Tuesday, February 13, 2007

on the carnival road again

I forgot to include one memorable moment in the last week. For ages I’d been hearing about a neighbor of mine who lives directly across the street. My landlady had said, “if you are interested in carnival, you really have to talk to Raudy! And then, as I was buying vegetables from the platanero, another neighbor said, “You know, Raudy really loves carnival too. You should talk to him.” I agreed, but said I hadn’t met him yet, so the neighbor, El Rubio, offered to take me over right away. After the vegetables were safely stowed, I took him up on his offer.

It was a sort of bizarre experience, going into the house across the street, because while it looked normal size on the outside, on the inside it seemed to keep going on and on. Part of the effect was because there were so many things in the house, and El Rubio agreed, “this is the museum of the neighborhood!” A wooden elephant four feet tall, figurines aplenty, a collection of the hooks used to close the huge old doors on Santiago Victorians, paintings leaning against the walls stacked five deep. It all made sense when I found out the master of the house, Raudy, was an interior designer who hosted his own design show on TV.

Besides all the objets d’art, there were also quite a number of people stuffed into the place. I couldn’t keep track of everyone, mostly because they kept coming and going: the front door was left permanently open, welcoming in the whole neighborhood – including me. Some random guy invited me to stay for lunch, which was just being served. Raudy’s table seated 14, and we nearly filled it between the family, the neighbors, the stragglers, and the two policemen seated next to me. No one seemed to think anything one way the other about me having just wandered in off the street for a free lunch.

Anyway, I did get to talk to Raudy for a few minutes about carnival. He is one of the best known Robalagallinas in Santiago, probably the only one known to the upper classes. Robalagallina is the traditional transvestite character played by a man in a voluminous dress with enormous breasts and buttocks strapped on underneath. He seemed to naturally be a very expansive and dramatic person who loves to be in the limelight, and was therefore perfect for taking on the robalagallina role (if you catch my drift - and some others who were at the table seemed to have done so). I liked him, and after finishing lunch, I made plans to come back and interview him at a later date.

On Friday I was just in a bad mood all day, having had to waste yet another half day sitting around in the mechanic’s workshop. So it was just as well that it rained hard that night, trapping me at home and thus saving me from all social obligations. I caught up on my sleep and was ready to face another day on Saturday, which was spent in carnival preparations. Tonito and I had decided that the best solution, since I hadn’t been able to bring last year’s costume back with me, was to buy a ready-made. A couple of women ran a costume shop out of their Pueblo Nuevo home, and Tonito had seen a finished one hanging outside that he thought might do the job.

We found it hanging with several others on one side of the street, along with a couple of masks in plastic bags. On the other side of the street, a couple dozen children’s sized masks hung on a wooden stand next to an open door. After debating for a time whether the costume was worth the price (they had started at 2000 pesos, but Tonito talked them down to 1500), we walked up the steep cement stairs and entered the costume shop through that open door.

It was really just a humble private home consisting of a cramped living space in front, now taken over by sewing machines, ironing boards, bowls full of bells and mirrors, and scraps of glittering fabric, a couple of bedrooms to our left, and presumably a kitchen at the back, from where a couple of girls and a scrawy butter-colored kitten were staring at us. A girl, about 19, was stiching away at the machine, and a very fleshy woman – covered only by a very threadbare tank top and boxer shorts – was at the ironing board They were apparently used to photo requests – US born Dominicans are the ultimate tourists, whipping out expensive cameras and video equipment at every opportunity, which was fine with me, since they had made my task of ethnographic documentation that much easier. Since Santiagueros pretty much always design their own lechon costumes, providing both for freedom of expression and for cost reduction, I imagined much of their production had to be bought up by visiting Dominican Yorks.

They had me try on the yellow and red jumpsuit decorated with sequined flower shapes in one of the bedrooms, where a four-year-old boy was sleeping. Clearly accostumed to sleeping through every type of noise and activity, neither the flickering lightbulb nor my jingle bells woke him up. The costume was big on me, but not drastically so, and we agreed to purchase it if only they would replace the broken zipper.

As they got to it, we decided to visit the mask-maker two doors down in another fairly ramshackle wooden structure. Here, the living room was decorated with competition masks created to be unusual and eye-catching, such as one with three horns and two bills, one on top of the other. On the table sat another one, just finished, featuring the faces of the three founding fathers set on a patriotic red, blue, and white ground – this one would actually be used in tomorrow’s parade. The other wall decorations consisted of a blue-eyed, cherubic baby Jesus and a photo of Dr. Joaquin Balaguer. Under this last item, a three-tiered end table held as many trinkets as could be kept their without pushing the others off: Elmo led an army of plastic cartoon characters on top, a crèche dominated the second shelf, and the bottom held a collection of bottles, many painted with abstract designs in astonishing color combinations.

Angelo, the mask-maker, had made the one I wore the year before, and he was eager to show me what he was up to now. He led me through the kitchen, past the patio, and into a back room that served as his workshop, apologizing for its disheveled state: just a day or two ago he had hurriedly finished the six masks he was entering in this year’s competition, leaving a trail of paper and glitter behind. He showed me his two principal molds, one pepinero and one joyero, one of clay and one of plaster. But he had also made a brand-new mold this year for a group of transvestites from Yaguita. Together, he and they had designed their costume, dressing up a small plastic doll in a bright red dress. The face was that of an old woman, and he had molded it in clay. Once that was dry and fit for use, he set papier-mache over the mold to make the masks.

He was anxious to talk more about his work, and was proud to tell me that pictures of his masks had appeared in several books, one written by visitors from Chicago! I really must come back to talk further, he said; how about Wednesday? “OK, but what time should I come?” I wondered. “Any time. If you come in the morning, I’ll have coffee for you. If you come in the afternoon, I’ll save some lunch for you. If you come late in the evening, I don’t know, I’ll have some juice or something.” We agreed on 11 AM and the coffee, and then I picked up my finished costume and went on to do my errands.

I was scheduled to go to the town of Cotui the next day, Sunday, to see their famous carnival charactesr, the papeluses. But that night the folklorist from Cotui called me back to tell me it was really better if I could come on the 27th instead. On Independence Day, all the groups would be out, while this week only a few groups would, and they were mostly children. I agreed to the change in plans, although it left me at loose ends. Since I hadn’t been planning on joining Los Confraternos in costume this time, I hadn’t gone to buy the sequined fabric, mirrors, and trim, that Tonito had recommended in order to fill in the empty space on the back. Nevertheless, when I called him the next morning, Tonito told me to go to his house and we would “come up with something.”

I did, and we did. Tonito’s living room was already awash in fabric scraps, spools of thread, and bags of trim, much like the costume shop we’d visited yesterday. I suggested he could open his own carnival business. “Ohhhhh no,” he said decisively. “I am NOT going to make my money of off THIS.” It was definitely a lot of hassle and frustration, especially for non-professional tailors, as we noticed over the next hour and a half. Tonito did manage to get his sad-looking sewing machine working enough to stick some trim on, but not without also stitching the back of the costume to the front of it in a couple of spots. In spite of its slapdashedness, the sequined triangles we’d put together actually looked pretty spiffy when we were done. The five ten-year-old boys who’d lined up to watch the show agreed.

Everything felt strangely familiar to me as we rushed out of the door at 3:10, about an hour after we’d meant to join the parade, and over to Betania’s to zip on our costumes, roll on our morcillas and strap on our masks. Tonito helped me on with the morcilla, the stuffed cummerbund, since it was still too troublesome for me to do alone. My new green one turned out to be much longer, taking up much more of my torso than I was used to. When Tonito came to help I told him that it would go around six times, and he told me, “That’s how it should be. It always goes around a good lechon six times.” Imagine my mirth, then, when a few minutes later he put his own morcilla on, and it only went around five times. “Only five! What does that mean?” I asked pointedly. “It means I had a bad tailor,” Tonito stated in his own defense.

So eventually we did make it out to the parade, although our group had been unable to find the banner with our name written on it in large, friendly letters, and also this year we had no money for a disco lite, and also we had no water and only one security guy. Well, things weren’t exactly like last year, but at least we were all together! And although my costume didn’t match the rest, I had a loaner mask that did. The only problem was that it was too big for me and so the lower edge kept knocking against my windpipe as I frolicked and the eye-holes would slip down to cheek level so that, in order to see out, I had to lift my chin and peer down my nose in the style of a stereotypical librarian. Again, a small price to pay to be literally back on the road.

Since we still were still in protest mode and avoiding the Las Carreras parade route in order to annoy the authorities, today’s route took us through Pueblo Nuevo, then Baracoa and La Joya, and back up through Pueblo Nuevo and continued on to a grand finale in front of the baseball stadium. (It had actually started up in Ensanche Bermudez, but we joined it as it passed by our HQ.) The nice thing about this route was that it took us right by Plaza Valerio, a square in the middle of La Joya that was were the lechones of old once would come together in order to beat the crap out of one another. I felt a little nostalgic, but I was also glad I had nothing more to fear from my fellow lechones than an ear-splitting whipcrack.

As I walked, I was thinking, “what do I feel about this? What will I write about this?” And the thing is that nothing really happens while you are a lechon on the street, or at least, what is happening continues to keep happening in such a way that you feel as if nothing particularly newsworthy is going on. You zip on you costume, pull up the hood, fix the elastic straps of the mask around your head, and you go. You do the lechon step, trying to remember the feel of the shoulders, knees, and torso that you had tried so hard to perfect last year. You try to maintain a safe distance from the guy with the whip in front of you, you try to keep aware of the flaws in the pavement ahead of you since you can’t really look down, you notice the sweat pouring down your chest, you keep trying to put one foot in front of the other.

You listen for music to find a beat you can move to, and you wonder if you should go with the music ahead of you or the music behind you, because they are melding together and you can’t really separate them in your head anymore. You try to get a look at the other groups and what their costumes look like, and if you are the only gringo lechon, you also peer into people’s houses and around corners to see what their lives look like. You relish the fact that people can’t tell you are American when your mask is on and you can blend into the crowd, and you also enjoy the moment of surprise on their faces when you take your mask off for a moment to wipe the sweat from your brow.

With the mask off, I got a better look around and got to say hello to some of my friends from last year, including Polanquito, the 75-year-old powerhouse. I watched the group right behind us for a while, a carnival band consisting of snare and bass drums, güira, and one-note metal trumpets, whose banner stated that they were known as “Los Charles Chaplin” as well as a friendly invitation accompanied by a lifesaver and an anchor: “Welcome aboard!” I wasn’t quite sure of the connection between drum ensembles, classic slapstick, and ships, but I enjoyed their catchy rhythms and dance steps anyhow. I also then received the attentions of several of the small boys from the neighborhood who had tagged along with us. If you can’t be a lechon yourself, the next best thing is to attach yourself to a lechon and become his or her attendant. They vied for the opportunity to carry my mask for me whenever it came off. I also sent them to buy water for me as we passed a colmado.

At around 6:00 we made it up to the baseball stadium, which had been generally designated as a meeting place for all groups to party together at the end. That was all fine and dandy, but I was starving and couldn’t think of anything but food. Scanning the horizon in the manner of a lion hunting out a gazelle, I fixed on a fried food cart on the sidewalk outside the stadium area. It was the only food in sight so I made a beeline to it and bought myself a fried yuca ball.

It hit the spot but wasn’t enough. Luckily, I then spotted a Haitian peanut vendor amidst the crowd and purchased myself a five-peso sack, which I shared with a couple of my friends. But as I’d just given the last few to Polanquito, a lechon I didn’t know came up and asked for some. I showed him the bag was empty, and then he started to lecture me on “Haitian peanuts” and how I really should be careful about them because the Haitians “might blow on them” and do some kind of weird voodoo thing. I told him that was ridiculous, people just said things like that out of prejudice, and he became annoyed with me, yelling for a minute and then walking off empty-handed. But the real question here is, why had he been actually asking to eat the voodoo hex peanuts?

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