Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Carnival, part 1: La Vega

Things quieted down for a few days after my Batey visit. I spent Thursday at the Centro Leon, writing things up and getting organized. On Friday, I visited Chiqui’s mom in the hospital once again, and then had several things fixed on my car: the hatch back, which wouldn’t close; a back door, which wouldn’t open; a new gas filter; a field trip to various auto parts stores in search of a new oil cap. On Saturday, I paid some more visits, first to Tonito, from my carnival group, and then to Hector and Denio, of my palos group.

Sunday was far more action-packed. Being the first Sunday of February, it was also the official start of the carnival season. And since this year I am trying to visit some different carnivals, a friend from the Centro Leon had set up a meeting for me with a member of the carnival planning committee in La Vega.

If you read my blog last year, you might remember something about the Vegan carnival, the biggest and best-funded in the land. (If you don’t remember, you can always go back and look at the February 2006 archives.) Most Dominicans seem to thing that it is a model event, one that could serve as an example to other cities’ carnivals, but I had some concerns about commercialism and participation. It seemed to me that with all the rules the carnival committee placed on participants, and with the rising costs of costumes and masks that necessitated ever more attention paid to fundraising, the Vegan carnival didn’t allow for the kind of popular participation and freedom of expression that Santiago’s did. I wanted to see for myself how the thing worked.

I arrived at the Parque Duarte, the main square in the old part of La Vega, just before noon. Although I’d been to the national park at the ruins of Old La Vega, and to Santo Cerro, a pilgrimage site just out of town, I’d never had an opportunity to look around La Vega itself. On the south side of this square I could see the Concepcion cathedral, an odd-looking modernist structure that seemed half-finished, but was actually complete. On the east side was the Ayuntamiento, or City Hall, and on the north was the Centro de la Cultura, on whose porch I decided to stand. A stall selling crafts had been set up there, and bags with wooden and bamboo beadwork, painted gourds, coconut-shell jewelry, and satchels painted with carnival devils were for sale.

A few minutes later my guide, William Gil, arrived, and we began our tour. The “carnival zone” was to the east of us, so we left my car parked on the square and headed in that direction. The sounds of carpentry were everywhere, since all the carnival groups were still busy constructing their “cuevas,” or headquarters and staging areas.

William confirmed that there had been no groups of devils before the 1980s, when “Los Siete” first formed. Today there are, he estimates, somewhere in the neighborhood of 130 groups, including Los Broncos, a group that grew out of Los Siete. Some of the groups belong to different parts of town, as in Santiago; others, like Los Magoyos, are family affairs. One, called “Los Yankees,” is made up entirely of Veganos in New York, and it was to this cueva that we went first.

The name “cave” is somewhat misleading as applied to these structures. They were really more of a patio, I commented, since they are made up of raised seating areas, a bar or refreshment stand, and some kind of shading device, all decorated with some sort of devilish theme related to the group’s costume, but mostly covered in the logos of the group’s sponsor. Each group receives not only their costumes and masks from the sponsor, but also drinks, the cueva, and even payment for their performance. Quite a contrast to what we deal with in Santiago!

In spite of the rampant commercialism, there is still a lot of creativity in display. Instead of simply putting up a tent-like shelter from the sun, like the others, one group had strung up a net and festooned it with white umbrellas. They also had a giant tower, about 30 feet high, featuring the tiger head that is the emblem of Las Fieras (The Furies). One had made a castle with a devil’s head about the gate and two costumed dancing figures. But I particularly liked the Yankees, who had painted a mural of the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline (post-September 11), and whose emblem was a skull wearing red, white, and blue glasses, Grateful Dead style.

We stopped to talk with a couple of members of Los Nietos. This group belonged to Soto, a semi-rural area west of town, and had chosen their name – “The Grandsons” – because they were all young boys when they started. They reported that their costumes this year had cost about 16,000 pesos ($500) and weighed about 9 pounds, without the mask.

The carnival zone covers an area of about ten blocks, packed with cuevas, stages belonging to various sponsors (I saw one for Orange wireless) and official organizations (including radio, TV, and the Ayuntamiento), food stands, and wandering vendors selling tiny versions of devils’ masks, vejigas wrapped in colorful fabrics for you to whack your friends with, whistles, drinks, and snacks. Since, William told me, things usually get going around 2 PM we thought we had better get to our seats before then if we wanted to avoid the vejigazos.

One of the things for which La Vega is most famous is the violence of its vejigazos, or whacks with an inflated pig bladder. We dole these out in Santiago as well, but in La Vega they have made several adjustments to their equipment in order to give a more painful experience. First, they put several bladders one inside of the other to make them stronger and harder. These are wrapped in fabric to make them match the costumes, and the whole thing is then attached to a rubber rod to allow for greater precision and speed. The pain they could inflict was legendary, and to be quite honest, I was scared. I wanted to enjoy carnival, but I didn’t want to suffer for it for the whole week after, and I was assured that that was how long the bruises would last.

In order to avoid this sorry fate, William made sure I was well out of the line of fire, but I discussed the problem with him.

“But why do they want to hit so hard? I don’t see what’s fun about that,” I said.

“Well, it’s a peculiarity of the veganos. It’s how we enjoy our carnival. The vejigazos make us feel happy.”

“Happy?! Why, are veganos masochists? I don’t see how pain translates into joy.”

“They say that the devils hit us in order to get rid of all the evil we’ve accumulated during the year. That’s how the vejigazos got started, centuries ago.”

“Sure, but carnival doesn’t seem particularly religious these days.”

“No, definitely not. But that’s the tradition.”

I was still confused about how a vejigazo could bring joy – until I saw my first one. There was a raised ramp in front of the Ayuntamiento stage on which we were seated, and every so often, devils would parade down it. One onlooker was standing on it talking to a friend, unaware that a devil was coming up behind him. Noticing his distraction, the devil got a running start, wound up, and WHAM! The vejiga slammed into his back with a resounding crack. The man jumped and turned around, shouting expletives at the devil as the devil danced around him. Everyone around laughed, both in amusement at his misfortune and relief that we had escaped it. It was pretty funny. “Ah, what joy!” I exclaimed. “Aha! Now you understand,” William laughed.

Still, I wasn’t eager to experience the pain myself. I’d recommend to anyone attending carnival in La Vega to keep well out of the way. There appear to be two ways to do this: either arrive early, around 1:00. and find yourself a seat on the bleachers, or pay to enjoy the VIP seating provided for a cost of from fifty to three hundred pesos ($1.50-$9) in the cuevas. There, you can enjoy beverage service, too.

Since it was only the first day of carnival, just a fraction of the groups turned out in costume, and it took them quite a while to do so. We were waiting until after three, so I took advantage of the time to ask William a few more questions. For example, I had already seen several women in devil garb; when had they started dressing up? William explained that a group called “Las Amazonas” formed entirely of women had come out in the 1990s. No one believed that they were women at first, since it had never been seen before – it was practically a taboo. After they had made the circuit of the parade route, people did believe, because they moved differently than the men and tired faster in the heavy costumes. But now that the younger generation has grown up with female devils and the women have become accustomed to the job, there is virtually no difference, and women belong to many different groups today.

I also wanted to know about the comparsas, or semi-theatrical groups who go out at carnival time dressed as things other than devils. He told me that the number of comparsas had been dramatically reduced in the past two decades. Now he estimated that there were only five, compared to 130 grupos de diablos, whereas formerly, the former had outnumbered the latter.

What had caused this dramatic reduction? I wanted to know. “Money,” he told me frankly. “Since the creation of UCAVE, the Union Carnavalesca Vegana, carnival has become a business.” With the formation of this association of groups came more money from corporate sponsors, and what they wanted were colorful, impressive, expensive-looking costumes. They wanted devils, not Indians in loincloths, or Africans with body paint, or people dressed up to look like the President – all comparsas commonly found throughout the country. What’s more, comparsas generally belong to the poor, and there was little room for them in the new scheme of things.

“So the costumes became more impressive, but the comparsas died out. You gained something only to lose something else,” I suggested. He agreed. While UCAVE didn’t discourage comparsas to participate, they didn’t exactly encourage them either, since there was no money there. Back in Santiago, I asked a friend who had studied such things who it was, exactly, who participated in the Vegan carnival these days. “The children of the rich,” he told me. So the rich become richer, and the poor poorer. Sounds familiar.

Nonetheless, there were some distinctive comparsas on display on Sunday. There were the mudmen, a bunch of barefoot kids, actually, who had covered their entire bodies with yellowish mud, including their faces, which had first been obscured by a pantyhose mask. They stalked about zombie-style, and just generally looked creepy. There was also a seven-foot-tall headless priest, and the pope riding about in a chariot pulled by a white horse: a Dominican popemobile. There were even a couple of africanos, nearly naked but slicked down with engine grease and body paint, another low-budget costume. I also saw the man riding the doll, another old standby, and a troupe of Robalagallinas, the traditional transvestive character with huge buttocks and a tattered umbrella.

The rest were devils. And having said what I needed to say about them already, now I must state that they are undeniably beautiful and impressive. They come in every possible color combination, but all have voluminous costumes made of layers upon layers of artfully cut satins, lames, and sequined fabrics studded with just a few bells – not enough to make them as heavy as ours in Santiago. The masks have grown to monstrous proportions, at least two feet tall each, molded in acrylic and painted in fluorescent and metallic colors. Most depict a grimacing devil with angry brows and fearsome fangs, sprouting horns, sculpted hair and beard, and sometimes ostrich feathers out of its head.

There are a few variations on this traditional devil face, however: some with bug eyes look like extraterrestrials borrowed from “Alien Autopsy,” occasionally with pink brains on view. One group, called “Los Zorros,” had their devils wearing a flat-topped Spanish hat. And there were a dozen King Tuts sculpted in gold and lapis colors. With between ten and fifty in each group jumping and running about, the devils make quite an impression. Yet instead of the colorful, custom-made shoes we use in Santiago, they have matching, store-bought tennis shoes, usually in colors to match the costume. They may not be as creative, but they did look comfortable.

Each group is preceded by a bevy of flag-wavers bearing their standard, and many have their own theme-songs, another benefit of sponsorship. I was a little surprised, however, to find that just like in Santiago, Veganos have no concept of traditional carnival music. William didn’t remember anything about music before the formation of devil groups in the 1980s, just as I had found with the lechones in Santiago. The groups’ official songs are likely to be electronic dance music overlaid with vocals exhorting the group, “Dame un vejigazo.” I found this particularly interesting since the Vegan politicians I’d seen talking about their carnival at the Centro Leon last year had made a big deal over the fact that they don’t allow any disco lites, the pickups mounted with speakers we use to provide music in the Santiago carnival. While I had thought their beef was with the popular music they play, apparently, it was only with the look of the thing.

So it seems that the Vegan concept of “tradition” relies solely on visuals, not on sound – and even then, significant allowances are made. Twenty-plus years ago, masks were about the same size as one’s normal face, costumes were far simpler, and one imagines, sneakers were not in evidence. And while the officials had said they were proud not to have t-shirts and baseball caps on their carnival groups, at least on this first Sunday of February, that is exactly what I saw. Many were on hand in the shirts they’d designed to represent their groups of devils this year, and in the cuevas, you could even buy one for yourself.

In conclusion, the Carnaval de la Vega is well worth seeing. The costumes are beautiful, the cuevas creative, and the audience is into it. William also tells me that it is the carnival with the most popular support, never dying out over the centuries it has been practiced, even during the repressive years of Trujillo and Balaguer. But for a folklorist, it’s a mixed bag. Every carnival in the country is different now than it was fifty or a hundred years ago, naturally. People’s creativity is everywhere in evidence in the changing costumes, masks, and, particularly, musical choices. Yet in La Vega, the conflict between the maintenance of tradition and the drive to commercialize and cater to tourism is particularly in evidence. So go and see La Vega, but try to catch another as well – Cotui, Salcedo, or good old Santiago – in order to see what happens when regular folks are able to make their own decisions about carnival.

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