It was the Grand Finale of a month of festivities all over the island. In Santo Domingo there had been an air show the week before celebrating The Dominican Republic’s Independence Day on February 27, and this would end the Caribbean Carnival season in Santo Domingo. My friends texted to say the Malecón—the oceanfront road where the oldest parade in the Americas was about to begin—was closed. I’d have to walk several blocks to get to the restaurant to meet them. I’d seen families walking toward the parade site for miles from the Colonial Zone where I’d had lunch, some stopping to buy masks, others in costumes. My driver motioned me out, so I asked which way to Adrian Tropical. He pointed left.
I stepped out onto a side street that far ahead dropped off into the sea, but I was already swimming through waves of color. Dominican groups gathered plumed in jewel tones, sequins, fringe, and feathers. I passed the Tainos in traditional dress (the indigenous I’d seen in paintings last fall ), then women like cabaret dancers in larger, more flamboyant headdresses like those seen in Rio. I tried not to look lost. I’d lived in the DR since August and was comfortable being the only expat gringa singing to bachata in my barrio’s grocery store, La Serena (Little Mermaid), but here I was a fish out of water again, disoriented by the masses and not knowing exactly where the taxi had dropped me. I squeezed past the barricades, crossed the street, and was seaside, hoping to see the restaurant up the coast. Earlier the driver got lost taking me to the Spanish Square—the biggest landmark in the city. I hoped his directions were right.
After a few blocks of moving through the crowd upstream, I stopped and asked a lady eating street food if she knew where Adrian Tropical was. She called over two guys. I turned.
It was them. The ones my friend–her families were locals– said I didn’t want to meet.
They were completely covered in black grease—tarred but not feathered–playing the part of chicken thieves, once a common problem now satirized here. She said the Carnival parades can get crazy and that these guys tell you if you don’t give them money they’ll hug you. I’d just passed other chicken thieves—men clothed as women with bulging bosoms and butts. Once these humps were really live chickens but now they are pillows stuffed under their dresses. The Carnival star/antihero is the “Limping Devil”–Diablo Cojuelo–symbolized by the chicken carried upside down by his feet. Island lore is that the devil was cast from heaven to earth for his trickery, causing him to limp.
Looking into the eyes–the only body parts not covered in tar– of the characters representing Roba la Gallina (Steal the Chicken) made me turn chicken.
“Donde?” (Where are you going? they asked.)
“Ah, Tropical! Tropical!” They happily pointed to the direction I was headed. I thanked them and turned to hurry on, almost colliding with another guy I was warned about. He was carrying a “bladder”—a balloon on a stick—to wallop people with. I felt like Candide. No one can make this stuff up.
After 20-30 minutes of walking I decided I’d been sent on a chicken chase. I about-faced, crossed the street, and scanned the sky for anything familiar. I was dying to text my friends to ask where they were and to take photos of the costumed characters and creatures I passed, but I had been warned by locals to hang onto my purse and not take my phone out in the crowd.
When I saw the Crowne Plaza, I sent up a hallelujah and started sprinting until an officer checking IDs checked me.
Like Linda Blair in The Exorcist, I growled a plea. “I only have a bank card, and I just want to see the parade.” I must have seemed scarier than the devils cracking whips in the street beside me. She waved me on. I ran up the steps, asked another security guard which way to the roof, and he pointed to the 2nd story terrace. I texted my friends who said I was only an 8-minute walk away, but the parade had started and diving into the crowd beyond the hotel again was too much for me. I told them I’d stay put.
I looked down and understood the extra security. Below was the Ministry of Culture’s main stage where participants stopped to perform. It was like being in front of Macy’s on Thanksgiving, but with three times the number marching (30,000 yearly), above the fray, and feeling a warm ocean breeze. Here’s what I saw…
Masks were worn by the first actors on Greek and Roman stages. Festivals were held for Bacchus/Dionysus–the god of fertility, wine, and revelry–as a reprieve from following Apollo/god of restraint, rationality, and order the rest of the year. Masquerade balls during Carnival, the most famous originating in Venice, spread to other parts of Europe and were brought to the Caribbean by conquerors. Combined with African traditions of the people who were here and enslaved, carnival celebrations spread throughout the Americas. The largest in the world is in Rio, the most popular in the US is in New Orleans. The word carnival means to give up meat or things of the flesh, a practice observed by some during lent in Catholic/Christian countries. Thus, Carnival often occurs just before lent begins. To consider the relationship between lent and carnival, Christianity and community, see one of my favorite movies, Chocolat, set in a small town in France in 1959. The main character’s Latin American roots are also central to the theme.
Have you been to a Carnival parade or celebration? If so, where? Which are the Must-Sees?