2/21 – 2/24/06
Continuing my all-Casa de Arte week, on Thursday night I attended a program commemorating the anniversary of the murder of Francisco Alberto Caamaño Deñó, the DR’s answer to Che Guevara. Most likely, Caamaño would be just as familiar a face to us if the U.S. hadn’t supported the military coup d’etat that ousted Juan Bosch, the first constitutionally elected president here in over 30 years, and then come in 1965 to brutally stamp out the grassroots revolution that followed. Apparently, Johnson got scared by the new 1963 constitution which prohibited monopolies as well as excessive landholding, causing him to cry, “Commies!” Anyway, Caamaño was on the side of the Constitutionalists, who fought against both the military triumvirate and the US forces, and very briefly became president after they threw out the military men. After voluntarily stepping down to allow for free elections once again, he went into exile in Cuba, where he became pals with Fidel and Che. (Apparently, Castro has called Caamaño and Che two of the most important political figures of the 20th century.) Balaguer was elected with the help of US support and a terrorist campaign he led together with other Trujillo cronies against, which killed off about 350 political activists in the first half of 1966. As I found out in last Tuesday’s film showing, the violence only continued under Balaguer’s rule, and Caamaño worked on gathering strength to lead a guerrilla force back into the DR to kill or overthrow Balaguer. He and his guerrilleros did land in the south in 1973, only to be captured and murdered by Balaguer’s men. So his fate was much like Che’s.
All this history is basically covered up here – students definitely don’t learn about it in school, as a few students in the audience bitterly pointed out. But there are still plenty around who actually fought in the “April War,” and are happy to talk about it with any who will listen. Indeed, you could hardly shut them up at this event! (Anyone looking for a good, revolutionary oral history project?) Thus, Caamaño is far from forgotten. In fact, there is a piece of graffiti on a wall at one of the biggest intersections in Santiago that reads, “Caamaño vive” (Caamaño lives). So the next day I went out and bought the documentary, “Abril: Trinchera de honor.” At least I can correct my own ignorance on the subject.
The next couple of days were spent in confusion, as I went back and forth between trying to correct my book manuscript and running to the tailor’s to make sure my carnival costume was actually getting done. Also had to go by Tonito’s on Saturday to put foam and elastic on my mask and make it useable; this meant I also caught part of the Confraternos dance team’s reggaetón-heavy rehearsal. Also had to purchase a bunch of mirrors, buttons, etc to decorate my outfit. The costumes did get done, but not until only a few hours before Sunday’s parade. We frantically hot-glued jingly bells and all the other adornments, just managing to get out the door with our half-decorated jumpsuits at the tail end of the parade. Man, will all that crap on those things weigh about 20 pounds! And that’s not counting the mask! It’s tiring to walk and dance for miles in the costume, but it’s also more fun than going costumeless, I found. As soon as you put the mask on, you are a different person; you have to BECOME the lechon. And a lechon is always dancing, jumping, moving around. Everyone wants to take pictures of the lechon. Some people want the lechon to give them or their friends a vejigazo. (Can anyone say, sadomasochism?) And some people want to throw confetti straight into the lechon’s mask, getting little pieces of paper into their eyes and noses. OK, that only happened once, but it was decidedly uncomfortable. Bad, bad spectators! As it turned out, though, our security force was pretty useful, rum and all. Aside from the confetti incident, they did a good job of keeping people out of our way and diffusing problems. Do you know what they are armed with, for our protection? No? Give up? Meat thermometers. Seriously. At least one was; he showed me, apparently so I would know I was safe from attacks by frozen turkeys. Or from people. Whatever.
Because of our late start, the streets were so crowded with both lechones and spectators that much of our time on Las Carreras was spent standing still. We still were far from the monument as the sun was setting, and it didn’t look like we would get any closer any time soon, so we just turned around and headed for home. Actually, our awesome disco pickup had turned around long ago – whether it was stalled, out of gas, or on fire again, I’m not quite sure – but we found it again near the other end of the boulevard, waiting for us to give it a push. Back at the ranch, otherwise known as Betania and Julio’s house, we celebrated by removing our sweat-drenched costumes and drinking beer.
I was really beat after all that walking, dancing, and all. I slept better than I’d done in a long time. All the better for visiting the cockfights on Monday. While working at home in the morning, Rafaelito had called me to cancel my usual afternoon accordion class because he had to go play at the cockfights with his son, Raul. Because it so happened that over breakfast I’d been thinking to myself, “I haven’t been to the galleras in a loooooong time. I really should go again soon,” I invited myself along. It didn’t work out quite as planned, though: the plan had been to go around 4:00. But when I got to his house at 4:00, it soon became 5:00, and then we found out from Raul that we didn’t need to go until after 6:00. Was I ever bored! Finally, finally we made it out of there, though, with Rafaelito’s son Nixon (currently accordionist for Frandy Sax, formerly with Krisspy) and helper Manaury in tow.
On the way over we discussed places in the US and how long it takes to drive from one to the other; Nixon’s European tour, when he and Krisspy played in Holland, France, Spain, and Switzerland; and the nice sunset. We had plenty of time because the gallera we were going to, “Gallera El Palo,” was on the other side of Navarrete – maybe a 45 minute drive. On the way we passed by the Navarrete graveyard where Nico Lora, the foundational Dominican accordionist, is buried. When we arrived, we found a crowded parking lot, plenty of Roman friends and fans, stray dogs, and pig heads. (They were serving roast pork with casabe.) I didn’t partake of the cadaver, but the Romans and the dogs did. It was amazing how many people were there, considering it was in the middle of nowhere. Seeing them eat, though, I got hungry too so we went to investigate the situation in the gallera’s kitchen. They were only serving friend pork, chicken, and tostones, so I ordered a plate of tostones with tostones. Fried plantains are good, but did not a meal make. Still, I felt better than I did, at least until I got stung by a wasp. Unbelieveable! I don’t think I’ve ever been stung by a wasp in my life until now. And I hope never to be stung by another. It is still hurting, itching, and hot to the touch today. Also, the armpit is not the best place in the world to be stung. I recommend avoiding it if you have a choice.
We stole some ice from the “cooler” (actually a leaky wooden crate with cold beer inside) to stem the swelling, and then I felt better for a while. Soon I was distracted by the music, anyway: Raul was playing with La Seleccion, a band I’ve always liked, although as Nixon pointed out, the bass got “cruzado” (crossed, or out of sync) at one point. For the grand finale, all three Romans played together: Raul and Rafaelito on dual (dueling?) accordions, and Nixon on güira; and Nixon and Rafaelito on accordion and Raul on saxophone … it was sort of a musical chairs game, since they all play all the instruments. Everyone loved this, and all pulled out their cell phone cameras at the same time, trying to get close to the stage to snap a picture. This made it hard for me to get my own pictures, because I kept getting arms and phones in the way, but I did what I could. Afterwards, we all caravanned back to Rafaelito’s house, where Carmen made some crab and plantains for us. It was a good end to my evening, and the beginning to theirs, as from there Rafaelito was going straight on to his regular Monday gig at Rancho Merengue.
On Wednesday, as I was running around getting things done I got a call from some carnival characters that I should really get up at 6 AM the next day. If you know me at all, you know this is not something I am inclined to do and I’m not even sure the last time I voluntarily got up at that ungodly hour. But eventually they talked me into it, with the promise of seeing a new place, meeting carnival groups from all over the country, and of course free food. We were even going to get paid! I never thought I’d make money as a lechona, but there you are.
Still fretting about my alarm clock for the next day, I made my way to the house of Gaspar Rodriguez, the host of a TV merengue típico show, for an interview. He lives in Gurabo, a section on the outskirts of town that I’d never actually been to. When I got there, I found him, his son, and a visiting musician holed up in his own mini video studio searching through his enormous video collection for clips to show on a merengue memories segment the next week while supervised by a giant – and quite good – oil painting of Tatico Henriquez. In this way, I found out the (for me) very exciting news that he has video footage of the late greats Nico Lora, Guandulito, and El Negrito Figueroa. This is historic stuff, and he’s promised to make me a copy. I was also surprised to find that the guest musician was my favorite bass player I’d never met, El Che, who played on the bootleg Siano Arias recording that is responsible for getting me hooked on this stuff. I told him this story, and it turned out he’d never even heard the recording himself. So I whipped out my handy iriver and played it for him. He thought it was good, too. We watched videos for a while as Gaspar’s wife served us coffee and loaned me some Chinese ointment for my wasp sting. Then we had a very interesting and educational interview about merengue típico and mass media, which will probably be continued on a later date. He also asked me to come down and play a tune on his program on March 11. Yikes! I need to practice… but how, with all this carnival business going on??
Afterwards, I met up with Matthew, a schoolteacher and ga-ga musician who had agreed to loan me some books. And since he had been thinking of going to the same event I was planning on attending that night, we headed over together. Over at the Museo Folklorico Tomas Morel, the wacky folklore museum, they were slated to be handing out the annual prizes given to the best carnival masks and dolls of the year. The backyard had been set up with a small stage, a bunch of folding chairs, and stands where the event sponsors (Rica beverages and Bermudez rum) were handing out free drinks. Good thing, too – we had to stand in the back while the MCs went on and on, handing out raffle prizes (I didn’t win, but my neighbor from the Casa de Arte did), and bringing up amateur singers. What was this, Dominican Idol? The woman who did La Lupe was quite good, but the very gay pop singer, very entertaining in other ways, was unfortunately painfully out of tune. Matthew gave him a pink rose from one of the raffled flower arrangements anyway, but that was about all I could take, especially since I had to get up so early the next day, and couldn’t even see the nominated art works from my post. Oh well.
I woke up completely disoriented at 6-bloody-AM but somehow got myself out the door and over to Betania’s house. We drove our masks and outfits over to the carnival HQ where the bus was waiting, brought the car back to Betania’s, and walked back again with our fellow Confraterno Joel, stopping to buy some Johnnycakes (that’s yaniqueques in Dominican) for the low, low price of 1 peso each, and piling on the bus, finally leaving Santiago only an hour later than the planned departure time (that’s on time in Dominican). A total of fourteen of us were going, including representatives of Los Condes de la Bahia, Los Emperadores, Los Frailes, and ourselves, as well as a couple of “unaffiliated” lechones like Jose Reyes and Humberto Cruz.
The ride down was pretty uneventful. We listened to merengue típico, bachata, and salsa, slept, chatted, stopped for breakfast at a roadhouse in Bonao (not very good, but much better once they changed our cold, mealy French fries for fresh fries), and actually made it in record time to Monte Plata – a trip which involved going down to the capital and then coming back up through Sabana Grande de Boya, where a cooperative savings group stopped our bus to give us soda and hard candy. As it turned out, we’d been hired to give a parade in honor of the Juegos Nacionales, the Dominican answer to the Olympics, which would be ending the next day. These games are supposed to be held every three years in a different town, which receives the benefits of new stadiums and freshly paved roads (though some note that towns can have a hard time keeping these up after the games, due to lack of funds). However, the 2003 games were skipped because then-president Hipolito Mejia didn’t want to spend the money, so these were the first in six years. When we got there, we walked around the complex, taking in some girls’ Tae Kwon Do and the end of a baseball game. For the games, the country is divided into six regions that compete with one another: North, South, East, Capital District, “5th region” which is whatever province is hosting, and “6th region,” which is Dominican residing outside the country. Interesting how migrants now constitute their own province.
Next we headed back to the local Casa de Cultura to wait for the food to show up, as a free lunch for the participants was part of the plan. In the meantime, we checked out masks belonging to other groups, such as the bulls from Monte Plata and the so-called “papeluses” from Salcedo – their costumes made entirely of colorful crepe paper, with animal-like masks in equally bright colors. Then somebody found the palos drums, and several of our group started playing. But no one would step up to sing. So then Jose took off and found the real paleros – a trio of local old guys who could really play. We danced for a bit, but then they had to get back to work.
After a lunch accompanied by really crappy reggaeton sung in a weird semi-computerized voice, it was finally time to get ready. We were taken to a nearby school, where each group had a classroom to use as a dressing room. Not that they afforded any privacy, what with the open windows with local kids peeking through. They went around to each classroom asking where we were all from, what was this, and what was that, and making off with any bells that fell off the costumes. It was pretty cute. Even there in the classroom, though, we could tell it was going to be a difficult day, as in the shade of indoors we were already sweating up a storm in our heavy costumes. It was incredibly hot and humid and I don’t even want to imagine what it’s like in Monte Plata in July if this was their February weather! Sure enough, once we took an exploratoryturn around the neighborhood we found out it was indeed hell – appropriately enough, since we’re supposed to be devils. And even worse, since we didn’t have our own music truck as in Santiago, neither did we have any water. I ran into a colmado, mask and all, at one point to buy some, but his entire supply was frozen. Just as well – I stuffed it inside my outfit to cool me off and melt itself. It helped a little, though not as much as one might think because the heat was so intense.
After this introductory tour we returned to our school HQ and rested for a few minutes, giving me a chance to snap some photos of groups from other towns and chat briefly with the Montecristi delegation. Hitting the road for the second time wasn’t much better than the first, except that eventually some water did appear. And rum. And children, asking questions about where we were from, how much our masks cost, and all that. Understandably, many kids were frightened of all the masked devils and cracking whips, especially since they probably hadn’t seen the likes of us in this town before. One tiny little girl of maybe 18 months was being consoled by her grandmother, who was explaining, “it’s OK- they’re really people in there!” I happened to have my mask off at the moment and she pointed, “see? Look at her face!” I waved at the kid, but she still looked pretty uncertain as to what my true nature might be.
Kilometers later, when we finally arrived at the sports complex, it was all we could do to keep walking, much less dance. Luckily, our thoughtful bus driver had followed us and met us at the end of the route. It was challenging to strip of our sweat-soaked costumes and pull on pants again, but it sure felt good, and the beer and bachata we enjoyed at a picturesque green-painted, wood-slatted bar was sure refreshing. The bus on the way back was decidedly more quiet than it had been on the way down, as we tried to sleep and get rid of the pounding sun-induced headaches. We stopped at the same Bonao roadhouse for dinner: this time, the choices were sandwiches of ham and cheese, ham and ham, or cheese and cheese. I, of course, opted for the latter, covered as usual in Dominican special sauce (mayo and ketchup).
We didn’t sleep much after that stop, though. Somewhere between Bonao and La Vega, we came upon a broken down bus on the side of the road and dozens of uniformed school kids milling about at 10:00 at night. They filled us in: the group was from Santiago - El Ingenio, in fact – and had been having bus trouble all the way back from their fieldtrip to the capital, so they were getting back late anyway when some more bad luck occurred in the form of a flat tire. The driver got out to change it, and the big bus tire exploded in his face – not a pretty sight, and one that had traumatized some of the children. The driver had already been carted off to the hospital, but a girl who seemed to be suffering from shock or something was still waiting there amongst the rest. Our bus was pretty full already, but we offered to take one or two on, so they sent the sick girl and a teacher with us. We took a detour and dropped them off at the hospital in La Vega, where we nearly had some bus trouble ourselves as we discovered the hard way that our vehicle was too tall to fit into the carport at the emergency entrance. Needless to say, we were pretty happy to finally get back to Santiago.