Carnival in the Dominican Republic
With carnival now running into more than 500 years, few Dominicans even think of linking it back to the nation’s European heritage. But carnival originally came to this land with the first settlers. Historic records show mentions of carnival back to 1510, just 12 years after the first settlers had arrived.
The Centro Cultural Espanol, the cultural house of the Embassy of Spain, is hosting this year an excellent exhibition of carnival costumes, in tribute to the arts and crafts that are so much part of carnival. Not to be missed at Arz. Merino No. 2, just before reaching the Malecon.
Carnival is a time for confetti, merengue and salsa, costumes, color, and excitement. Get invited to a birthday party in February and expect it to encompass the pandemonium of carnival celebrations. Carnival is upon us once again, and in the Caribbean it hits with the force of a tropical storm.
As in other countries, Dominican carnival is a colorful experience in which the festive spirit of the country’s people comes to light as they take to the streets in search of fun. While originally a Spanish custom, throughout the centuries carnival has merged and the traditional costumes representing devils, parade side by side with cultural remnants of the Indian and Africa settlers, throughout the cities and towns from early morning to the wee hours of late Carnival Sundays.
Carnival in the DR blends in with the 27 February independence celebrations. That is not to say that the patriotic people of the Dominican Republic make a mockery of their independence by celebrating carnival many times on the same day, as will happen in 2006. Not at all! Just that here, any excuse for having a party, no matter when, is a valid one.
The one thing that those who experience Dominican carnival will remember most is the number of partygoers dressed in colorful satin costumes adorned with ribbons bearing mirrors and bells. For masks, they wear grotesque papier-mache creations with pointed horns that are meant to represent the devil. In their hands they carry a bladder or balloon with which they hit passers by.
This, the favorite and most popular of native costumes is known as the lechon (pig) or diablo cojuelo (mischievous devil). The lechones are kin to Santiago’s carnival, the diablo cojuelo is the essence of La Vega’s carnival.
Many will ask themselves why would an overwhelmingly Christian country choose the figure of a devil for its favorite carnival costume? Carlos Dobal, a noted Dominican scholar, explains.
The origins of this mask lies within Europe. Dobal points out that curiously in his Divine Comedy, Dante includes the figure of a demon represented by none other than a pig. Yet, the importance of including devils in religious festivities, Dobal claims, goes back to the Middle Ages. In the course of sacred ceremonies there was always a symbolic confrontation between good and evil.
As far back as the year 1264, Pope Urban IV allowed Catholic to wear costumes alluding to the triumph of good evil as a man’s freedom to choose a righteous path. What we begin to see is a mixture of Catholic dogma with pagan ritual.
In Italy, Corpus Christi was celebrated with processions of grotesque monsters and devils that later participated in religious plays. The custom soon spread to Spain and, with the growth of Spain’s golden century of theater, devil costumes as we see in the Dominican Republic were widely used in dramatic productions.
The Spanish conquistadors brought the custom, and costume, to their colonies and Dobal even finds that there is a town in Venezuela where the devils roam the streets for Corpus Christi.
Research carried out at the Centro Leon of Santiago indicates that the carnival tradition came with those first Spanish settlers from 1510-1512 and the first manifestations are recorded for the towns of La Vega and Santo Domingo. Over the years, because of the excesses and vulgarities, many times the events were prohibited.
The mix of races and cultures that are so part of the Dominican people bring the details that make our carnival one particularly rich in culture and folklore. In different parts of the country, the celebration takes on regional characteristics.
The success of the La Vega carnival, and the prosperity brought to the town by the activity, has spurred many other cities to meet and work on their own carnival.
In 2006, carnival began early, on Sunday 29 January. This year there will be a special parade on Monday, 27 February, Independence Day. Carnival parades are held on every Sunday in February. While the climax is the last Sunday of the month when all the costumed-demons (diablo cojuelos) are out in force, every one of the preparatory runs on the previous Sundays is about just as much fun. The groups run down main streets, dancing, with parades of bladder-blasting pranksters trying to land a wallop on any viewer who may be in their way. Spectators are just as much of the show, as they dodge the diablos cojuelos.
The La Vega carnival brings together the largest number of dance and prank-making groups as well as the most elaborate costumes. What makes the diablo cojuelo costumes different from others around the country is that they have mastered techniques that allow the papier-mache masks to make movements and show teeth, giving them a more menacing effect. The La Vega carnival is a joint effort by the Union Carnavalesca Vegana since 1988. The success of this organization’s revival of carnival can be credited with the new importance Dominicans nationwide have attributed to carnival and the efforts being made in other towns to revive and improve their own carnivals. The La Vega carnival has been living proof that cultural activities are a big crowds draw.
Santiago, the nation’s second largest city and probably most conservative and traditional looks to carnival as a means of “letting its hair down.” For memorabilia of past carnivals, there is the Tomas Morel museum, at Restauracion 174, Tel. 809 582-6787. But best is the Centro Leon that every year dedicates activities in February to help Dominicans understand how carnival fits into the local culture. La Vega carnival is featured in a 7 February talk at the Center, and on Saturday, 18 February, in the parking lot of the Center, a major event dedicated to the costumes of carnival and the carnival groups will take place.
The mountain vacation area of Constanza is revving up to partake in the fun that Carnival brings to the Dominican Republic. The Constanza carnival troupes are making an early start, with celebrations from the last weekend in January till the first weekend in March.
The Constanza carnival characters are different: dragons, monsters, Indians and gargoyles parade through the city's five kilometers of streets.
The Constanza Carnival also has a gala evening on the Saturday preceding the grand finale, where all the participating groups display their best costumes and choreographed dances.
San Pedro de Macoris
Meanwhile, the Unesco-recognized guloyas in San Pedro de Macoris, have their own identity and style for carnival in February. The early 20th century migrant workers from the Leeward and Windward Islands brought over years go to labor in the sugar industry have left an indelible mark in the local culture. There the guloyas and momises, which originated with the British mummers.
In the DR there are towns that celebrate their carnival during Easter Week. Exhibits at the Centro Cultural Leon, in Santiago (a good place to go to get an overview of carnival nationwide) explains that the cities of Pedernales, Cabral, Barahona, Elias Pina, San Juan de la Maguana and Salinas, in the southwest have non traditional dates for celebrating carnival. In the towns of Cabral and Monte Cristi, near the Haitian border, the masks used for the occasion are called “cachuas” (horned ones) and are decorated with colorful paper. People donning “cachuas” in the southwestern city of Barahona begin their celebrations by rushing to the cemetery to beat the tombs of friends, with whips, as a way of inviting them to take part in the merriment. At the end of the day they return to do the same in the belief that they are helping these friends back into the grave.
In Santo Domingo, the focal point of the event is a eclectic carnival parade down the Malecon featuring the Carnival King elected yearly. In the capital city, as in many other urban centers, social clubs will hold dances that are often extravaganzas in which to show off one’s costume. During such events, highly organized dance groups, known as “comparsas,” present shows based on a particular theme and which not only compete for local prizes but for national ones as they “battle” against the best from other areas.
An estimated 50,000 persons are expected to parade, with spectators lined up along the Malecon estimated to reach half a million people. The Sunday, 5 March 2006 parade will be televised.
The Ministry of Culture took on the reorganization of the carnaval in 2005. As a result, the participation in the Malecon carnival parade is limited to 150 per province. The winners of the local carnival events are chosen to represent them in the capital city carnival parade. The registration for carnival is open in the city government halls in the provinces. This year there will be 28 award categories.