On Tuesday I took my runny nose and achy head for an outing. We went down to the meeting of the carnaval associacion in the barrio of Pueblo Nuevo in order to meet some of the other lechones, old and new. They have weekly reunions in a community hall decorated with AA posters, cartoon characters, a big plaster statue of the Virgin, and vocabulary words for kids in order to discuss matters of Carnaval economics and intergroup frictions. It started off in a very picturesque and very Santiago manner, since the power was out. I briefly interviewed Umberto, a lechon with 48 years of experience, out on the sidewalk as the sun went down. When we finished it was too dark to see, and someone had to go inside to feel around for some spare candles. Once found, the meeting got started inside by candlelight.
Four official types sat at a table in front: the president of the association, a young guy; Umberto; Polanquito, a tiny 75-year-old with a seemingly unlimited supply of lechon energy; and the head of the traditional comparsa of the Indios. About 15 others were scattered around the room, one representative of each local carnival group; Jose Reyes, representing the unaffiliated lechones; the woman who will – gender atypically - play Nicolas the Bear this year; and me, who technically should not have been allowed since Betania was already there to represent my group, Los Confraternos. But they let me hang out anyway an eavesdrop. Tonight the main issues were: what to do about the abysmal money situation, and consequently what to do about the parade route.
Apparently, the city-wide Federation of carnival groups receives a large sum of money from various sponsors in order to make carnival happen, and a large portion of this is meant to be doled out in small sums to the various carnival groups, to help cover expenses such as rental of the “disco light” (local term for a truck with speakers and DJ mounted in the bed) and purchase of water for participants. No money this year has made it to any of the groups, all of which consist of people at the lowest rungs of Santiago’s socioeconomic ladder – except for one. Los Jardines Metropolitanos, the comfortably middle-class neighborhood where I myself live, have their own group lechones, who seldom see eye to eye with the rest of the city’s carnivalescos. The fact that most groups complained about the lack of financial support caused Los Jardines to accuse them of “being in it for the money,” an accusation that couldn’t be more ridiculous considering the fact that even with the sponsor funds, the costs of costumes and masks are completely separate and must either come out of participants’ own pockets or whatever they are able to make through fundraising dances and raffles. (Our representative at the Federation meeting also told us the Jardines group kept calling the rest of us ‘barriobajeros,’ a condescending term meaning ‘those from the low neighborhoods,’ and that he was frankly tired of it.) Even beyond the mismanagement of money, the Federation has other problem: the committee of carnival heads, almost all members of Santiago’s either intellectual or economic elite, have still not fulfilled their social obligation of naming a Carnival queen or designating a day for the final parade and costume competition.
All of these problems have led the groups to decide on a boycott of Las Carreras boulevard and the Monument area, which is where carnival activities traditionally are meant to take place. This was a nearly unanimous decision, the only dissenting voice coming from – you guessed it – Los Jardines. Thus, last Sunday when the rest of us were in Los Ciruelitos, the Jardineros were all alone on Las Carreras! At any rate, this week the decision was to take Carnaval to a different barrio. Everyone would meet in the park of the neighborhood Ensanche Bolivar, head down through our home base of Pueblo Nuevo, finishing up on Las Hermanas Mirabal, a tree-lined divided avenue that is the western half of Las Carreras. From there, we of course would not continue down Las Carreras but follow our own routes back home. Business concluded, everyone rearranged their chairs into a circle for a more informal chat. This went on for about another hour, during which I was introduced to all. Afterwards, I made arrangements to meet up with a few of the protagonists later in the week for interviews and we all went along our merry ways.
Typically, the planned-on interviews did not pan out, but another one did. I dropped in on Ellys, the first woman to dress up, to talk to her about her experiences as a lechona. This was satisfyingly informative. For the rest of the week, I mostly just laid low, reading and writing at home in the hopes of recovering for Sunday’s activity.
My second acalentamiento and the first official day of Carnaval here in the DR went much better for me than the last one, since I finally seemed to have kicked the cold/flu/Martian death virus that I’d been wrestling with. Los Confraternos convened at Betania’s house, our official HQ. We’d decided not to meet the rest in Parque Bolivar – since after leaving the park the parade route would pass right by the house, it seemed pointless to go up only to come back down. Our costumes were far from ready – a visit to the tailor on Friday found that out of the 6 or 7 complete costumes we’d ordered, only 2 legs had been completed - but we all had official Confraternos t-shirts to wear. The 9 lechones, myself included, wore red; the teenage dancing girls wore grey and green; and our security force wore classic black. Jose Reyes also decided to join our team for the day, since the other independent lechones seemed not to be dressing up today. Some of the guys helped him put on his heavy costume, rum was broken out, the kids practiced cracking the whips as loudly as possible, and then… we waited. And waited. And waited. Betania’s husband Julio had taken off to go search out a “disco light” for us and the quest didn’t seem to be going well.
When the first revelers began to pass by, we decided we’d better get ourselves ready anyway. Two of the girls took the official banner and positioned themselves in front. After these went the ten or so dancing girls with their t-shirts knotted at midriff height, then the lechones with whips, and then those of us who were going whipless. A line of security got behind us, and a few others went up front and at the sides, though with the bottles of rum they were passing around, I wasn’t sure how much help they would be in the event of a carnivalesque emergency.
After at least half the parade went by, at last Julio made his appearance, together with a DJ and a bunch of speakers bungee-corded into the back of a rather ramshackle pickup. Woo-hoo! Finally we could get the show on the road, and we fell into the line of action – only 2 hours later than the planned meeting time of 2:30. But this actually turned out to be a good thing, as the searing heat of 3 PM had been replaced by a pleasant breeze can light cloud cover. It took another two hours to complete the route. We danced to our disco light past parts of Pueblo Nuevo I’d never seen, with brightly-painted wooden houses no different from the ones one sees way out in the country and tiny sidewalk food stalls that strangely reminded me of some 3-foot-wide soup and crepe restaurants I’ve seen in Soho. It was actually a very pleasant route, and all the participants seemed to know most of the barrio children and parents that were out to watch the show. Our feet got tired, but the endless supply of rum and little baggies of water kept us going.
When we got down to Las Hermanas Mirabal, it became a major traffic jam. It was barely a parade anymore, and more of a standing-around-in-place type of thing. I greeted our rear neighbors, Los Muertos, who in their black capes, hats, and white face paint would easily fit into any Halloween party. Los Condes, a group wearing a variety of military uniforms, greeted me, as I’d met the leader at Tuesday’s meeting. We bought some ice cream from a Haitian vendor. I met the man who made my mask. Everyone’s disco light music got all mixed up. We held up traffic. Jose and the other lechones in costume alternately frightened and entertained small children. We generally had a good time. I didn’t see Los Jardines.
Eventually, we made it down and back the avenue, and then everyone went their separate ways. Los Confraternos followed a circuitous route back into Pueblo Nuevo. Going up a hill, we began to notice a strong burning smell. Some part of the truck was definitely aflame. We made it as far as a dusty, low-lying street probably prone to flooding where one of our members lived and then called it an evening, at least as far as the sad pickup was concerned. As the sun went down, though, it seemed like we might as well take advantage of the DJ and so he kept spinning tunes for us to dance to – carnival merengues, reggaeton, and finally some típico. We got down until the last of the rum finally disappeared, and then the guys got together to give the truck a push-start (it didn’t seem to work particularly well) before hoofing it back to Betania’s. All in all, I think it could be considered a job well done.
On Tuesday I returned to the Centro Leon for an afternoon availing myself of their library, reading an interesting book about the African roots of Dominican vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar. Really, I was just biding time until the evening, when I would be able to continue my carnival education via a panel discussion on the more famous carnival of La Vega to be held on the Centro’s patio. And I was biding my time for quite a while since, unusually for this joint, this event was running on Dominican time. Anyway, eventually things got rolling. First La Vega’s military band played a rousing march, and the discussants took their seats. The panel consisted of Rafael Emilio, the Centro’s director; a lawyer and former king of the Vegan carnival; the head of Los Broncos, a seminal group of Vegan devils; and later on, an elected official of La Vega.
The Vegan carnival is a big deal here because it has the first documented instance of carnival in the New World, making it a 500-year-old tradition, and it’s therefore gotten recognition from UNESCO as a heritage site. Consequently, it gets more tourists than any other Dominican carnival, necessitating the construction of a “Diablodromo” (like Rio’s Sambadrome), and the inversion of gazillions of corporate dollars. Before 1980, there were only individual devils and no groups, and masks were made of papier-mache like ours in Santiago. In 1980, Los Broncos formed, started making group costumes (the same design and colors for all members) and looking for funding. Trying to make the masks more impressive, they started using animal teeth in the mouth instead of papier-mache ones. After some years of that, they moved on to acrylic ones. Today, the masks are acrylic and generally made by formally trained artists. The Broncos now number 44 members, and there are a ton of other groups just like them. Each person who participates in the parade wears an outfit that, together with the mask, runs upward of $40,000 pesos ($1300 US) and can only be used once. The money for these comes from sponsors like banks or beer companies. Afterwards, the costumes are sold to other towns in the region, which presumably recycle them by using them in their own carnivals the next year.
Carnival in La Vega is huge. Veganos are justly proud of it, particularly the devils themselves, who apparently throw epic parties in their “Cuevas,” group headquarters they construct anew each year. And the costumes are undeniably impressive, as we found out when nine members of the Broncos came out. Enormous, crazy masks with huge teeth, bloodshot eyes, and a crown of ostrich feathers. Puffy pants and sleeves and a sort of cape in the style of a Renaissance Spanish gentleman, made out of sequined fabric, brocades, metallics, and with jingly bells, so you know they’re coming with their bladders, to give you an enormous and painful vejigazo. Luckly, they didn’t hit us, just danced around to a carnival tune provided by the (literal) military brass.
Although I was thrilled by the Broncos costumes and amused by their antics, I started to feel uneasy during the question-and-answer session that followed. The Vega politician was proudly pointing out that “in the carnaval vegano, you won’t see any disco light, or t-shirts or baseball caps.” Then an audience member, a Santiaguera, asked how we in Santiago might be able to make our carnival more colorful and as successful as the Vegan one. Wait a minute… are they saying our carnival isn’t good enough? Is the Vegan carnival better because it’s more costly and less modern-looking? People seem to think the carnaval vegano is more traditional because it doesn’t have the sound systems and the team t-shirts. But is traditional defined more on looks or on sentiment? Carnavalescos in Santiago are participating in the way they always have – making their own decisions on what kind of music they want to hear, how to show their barrio pride, what kind of costumes will best express their carnival spirit and the current state of Dominican society and culture. Isn’t that “traditional,” even though it does include huge speaker towers blasting reggaeton and ugly old Chevy impalas carrying Muertos in polyester capes? I started getting nervous that people were going to try to change our carnaval, and that if I come back to participate in five years I’ll have to go ask Presidente beer for support first. If that’s the will of the people, then so be it, but what if that means that the Jardineros get their way in everything and the people who are the backbone of today’s carnival in Santiago – the poor and working-class – have no say in how they represent themselves? These are all big questions.
On Wednesday I took a day off from Carnival matters in order to pay Rafaelito a visit for purposes of a re-interview. I had a bunch of questions that had come up since the last time we did one, and I wanted to go over some terms I thought I understood but wanted to confirm. Eventually I had to go and get some lunch though, and when I came back his other musicians were arriving for a rehearsal. I stayed for it, wanting to hear some new tunes, and it also gave me the opportunity to find out more about the rhythms the congas play and how they interlock with the tambora.
On Thursday I was back to carnival business, however, since Rafael Almanzar, the local Santiago folklorist and a friend of mine, had invited me to come by and see a film they were showing at the Casa del Arte about carnival in San Cristobal. This was yet another whole new perspective on the business: while Santiago is the people’s carnival, and La Vega is the showy, expensive carnival, San Cristobal is a carnival revival. The guy who’d made the short film we saw had come up from San Cristobal to talk to us about it. He explained that in the 1970s he’d been involved in a local activist theater group, and while putting on a Bertolt Brecht, of all things, they got the idea of bringing carnival back to this city in which it had almost completely died out during the Balaguer years. (Balaguer had prohibited mask use during his 12-year rule, reasoning that the commies might be able to use them to commit their horrible acts of social equality in anonymity; this meant all mask-makers went out of business and many lost interest in carnival altogether.)
Carnival furthered the theater group’s political goals because it is the only celebration in which “the people” themselves are both actors and audience, and neither the state nor the church interfere (ideally). They decided to officially name the San Cristobal version the “Carnaval Popular,” underscoring the idea that, although corporate interests could get involved by contributing funds and selling their products to carnival goers, the only ones who would have a say in how the carnival actually went were the townspeople, the participants. It first took place in 1980 and is now going strong. All the usual carnival personages – Roba la Gallina, diablos, indios, africanos, etc – are well-represented; other older characters (el caiman, el toro) have been revived; and new characters make an appearance every year. Even the lechones are there, in a group started by a Santiaguera who moved down south. Well, it was an interesting film and an even more interesting talk, being that it contrasted so completely with what I’d seen and heard on Tuesday. Carnival certainly gives one a lot to think about.