We remember the first time we saw Carnival here four years ago. It seemed hopelessly commercial, terribly tacky and badly executed. Yesterday, we took photos and video of the last parade of Carnival 2006 and the whole thing seemed fun, joyous and beautiful. The parade is still heavily sponsored by corporations and ridden with logos, some of the costumes and dances are still “tacky” and most of the dancers could never compete in a more global environment. But this year, we saw beyond all that to the celebration of life and the pull-out-the-stops fun that Carnival is for the people of Merida.
While sitting in our back room to write this article, the noise of the last Carnival party echoed off the walls. Paseo Montejo is only two blocks away, so the celebration sounded like it was next door. One of the 20 bandstands was facing our direction, and when the singers started exhorting the crowd, it was pretty loud. After seven days and nights of Carnival, the crowd was going wild, having one last drunken, loud evening before life went back to business as usual. Mayans and Yucatecans are a pretty staid bunch most of the time, so its heart-warming to see them having so much fun for a change.
During Carnival, the usually stately and elegant Paseo Montejo is transformed into a parade route and fair grounds. From noon til well after midnight for seven days, the partying there rages on, with the populace consuming untold amounts of beer, Coca cola, botanas of every kind, cotton candy and ice cream. There is practically nonstop music from 20 different bands on bandstands all up and down the avenue.
When there is a parade, the avenue is cleared by multiple phalanxes of policemen who are all unfailingly kind yet stern. People stand 3 or 10 deep behind metal barricades, but there are no riots or disturbances. Just a lot of good-hearted fun, dancing and screaming and begging for beads or other goodies. The parades start at the Plaza de la Bandera to the north and continue for about 5 kilometeres past the Zocalo at the town’s historic center. Each of the parades are very similar, with the last one being the biggest and best. And they all have a certain underlying structure to them, as we have learned over the years.
Carnival always has a theme and this year’s was “Fantasy, Magic and Mystery. The parades usually start with a colorful band of dancers or acrobats. This year, there were some harlequins on stilts and other beautifully costumed dancers dressed like fairies, butterflies and angels. Immediately following them was the first major float sponsored by Coca Cola, which is a consistent crowd pleaser. This year, the Coca Cola men (and they do seem to have a preponderance of good-looking, bodybuilding-type men in their parade contingent) were dressed as Pan and centaur-like characters. They were quite exotic looking while at the same time, kinda’ funny. You can see a photo here. What you can’t see is they way they flirt with the crowd and flex their muscles. When the Coca Cola float goes by, the crowd inevitably goes wild.
Between big corporate floats there are usually two to six local dance groups. These appear to each be sponsored by a local dance school, and this is probably the event that they practice for throughout the year. The costumes are elaborate, and often apparently ill-fitting and uncomfortable for the mostly teens and pre-teens who make up the dance troupes. The few who are really dancers at heart and who are into performing stand out from the majority of others who are along for the spectacle, but they are ALL always fun to watch. And this is probably a good time to mention that Carnival in Merida is a family affair. Despite the sexy costumes on the beer floats and the suggestive dancing (even the little children do that here in Latin America…), Carnival is for people of all ages. There is a huge contingent of children marching in and watching every parade. And the celebration here in Merida is all about having fun with loved ones.
There are also floats from Telcel, Donde (the cookie company), Dunosusa (the grocery stores whose motto is “Plecios Chinos“, meaning “Chinese Prices”, which is supposed to mean “cheap”, with precios spelled as if a Chinese person was saying it… get it?), Exa, the radio station, who litter (literally) the parade route with orange paper visors and orange balloons, and some local car dealers. The other corporate sponsors who spend the big bucks for big floats and beautiful dancers are the beer companies: Sol, Superior and Corona. They are all owned by the same company, but they have different floats for the different brands, and each one has beautiful girls (and some guys) dancing in tiny but sparkling outfits associated with those brands. The beer floats invariably have very loud, usually good music and they spew tons of confetti while the dancers throw out cups, tshirts, bandanas and other branded merchandise. When they pass by, the crowd goes wild.
We went to a new parade this year that we’d never been to. The Monday night parade is a little different, as it features dancers dressed in traditional dress (huipiles for the women and white guayaberas and pants, sandals and hats for the men). The dancers were charming and beautiful in all white, all the women with brightly colored flowers in their hair. Each group seemed to be featuring a different local craft.
Some were dancing with hammocks, some with cornstalks, others with embroidery. A few of the men were carrying large round tin pans that were covered with pyramidal pointed tops and had the words “Frances” painted on the side. Que significa eso? we asked a local man next to us. It turns out “Frances” was the logo of a company that used to sell pan (bread) on the streets of Merida in those tins, which kept the pan warm. The dancers all danced to music blared from big speakers carried by trucks that preceded each group, and were lit by lights on the same trucks. The music was hauntingly charming… and as Baby Boomers, we finally realized that it was the same music that used to serve as soundtracks to the 1940′s cartoons we grew up watching on Saturday mornings. In between the traditional dance groups were the same big and loud corporate floats, which took away some of the charm for us gringos, but as in every other parade, whenever those floats passed by, the crowd went wild!
Overall, we decided that Carnival was bigger and better than we’ve ever seen it this year… but we’re always glad when it’s over. And we think maybe that’s the point. You drink and dance and party until you just can’t stand it anymore and you’re glad to get back to a more normal (but perhaps not very exciting) life. We’ve become Yucatecans now, it seems. So the slightly tacky things about the Carnival parade are charming to us. And the corporate sponsorship of floats that used to horrify us is just the way it is here. It’s traditional.
So back we go to our lives, with fond memories of all the times when the crowd went wild…
Carnival begins on February 14 in 2007. For information on the upcoming events, go to Merida’s Carnival website (in Spanish).