We experienced a Carnival parade in Santo Domingo! It was a lot of fun. February is Carnival month in a lot of places in Latin America and of course Mardi Gras in New Orleans is very famous as well. Carnival here in Santo Domingo has some similarities, but many differences.
Both Mardi Gras and Carnival in Rio are associated with the one last fling before Lent, 40 days before Easter. One of the first differences in the Dominican Republic is that Carnival leads up to February 27th, which is Dominican Independence Day rather than Easter, Lent, etc.
Just for fun, let’s play a little Jeopardy:
Alex Trebek: February 27th is the day that the Dominican Republic gained their independence from this country.
Me: What is Spain?
Alex Trebek: I’m sorry that is incorrect. The correct answer is Haiti.
Yup, that’s right on February 27th 1844 the Dominican Republic gained independence from their western neighbor Haiti. Who knew? Well, probably people with a better grasp of history than me knew.
We were somewhat eased into the whole Carnival thing. There had been a growth in the number of advertisements, street decorations and other things leading up to Carnival. One of the shopping malls had a very good display showing the various types of masks and costumes used in Carnival. At the Museum of the Dominican Man there is a large part of the third floor of the museum dedicated to the Carnival celebration. So we had some background and idea of what was going to go on in Carnival.
We live about 1 kilometer away from Avenida Maximo Gomez, in Santo Domingo, the main street that the Carnival parade goes down. As we have been out for walks the past few weeks we have seen the construction of grandstands and the placement of huge statues or displays on the street. I later learned that the displays were some of the main characters of the Dominican Carnival.
Limping Devils (Cojuelos Diablos) – lots of these everywhere. Although the devils can look pretty scary, the stuff I have read says that this devil is a “naughty” or “childish” devil that was banished to earth for his childish pranks and spends his time hitting people and other devils with his “vejiga”. Originally, a vejiga was an animal bladder filled with air. Today they are mostly balloons or soft cloth balls filled with stuffing.
Steal the Chicken (Roba de Gallina) – this one puzzled me at first as well. Without any explanation, it looks like the after effects of a plastic surgeon that went way overboard. The first time I saw this character I thought of the 1992 Sir Mix-a-Lot hit, “Baby Got Back” and thought that a new version needed to come out titled, “Baby Got Back and Front.” I later learned that the story behind this is that it represents a man who steals chickens and dresses as a woman and hides the chickens in his bust and hip area, accounting for the exaggerated features. I am pretty sure they just use balloons these days, no chickens are harmed in the making of these costumes.
Califé – this is another popular character that surprised me at first and honestly, made me cringe a little. It is a black-face character with a very tall stove-pipe hat. Certainly today in the USA blackface is largely considered to be offensive and racist. I asked one of my new Dominican friends if anyone considers the Calife character offensive or racist here. He was very puzzled, “What would be offensive or racist about Calife?” I explained a little bit about the history in the USA where white actors would use blackface make-up to portray African Americans in a negative way. I showed him a few pictures on Google of Al Jolson in blackface. He was still surprised, “The reason Calife is so dark is that he is from the area in the Domincan Republic where they work in the sugar cane fields. Since people who work in the sugar cane fields are out in the sun a lot their skin is darker than most.” I must admit, I still don’t totally understand this one. From what I am able to gather, he is supposed to represent a poet that writes poems and songs criticizing the government and politicians. Maybe if I understood Spanish better and heard some of the songs it would make more sense.
I had trouble figuring out what time the parade started. I asked a couple of people when the parade started. They told me, “Sunday afternoon.” When I asked if they knew what time Sunday afternoon, they shrugged and said, “If you go around 2 or 3 in the afternoon you should be OK.”
I searched the online version of one of the local newspapers and thought I found something that said the parade was from 2:00PM to 4:00PM. We walked from our apartment down to Avenida Maximo Gomez around 2:00PM on Sunday afternoon and found hardly anyone there. At first I thought I might have misunderstood the time and we had missed it. However, asking one of the policeman nearby, we were assured that the parade hadn’t started yet.
This is something I am aware of, but am still getting used to; the cultural views of time. Americans, Germans, Swiss typically have a linear view of time. If you have an appointment for 9:00AM and it is 9:01AM, you are late! Italians, Latin Americans and Arabs typically have a multi-active view of time. In a multi-active view of time relationships, feelings, and importance of the event are all factors that have more importance than the actual chronological schedule.
We settled in to a spot right on the barricades in front of one of the VIP grandstands where the judging took place and began to wait for the parade to start. As the afternoon wore on, more and more people showed up. Many of the children were dressed up in costume and there were several groups of adults dressed up in quite elaborate costumes posing for pictures with some people and hitting others with their vejigas.
At about 4:30 in the afternoon, the judges came to their places at the judging table in front of the main grandstand. Maybe the parade was about to start? Just then, a lady approached us and asked us if we wanted to sit in the grandstand. We willingly accepted! The grandstands, and much of the Carnival, were sponsored by Presidente beer, a major Domincan beer company. What typically happens in cases like this is that the sponsor gives VIP tickets to their best customers and people they think will look good on camera in their grandstand. Not everyone who is given a ticket shows up, so they typically try to fill up the seats with young, good looking or hip people from the crowd. So it was a little bit of a surprise that they asked us. We are not young, good looking or hip. I think it must have been because we looked different than just about everyone else in the crowd. Susan was definitely the whitest person I had seen all day. Maybe it was their plan to have a more diverse group of spectators?
Sitting in the grandstand was great! You got to sit in a chair – remember it was now 4:30 and we had arrived at 2:00 and had been standing in the sun the whole time. We were in the shade! And they offered free beer or soft drinks!
I went up to the bar in the back and asked if they had any soft drinks. “Tienes refrescos?” He replied in the affirmative. I asked, “Tienes Coca Cola?” He gave me a dirty look and said something that I couldn’t understand. It was pretty loud with the background music blaring and besides, my Spanish is still not that great. He pointed to a Pepsi bottle. I said, “OK. Pepsi Cola.”
“Coca Cola es un palabra mala!” he said. (Coca Cola is a bad word!) I then realized that Presidente beer must also have the Pepsi franchise for the Domincan Republic. I had just asked for their biggest competitor’s product. We both had a good laugh about this and I walked away with a couple of Pepsis.
Back in my grandstand seat sipping my ice cold Pepsi I looked at the VIP ticket they had given us. There it was on the ticket, the starting time of the parade. I finally knew when the parade was supposed to start. “3:00 en la tarde,”, the ticket said. I was pretty sure that meant 3PM, but to be sure I punched it in Google Translate. Sure enough Google Translate said, “3 in the afternoon.” Then I remembered to set Google Translate to translate Dominican Spanish to English. Google Translate said, “What’s your hurry? The parade will start when everyone is ready. You are not doing anything else this afternoon, are you?” Sure enough, at 5:45PM the parade started, when everyone was ready. I still need to settle down some more and get used to Island Time, Latin American Time or whatever you want to call it.
The parade was great. Very interesting to me. I had seen it advertised that there was one million pesos in prize money available for the best entries, about $22,000 US dollars. It seemed to me that there were about four general themes of the various entries in the parade. All of them were individuals on foot, no floats as I have seen in pictures of Carnival in Rio or Mardi Gras. Many of the entries must have been from a particular neighborhood or organization, although it was difficult for me to determine where they were from. The reason I say this is that many groups had a wide range of ages represented, from 3 years old to adults.
Individual Fantasy – these were by far the most elaborate costumes. The entry was always just one person. They typically didn’t do much when they got to the judges stand except shuffle around a little bit for 30-60 seconds. The costumes were pretty good. You could tell they spent a lot of time and a lot of money on the costumes.
Some variation of devils – there are typically two things that give away that these are “devils” 1)they always have vejigas (balloons that they strike the ground or people with) 2)the masks all have similar attributes – spikes, long nose, etc. There are all sorts of variations of “devils” – typical, Egyptian and my favorite Star Wars Stormtroopers!
Choreographed dance troupes – these groups would do some sort of choreographed dance routine in front of the judges from a sound track.
Energetic loud groups – energy and loud noise seemed to be what these groups were going for. While not tremendously choreographed, these groups made up for it in energy – jumping around and playing their drums, whistles and trumpets very loudly.
The parade itself lasted for at least two hours and by the time it ended the sun had gone down. Some of the final groups had lighted costumes, adding to the effect. What a great way to spend an afternoon and what a great time we had experiencing something unique to the Dominican Republic.