On Saturday night, I had sort of vaguely been planning on heading to Rancho Merengue to hear Kinito Mendez. It was an out-of-the-ordinary event for RM, as Kinito is not a típico musician but an orquesta one who has become famous for his fusions with palos music. I was curious to see him live, although I was also kind of tired from our late night in Moca the night before. At any rate, my dilemma over evening plans was solved for me when I received a call from my friend Denio of the palos group, Grupo Mello. They were planning on rehearsing tonight and would like me to come. So I decided to exchange expensive commercial palos for free down-home palos. The exchange paid off in the form of some balsie practice, the learning of some new coros, and of course, beer, rum, and conversation.
I couldn’t party too much though, since Sunday was the final day of Santiago’s carnival and I needed to be well-rested in order to endure the rigors of the parade route. As usual, I went early to Tonito’s house to do some last-minute preparations. Tonito was of course doing the same: he and his son had decided to use white costumes from a few years back, loaning last year’s golden models to those who wanted to dress up but couldn’t afford costumes of their own. This meant they had to glue back on all the bells and buttons that had been stripped from the old costumes for recycling, fill in empty spaces with scraps of glitter fabric and sequined trim, and re-cover an old morcilla (the tube-shaped cummerbund) in sequin and lame remnants. The last part was the funniest: when the morcilla was unwrapped and laid out, it reached all the way from the living room into the kitchen, and I compared it to an anaconda in the jungle. Getting the tube of fabric Tonito had prepared onto it involved the efforts of four people, bucket brigade-style.
There had been no time for me to get my own whip, but it was just as well: after last week’s practice I’d woken the next day with intense neck and shoulder pain. I could suffer plenty without that added burden. My newly-purchased bladders, now, thankfully, dried out and mostly smell-free, would be enough for me. Over at Betania’s we all got dressed, a much larger group now than at any of the previous events. One was a kid who had grown up in New York but was sent back here four years ago after getting mixed up in some trouble at school. He was anxious to practice his English with me, and hopes to go back to NY soon to finish high school and then attend college. Jose was also there. He told me that some of the other groups of lechones have numerous New York members who come back specifically for carnival; back in the Big Apple they have stateside branches of the group in order to dress up and participate in New York’s carnival and Dominican Day parades.
The previous day had been cool and breezy, so I’d been hoping Sunday would be the same, but no such luck. It was a hot one and I was sweating and thirsty inside my suit before we even started. There was a lot more waiting around this week, as all the groups attempted to get in line in a somewhat orderly fashion along Av. Imbert, while news reporters weaved their way in and out, looking for comments on the “situation.”
Here’s the situation: last year, differences between the Federation of (barrio) carnival groups and the Carnival Committee of (wealthy) official types were finally resolved in the last week, and all the groups ended up following the designated parade route along Las Carreras and around the Monument area. This year, the differences worsened and the governor of Santiago refused to negotiate with the Federation; thus, all Federation member groups agreed not to parade on the official route in protest. Instead we would parade through the barrios where carnival has always had a home and the support of the people, and where, some argued, the “true” carnival still existed. In effect, this served to divide the celebration into two carnivals this year, one for the rich and one for the poor, something that hasn’t been seen since the days of the “Carnaval Social” in the elite Centro de Recreo during the Trujillo era.
The only groups that went up to the monument area were the random, unorganized groups that always appear on the last day, the officially sponsored floats, and the few groups of lechones that do not belong to the Federation who have their own sources of funding and do not belong to the Federation. If this had happened in New York, the giant inflatable rat would surely have made an appearance, greeting them all at the Monument.
At any rate, we counted are Carnaval Barrial a success. We made the point we intended to make, and we brought carnival to the people. The people liked. I even ran into my friend, folklorist Rafael Almanzar, down by the Plaza Valerio. (As a good leftie, he was conscience-bound to attend our carnival and not the other.) The only bad moment was when, coming down a sidestreet, we passed a badly decaying animal carcass of some sort, and then got stuck in a carnival traffic jam when right in the midst of that ungodly stench. It was not as bad as the fresh bladders in my car, but close, and there was no relief other than a lechon sleeve over the nose.
Our route took us once again through the traditional carnival barrios of Pueblo Nuevo, Baracoa, and La Joya. As night fell, we arrived back at Betania’s, and one of our helpers jumped on top of their wall to make a speech detailing how we could be proud because we’d just done something unmentionable to the governor in an unmentionable spot. We cheered.
No one knows where carnival will take us next year, or if there will be water to drink there, but plans are already underway for the costume we will use.
The next morning, I crossed the street to visit my neighbor, Raudy, the Robalagallina. As a member of the Santiago elite he had naturally been at the “other” carnival and expressed his disappointment that I hadn’t been able to see him in costume. I didn’t feel like getting into a political argument, so I shrugged and said I was also sorry he hadn’t been able to see me in costume. We both smiled in agreement of our disagreement. He was on his way to the Gran Gala de Carnaval in the capital, and told me that he could provide me with tickets for me and my friends if I came. I did feel that, after all my barrio carnival experience, I should see the other face of the festivities, so I decided to make the trip. Over the last few weeks I’ve had a lot of work done on the car, and so I though it would be good to put it to a road test. I felt sure the Falcon would pass, what with its new battery, brake tank, lights, rotors, CV boots, oil, oil cap, and gas filter. After lunch, a few hasty phone calls, and an alignment and tire rotation for my car, the Falcon and I were on our way.
We made it fine to the capital, although it took as long to cover the last kilometer in Gazcue than it had to go the previous 60 k. This was because of the construction of the Metro, whose future tunnel passes just a few blocks from where I usually stay, meaning that half of the Av. Maximo Gomez is currently missing. But we did make it eventually, just in time to meet my friend Dario for a hasty dinner purchased from the Supermercado Nacional’s cafeteria and pick up his friend, Marta, before going to the Teatro Nacional.
I thought Raudy had said the show would start at 8:00, but Dario assured me that everything in this theater started promptly at 8:30. In fact, he told me, there had been a whole series of commercials stating this fact a few months back, in an effort to get people to show up on time rather than on Dominican time. The only thing was that we needed to be there early if we wanted to get the tickets from Raudy, and it was 8:26 when we picked up Marta. I was a little worried. I was a little more worried when I couldn’t get ahold of Raudy on either of his two cell phones (“in case one doesn’t get a signal,” he’d told me). I was still more worried when the ushers told us they didn’t have our tickets and they couldn’t get Raudy for us as the show had started at 8. But luck was with us: a manager took pity on us and let us go up to the balcony. Still luckier: when we got into the theater, we found the house lights were still on. Apparently, things hadn’t started yet. As we took our seats, the emcee was making an announcement to the effect that, because so many people had arrived late, they had been forced to delay the show a half an hour.
The performance consisted of a couple of introductory dance numbers, one provided by Ocean World park near Puerto Plata and featuring sea-inspired costumes, and another that was a sort of modern dance/merengue number with a background of lechones, provided by the Santiago group of Los Tuaregs. Then there was a competition between five towns: Bonao, Santo Domingo, Puerto Plata, San Francisco de Macoris, and Santiago. Each had brought a “comparsa” (they called them that, even though they didn’t in the least resemble the semi-theatrical carnival street troupes that the term usually refers to) that performed about six minutes of choreography on a certain theme in elaborate costumes.
Bonao’s was “Soy Dominicano,” so they were naturally costumed in red, white, and blue, and performed mostly merengue moves. The tambora was used as a central symbol, and giant cutouts of accordion and güira also appeared on stage. In the middle of the piece, the dancers went offstage and out came ice cream vendors ringing their bells, a guy talking on his cell phone while buying fruit, etc, to the great amusement of the audience. Santo Domingo’s theme was simply “Fantasia,” a catch-all term used for anything that doesn’t fall into any traditional carnival theme but that captures its colorful exuberance. Both costumes and choreography were nice to see, but it didn’t really say anything. Puerto Plata’s was the most confusing, as it seemed to be a sort of a South Pacific theme that combined tiki masks, a smoking volcano, and grass skirts, but it also gave you the most to look at. San Francisco de Macoris had a religious theme, with a living Madonna on a platform and the dancers in white, even featuring a section of palos music (but which seemed to have little to do with the movements or costumes that accompanied it).
And finally, Santiago, whose theme was its own carnival. A single lechon posed on stage with whip in hand as a film projected on the wall behind showed scenes of busy streets like Las Carreras and the Monument. Then the dancers emerged, their costumes evocative of lechones, Nicolas Den Den, and the Indios; near the end, a comical Robalagallina even made an appearance.
I enjoyed the show, because the choreography was interesting and the dancers were quite good. But I was a bit confused as to what it all had to do with carnival – or at least, what it had to do with Dominican carnival. The costumes consisted principally of spangled bikinis and feathered headdresses, or Carmen Miranda-esque ruffled gowns. I really didn’t see anything that resembled anything one would see in the streets of this country in February until we got to the Santiago number. But, I guess that is a difference between the carnivals of the elite and the carnivals of the barrios. The winners were announced: for choreography, Puerto Plata; for costumes, Santiago; third place overall San Francisco, second place Santiago (the crowd near me, mostly members of Los Tuaregs, went wild), and first, Puerto Plata. I guess they voted in favor of spectacle over theme.
After the show, we mingled with the elite and the intelligentsia. The Secretary of Culture was there; the great folklorist Dagoberto was there; a couple of very tall transvestites in absolutely incredible tiered and embroidered dresses were there with an entourage of the flamboyantly gay. The scene in the lobby was almost better than what we’d seen on the stage. By the time we exited, Raudy was already on the bus with the Tuaregs, ready to head back to Santiago, but we managed to at least say hello before they left. After that, a beer at our local colmado – accompanied by a new flavor of Lay’s, “pescado con coco.” It tasted like coconut, sure, but I wasn’t sure about the fish part.