As you see yourself, I once saw myself; as you see me now, you will be seen.
      Mexican Proverb


México is the most populous Spanish-
speaking country in the world. According to the latest statistics, México's total population is over 99 million. Mestizos, of Indian and Spanish blood), make up 60% of the population, followed by indigenous peoples  (30%), whites (9%), and other ethnic minorities  (1%).

Carnaval in Mazatlan

Visitors and locals scream, sing, shout and dance amid confetti and ribbons. Bands of all kinds play the infectious rhythms of the State of Sinaloa. And the food–oh, the food–camarones (shrimp) prepared in every way possible, washed down with ice cold Pacifico beer, for it’s Carnaval Time, Mazatlán’s biggest pachanga (fiesta). 
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March 12, 2006

by Bob Brooke

The air hangs heavy any time of year in Veracruz, Mexico's hot and sultry principal port city. But the hearts of Jarochos, as the people of the city are known, are light, for winter means Carnaval, the wildest  pre- Lenten celebration north of Rio.

Mardi Gras in Veracruz–called Carnaval in Mexico–is the holiday celebrated as a festival of the libido before the Catholic period of Lent. Beginning every year nine days before Lent, Carnaval is exuberantly enjoyed with parades, floats, costumes, music, dancing, and all-night partying. The city of Veracruz virtually shuts down during the event as thousands of visitors from throughout Mexico descend on it to join the festivities. Visitors pack the streets and hotels, those without rooms live out of their cars.

Though many centuries old, the idea of parades during Carnaval began in 1866, during the reign of Emperor Maxmillian. Carnaval, as it exists today, has been held without interruption since 1923.

Origins of Carnival
Veracruz Carnaval, like many of its fellow Latin American Carnavals, has merged church, state and the collective will of the people into unique annual traditions that preserve the past while looking forward to the future. Five hundred years ago, the Venetians demonstrated how this could be done within the constraints of church oversight. They invented the word Carnevale–from the Latin roots carne meaning flesh and valle meaning farewell. Veracruz’s Carnaval has a soul as old as the Olmecs and as new as the flowers sold by the Indian women in the Verazruz’s Plaza de Armas–or as it is commonly known, the zocalo.

Anticipation builds in the days before Carnaval as Jarochos make preparations for the important Zocalo opening ceremony Quema del Mal Humor or The Burning of Bad Humor in which there’s an enthusiastic pursuit, persecution and burning of the satanic personages identified as Mal Humor or bad mood. Once caught and tried, Mal Humor is buried so that all may sing and dance in the streets to infectious Caribbean/Spanish rhythms, fanciful costumes and masks. Until the adult grand parade on Saturday night, the coronation of the Queen takes place. The Queen is Carnaval’s most important personage. She then crowns El Rey Feo or the Ugly King three days before Lent. There’s also a children's parade. Carnaval concludes many parades later on Ash Wednesday with the last courtship and Funeral of Juan Carnaval, the most lavish of all parades.

The Parades
The parades feature hundreds of beautiful, scantily clad women shaking to Latin dance rhythms on some pretty large floats featuring beer and soda company props. Jarochos create these fantastic floats, known as carros alegóricos or allegorical cars, with true Mexican flair using bright colors, papier mâché figures, large flowers, and live entertainment. It’s not unusual to see costumed drag queens parading alongside women in sparkling dresses.

While the floats in the parades don’t change that much, a Carnavelgoer needs to experience at least one of the four spectacular night parades where the water, lights, rhythms and interaction between the crowd and dancers gives back as much energy as a visitor wants to put into the potent mix.

On the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, the longest and most lavish of the Carnaval parades takes place along the Malecon, or seaside promenade. Parades on other days are scaled-down versions of this one.

Jarochos are friendly and eager to explain their special feeling for their home. Their deep attraction for their alluring yet intangible city soul can best be felt at the zocalo. Year round, people sit in cafes drinking and chatting until all hours while listening to haunting strains of marimba music which echoes off the historic buildings and tall trees. Throughout the heightened atmosphere of Carnaval, the zocalo is the scene of many free events on the main stage, which begin daily around noon, while dozens of street musicians perform at the perimeters. It’s also the location for the two ritual dramas that open and close the Carnaval, as well as fireworks displays. Indians, who’ve walked a day’s journey from their villages, spread their handicrafts on blankets on the nearby sidewalks.

Dancing in the Zocalo
More than any other activity, visitors to Veracruz during Carnaval shouldn’t miss the chance to dance at the zocalo alongside many other excellent Jarocho couples. Salsa, cumbia, reggae, and marimba are popular but Jarochos hold a special place in their hearts for the music and dance known as Danzón, which first arrived from Cuba in 1880. Danzón is a graceful almost ritualistic couples dance with a warmth and natural cadence that speaks volumes about Veracruzano culture. It gave birth to "La Bamba" and in 1992 erected a museum to the great pre- World War II musician, Agustín Lara, whose 1936 hit song "Veracruz" is the sentimental anthem of the city and a good Danzón number as well.

Lovers of dance have their day in Veracruz at Carnaval time. Dance groups from nearby villages don their peacock and pheasant-feathered headdresses in preparation for the dances they’ll perform during the festivities. But the most exciting parts of the Carnaval are the costumed bailes tropicales groups who dance to salsa rhythms with such amazing grace and precision. Their wild but elegant costumes are a perfect complement to the joyful rhythmic dances they perform for enthusiastic crowds. The groups have several dance songs they learn for the season and have perfected how to execute them while moving forward in the desfile or parade.

Veracruz Carnaval is the home of the world’s largest temporary stadium holding the greatest paid annual attendance. Latin America’s most spectacular non-Brazilian Carnaval doesn’t officially claim this title, but the total official estimated paid attendance for six parades beginning on Carnaval Saturday is $3,000,000. No other parade or Carnaval comes close to what the historic Port of Veracruz does.

The seating set up, like exclusive sky boxes in a stadium, promotes lots of socializing among friends and relatives who know they can leave or arrive late and not lose their coveted position. Hundreds of long-time licensees put up more than double the 200,000 seats erected for Southern California’s New Years Day Rose Bowl Parade. A Carnaval spectator gets to enjoy countless Carnaval groups including over 50-plus bailes tropicales and three samba bands.

Many visitors pass on the sold out parades although tickets can be easily obtained at local hotels that have a political connection. Instead, they immerse themselves in the rhythms of one the America’s oldest Carnaval cities. Veracruz is where Cortez, the Spanish conqueror of the powerful Aztecs, burned his ships in 1519 to give his men no other option than to go forth in their quest to conquer the Aztec rulers in Mexico City. The fierce local Toltec nation was at war with the Aztecs and agreed to an alliance with the conquistador.

And when they aren’t dancing, Jarochos eat some of the best seafood in Mexico. There’s nothing like sitting on the banks of the Jamapa River, at Boca del Rio, south of town, and enjoying succulent grilled Huachanango (red snapper) at bargain prices. And there are plenty of hotel rooms in the city for less than $60 per night. During Carnaval, however, the city’s hotels, like the Imperial Hotel on the zocalo, sell out, so visitors should be sure to have reservation confirmations in writing to avoid unpleasant surprises at check-in. Or for a bit more, rooms can be had in the resort area of Boca del Rio.

By Ash Wednesday, Carnaval is over, but the lilting rhythms of marimba and Danzón remain on the zocalo until next year.


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