Carnaval in Las Tablas

1982221_10152027058097475_830094700_nI know, this is not an English word……but Carnival sounds to me like a traveling show, a circus. That is not, however, what I want to write about. I want to give you an idea of what happens in my mother’s hometown before the long season of Lent comes around: Friday to Ash Wednesday.

As I said, this is a colonial small city or big town, whichever you prefer. It’s been there since the 1650s and has had ups and downs like most towns in Latin America. It has produced judges and legislators, presidents and ambassadors, fine doctors and lawyers and artists. The inhabitants are independent and taciturn, not given to emotional displays. Women are traditionalists and being mother and wife is still a badge of honor. Very conservative in their views political and moral, but this time of the year…..everything goes out the window!

1911801_10151999893632475_975346593_nSince time immemorial, when there were no roadways and trips to Panama City took days by sailboat, the pagan celebrations of Carnaval were part of the year’s agenda. The town is divided into two factions: Calle Arriba and Calle Abajo: literally Up Street and Down Street. Members of each group take this rivalry very seriously. Some go as far as not even speaking to the other faction, not allowing their children to marry and other extremes. Nobody would accept that the other faction has anything worth looking at!!! Yes, I know…this is the twenty first century, but it still goes on. The Yankees and Red Sox rivalry is a babe’s game.

1978704_10152016040822475_573051737_nFrom the beginning of the year, the activities start: firework displays on New Year’s Eve, music and dancing in the street (tunas), secret plans for the floats, dresses and costumes the queens will wear. Thousands upon thousands of dollars are spent without any problem. Both factions carry on so many activities during the year solely to raise money. I have often said that if they would use these funds for the benefit of the town, there would be no poor people in town!!1477457_10152027057627475_311404301_n

My sisters and I not often go anymore. It has gotten so big, so out of hand, so many people come. This year was different. My mother’s birthday was just two days before the festivities started. From Friday, February 28th to Wednesday March 5th, the town was one big party. Thankfully, my mother’s home is outside the central square, far from the noise and the constant music.

There are thousands of people in the streets, from morning to mid-afternoon getting sprayed with water, dancing away. This is another part of the celebration that has been there forever. The city provides huge water carriers to keep everyone wet and happy. In the meantime, drinks flow just like water. In the years of recorded history and with the rivalry, the visitors from all over the country, cases of violence are rare. Police presence is heavy, but rarely used.

Once this part is over, everyone goes home or to the hotel or whatever place they are staying. They take a long nap and get ready for an all-night party. Amazing floats go round-and-round in the central plaza o parque. This space is smaller than a city block!! Local artisans and seamstresses work for months to achieve this.10009815_10152016070337475_195598764_n

In the floats, the queens , one for each faction, parade dancing and singing to the music. The costumes are out of this world, breathtaking! While this goes on, fireworks are lightning the sky and music is playing non-stop. The noise is deafening, but the atmosphere carries you and you become part of the celebration. Of course, people that have houses or apartments right on the plaza, have the best view and the best time. Unfortunately, they also are unable to sleep much during these days!!! There are many that just leave town during Carnaval, especially older people or young couples with small children. Everyone else, just love it!!!

These pictures are from Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Just a few examples, just a few details, and still….what can I say? Las Tablas has less than 10,000 inhabitants, the factions raise probably a million dollars every year and they spend it!!!

I would like to explain what goes on, but it would be better to just show you. Rio’s Carnival is amazing, but it also takes place in a very big city, with unlimited funds, a great tourist attraction. Las Tablas is a colonial town in a small country and has none of the resources. Still these pictures will show you how can they compare….they were taken by one of my cousins. Pancho spent most of the time behind his camera, clicking away at the amazing spectacle.

1798828_10151999893377475_1916895343_nI hope you enjoyed them. I look at them now and cannot believe I was there, not everyday, but enough to get the feel of the event. Seeing all my cousins and friends that come every year for this celebration, is a treat. We have been going to Carnaval since we were very young. It has changed a lot, but it has stayed true to its core. My mother’s family belongs to Calle Abajo….and everyone is very proud, for whatever reason. If one of our cousins succeeds and is elected President on May 4th. …I don’t want to imagine what the celebration will be like next year!!! One thing is certain, my sisters and I would be there!! Will be reporting on that……


For now, I am working on the last day: Mardi Gras, Martes de Carnaval. This is the best day, when queens and everyone that has one wears the National Dress: Pollera which comes with a fortune in gold jewelry….and there are no muggings!! You have to see it to believe it. In the meantime, please enjoy and see if you can believe what goes on in this town!!!

P.S. Thanks to Pancho González-Ruiz for allowing me to use his fabulous photos!!! Good luck to José Domingo Arias on May 4th!!!

8 thoughts on “Carnaval in Las Tablas

  1. Well written Mercedes…you made me want to be in the middle of all of the action. Pancho’s photos are great. It looks like one helluva good time and I’m glad you and your family enjoyed it. Good luck to your cousin….upcoming election!

    • Yes, it was one fabulous time, but you need to be able to keep your distance…..we just went at nighttime, no getting wet and drunk for any of us!!! I’m grateful Pancho had the time and energy and the knowledge to take the photos. He has hundreds, hard to chose just a few. I will let you know about the elections result…….

  2. What a colorful, historical accounting of tradition. Some communities are very traditional and it is buried deep in their roots. Thank you for another look inside a culture of which I have very little knowledge. Your accounting make me feel like I am there. Very good, Mercedes.

    • Thanks, Betty!!! Traditions are part of our lives, who we are and how we see the world, hence their importance. When we share and understand other cultures, we enhance our own and are better for it, I think. In my small way, I am trying to do just that…..I am glad you are enjoying these posts.

  3. Indeed, very impressive considering the size of the town! I have always thought it`s ironic, the carnival celebration, considering it`s just prior to the most religious holiday in the Catholic religion. Oh well, I guess that does not somehow surprise me….

    • Isn’t it? This town knows how party, wait for the next chapter. Of course there is no surprise about carnival. Christianity is the religion that took pagan beliefs and incorporated them into its rites. It meant continuity and familiarity. This way more people easily accepted the new beliefs.

  4. How great that I can comment again; the above write up, is but a short and sweet redaction of what these festivities mean to our town. Needless to say, a lot of work goes into making it a reality and further, there is also an element of culture that plays into this…every costume is historically based and researched before its creation. Several of our relatives have been “queens” thru out the years and the first recognizable one was “Tia Santito” back in 1923…..
    Love our traditions!

    • Thanks, Ana and I am so glad to have you back!!! Indeed, this town has an impressive cultural knowledge…ie, the naming of the children. Very good reminder about the many queens our family has provided, and who knows the ones still to come.

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