Life is a carnival and we must keep singing…
by Oscar Guzmán
One of the most important times of the Catholic calendar is almost upon us: Lent. Beginning on Ash Wednesday, Catholics begin to prepare for the Easter celebration with prayers, small sacrifices of our favorite things , and personal reflection. This is also the time of year when Catholics refrain from eating meat on Fridays, which is why many people organize a symbolic goodbye party for the meat…”Carne Vai”, the carnival.
Ancient Venice was where this tradition began, in which the people who attended the carnival mingled in a party where all the things that generate memorable moments were present: music, dancing, costumes, and all the things that are set aside during the Lenten season.
The festive tradition arrived to our country toward the end of the 19th century; hence, the beginning of the carnivals. And it was precisely in the port of Veracruz, a land known for crazy parties, where the Veracruzanos celebrated the first mask dance in 1866, during the empire of Maximilian. And although the parties were supposed to be held in the principle social salons, the theater, and the “Aduana Quemada”, the celebrations began expanding until they reached the streets. This expansion led to parades, and finally, in 1925, the first committee was formed to organized the Carnival of the Port of Veracruz.
Today, people celebrate the passing of the “comparsas” — groups of people at the carnival who are dressed in the same costume and mask. These celebrations precede the “Martes de Carnaval” (Fat Tuesday), which is the biggest day of the carnival. Lighted-up, decorated cars roam the streets of the city, and the happy king (it used to be the “ugly” king) and queen of the carnival are crowned. Musicians ride on the top of carriages and dance to the music. Meanwhile, students from dance schools, in a very Brazilian-style, dance to African rhythms, mainly samba, merengue and salsa.
On the other side of Mexico, with a great view of the Pacific Ocean, another one of the most popular carnivals of Mexico is celebrated. And if the Carnival of Veracruz is the most widely visited by tourists, the carnival which has most carefully preserved its traditions is the Carnival of Mazatlán.
The first official carnival parade took place in 1898, at three o’clock in the afternoon with the first “carrozas alegóricas” (decorated carriages). The tradition continues still today, though, of course, some technological changes have been made. Even in the 1940’s the newly motorized cars with complicated frameworks cruised the streets, giving new life to the image of the carnival. The arrival of the huge, lighted platforms gave origin to the nighttime parades in 1962.
There, too, they celebrate the crowning of the king and queen, and the party ends with dances in the most popular meeting points of Mazatlán, where the music dominates the scene, especially since it’s the traditional music of the region.
Although the most traditional carnivals are the two mentioned above, dances and carnivals are celebrated in many other parts of the country as well. One of these is the carnival of Tlaxcala, where not only do they have the tradition of the “carrozas alegóricas”, but they also have a huge mixture of dancing, folk music and masks. Standing out as one of the most representative and difficult dances is the dance of the knives, where the dancers tie sharpened knives to their ankle boots and dance, playing with the knives between their feet, barely escaping the cut of the sharp blades.
Marking the celebration are costumes and accessories typical of the region, and the music and the bands and string quartets are deeply rooted to the Mexican tradition.
The day after “Martes de Carnaval” (Fat Tuesday), the people gather for Ash Wednesday mass, which is the beginning of Lent, and after saying goodbye to meat for a while, the people rest from the celebrations… until the following year.
Whether it be in the old port of Mazatlán, Tlaxcala, the Gulf of Veracruz, the carnival is one of the most important celebrations in the traditional Mexican calendar.