If December was fireworks, and Janurary was horns, February is clearly going to be the month of whipcracks. Although since last Thursday I have been suffering from yet another evil cold, on Sunday I was forced to rouse myself from my mosquito-netted cocoon and answer the call of my fellow lechones. It was the first Sunday of the carnival season, and all comparsas (organized carnival groups, generally representing particular neighborhoods) were to head to Los Ciruelitos, a very Carnaval-friendly barrio of Santiago, for the “acalentamiento” (literally “heating up,” or getting people in the Carnaval mood) . When we got there, it was already impossible to drive anywhere because the streets were full of kids running around with whips, trucks and cars blasting recorded music, comparsas in matching t-shirts, and resident onlookers. So we, Los Confraternos de Pueblo Nuevo, ditched our cars as soon as possible and got out into the fray, mingling with the other groups and looking for friends. It didn’t take long before we ran into my friend Jose Reyes and his small son, also looking for parking.
Jose is the guy who got me hooked up with my lechones to begin with. He is a nut for carnaval, actively convincing new lechones to dress up and attending the weekly, city-wide meetings of all the comparsas. While standing around having our ear drums split from the cracks of the twisted-rope whips that all young lechones were brandishing, Jose introduced me to some important carnival characters that I’m hoping to interview at a later date. The first-ever female lechon; a Roba la Gallina (traditional transvestite character); a lechon who has been dressing up for 48 straight carnivals.
Soon the crowd started walking. I hadn’t been told that this would be a parade. In fact, no one gave me any idea at all of what we’d be doing today, so I definitely wasn’t prepared for the kilometers we ended up walking. I did what I could, but it was a little rough with my congested and dizzy head. Anyway, Jose and I fell in behind Los Galleros, a newly invented comparsa (less than 10 years old) from Cienfuegos, widely regarded as the worst neighborhood in Santiago. Like most of the groups, they weren’t wearing their costumes - we’re all still working on putting them together- and were instead wearing matching white t-shirts with their club logo in red on the front and an ad for a radio station, their sponsor, on the back, along with matching yellow baseball caps (also courtesy of their patrons). They were a step up from a lot of the other groups, though, because they had their own speaker-filled truck blasting music for them to dance to as they traversed the parade route. Before we started, it played a number of merengue típico tunes, but once they started moving their deejays switched to orquesta merengues and particularly reggaeton, all specially made for carnival. (I’m still not sure why, but típico groups don’t record carnival tunes.) To these, they took off their hats and jumped up and down in unison, or executed a few simple merengue steps from side to side, also in coordinated fashion. Every couple of blocks, they’d stop to do their “shtick:” while the group ran around in a circle, a couple of them would go into the center of the “ring” and pretend to be egging on their imaginary chickens. I’m told that during actual carnaval, they dress up in “campesino” outfits and bring real roosters, staging actual cockfights along the parade route.
It was interesting to see this neighborhood, an odd mishmash of pleasant-looking, newly plastered and tiled houses, shells of old broken-down cars, and ramshackle huts made mostly of plywood and corrugated tin roofing. In one case, the broken-down car – the bottom half of a formerly white jeep – was on top of the hut. It was also interesting to see how many, how very very many, people are actually involved in carnival, heart and soul, and fun to watch the neighborhood residents coming out to check out the action. But all the walking was really too much for me in my weakened state and I had to hitch a ride back to my car and take my way (the highway) before we’d actually reached the end of the circuit. I was supposed to see the group again the next day – today, that is – for a visit to the tailor and a lesson in the dance of the lechones, but neither happened. More waiting. As Dominicans say: Take it eeeeeaaaasy!