much to my distress, almost all of them involve fur. There are fur pants which, thankfully, have an athletic mesh crotch for breathability, as well as a fur shirt with a mesh chest, followed by gloves that basically force your hands into Vulcan salutes.

But wait, there’s more. Over top of all this, I don a pair of shorts, an enormous polo T-shirt, a scarf and comically large hiking boots.

And then, of course, there’s the rather intimidating head, which comes up to my hip.

ANDREW RYAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Reporter Jen Zoratti gets ready to be the Folklorama Llama in the dressing room of the Lyric Theatre.</p>

ANDREW RYAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Reporter Jen Zoratti gets ready to be the Folklorama Llama in the dressing room of the Lyric Theatre.

But this gig isn’t just about wearing a costume. One has to actually be the Folklorama Llama. So, before I get fully suited up, I consult a professional.

Paul López Córdova, who is originally from Chile, has been the Folklorama Llama for the past three years. He loves being able to interact with festivalgoers young and old. (English is his second language, so his daughter is doing a bit of translating.)

I ask him why he likes the Folklorama Llama. "Llama is a character," he says fondly. "Llama is funny. Llama loves people. Llama is multicultural."

I also ask him about his Llama moves, which I am fully planning to steal. "I like dancing. I like hugs. Exercising," he says. "Llama is not boring."

It’s obvious I (literally) have giant boots to fill. With the help of two people, I put on the head, which, thankfully, has been recently dry-cleaned. I am immediately impressed that López Córdova can pantomime exercise in this getup. I feel like basic walking is going to be an extreme challenge. But this is an inherently physical role — Mascot 101, after all, is "do not talk."

Photos by ANDREW RYAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Free Press columnist Jen Zoratti receives some help putting on the Folklorama Llama costume.</p>

Photos by ANDREW RYAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Free Press columnist Jen Zoratti receives some help putting on the Folklorama Llama costume.

With López Córdova’s words in mind (don’t be boring!) I head out into the event. Even though every single part of my body is covered, I feel strangely exposed; I’m not exactly blending in with the crowd. In fact, I’m a good head taller than most of the crowd. I realize that I’m actually nervous. But then I remember something else López Córdova told me. "You are not you. You are Llama."

With that, my self-consciousness starts to disappear, and I begin to ham it up a little. "Hi, monster!" a little girl earnestly calls out, and it takes me a second to realize she’s talking to me. "That’s a llama!" her dad tells her. "Do you want to take a photo?" No, she did not want to take a photo. She waved from a friendly distance.

Eventually, I get up enough confidence to make up silly dances, and kids laugh. I manage not to high-five any kids in the face. In the 15 minutes I’m working the crowd, I pose for at least a dozen photos. I underestimated how challenging finding non-verbal ways to communicate with people would be.

And, of course, a mascot must also be prepared to be rejected by toddlers who regard you with withering suspicion.

When I’m safely out of view, I pull off the head. I look like I just completed an hour-long spin class. A grinning López Córdova is suiting up to take over for me, adjusting his sweatband (smart). He asks if I had fun.

I just made a bunch of kids’ days. How could I have not?

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @JenZoratti

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Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti
Columnist

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

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