I 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!
Since 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.
From 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!!
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.
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.
I 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!!!