If you remember last year’s Carnaval post, I discussed the overall idea behind the festival, the traditional costumes, the queen, and all the Carnaval essentials. So, for this post I’ve decided to dig a little deeper into some of the socioecomic issues surrounding Carnaval (woo!) along with discussing the events of this year.
As I mentioned last year, the Carnaval centers around the Queen. This year, the Queen happened to be Maria Margarita Diazgranados, the older sister to one of my students. Because of this, I was able to learn a little more about what goes on behind the scenes. It also just so happened that the sister of the queen from two years ago was in that same class, so we got to have quite a few discussions about the experience of being Carnaval queen.
Now, you might be saying, wow, two queens, with siblings at the same school, what are the odds? Barranquilla is a pretty big city, right? Well, here’s where that whole socioeconomic discussion begins.
As I’ve mentioned in other posts, Colegio Parrish is primarily home to the wealthiest 1% of the Barranquilla population, and it turns out becoming the carnaval queen takes money, and a lot of it. The queen is in charge of funding initiatives, taking numerous trips, attending events, wearing countless hand-designed dresses, offering donations to various organizations, and so on and so forth. In short, she racks up quite a tab from the time she is "elected" in September or October.
On top of this, there has been a notable trend of increased privatization of Carnaval festivities over the past 2 decades. The main parades, which used to be free, are now blocked off by gates and armed security guards, forcing people to pay for tickets that are, unfortunately, out of reach for most of the lower class. Same for the concerts. Music used to be played at street corners and make shift venues throughout the city. Now, big name acts like Marc Antony and Daddy Yankee come to play, but the tickets are set so high that only the wealthiest can enjoy. And, not surprisingly, all the profits from the parades and the concerts and festivities, go right back to the same families.
And, after talking to many taxi drivers, bus seat-mates, grocery store clerks, and so on, people have a some frustrations about this. They would like to see a queen from the lower barrios, and they would like to see the city coming together, especially during times of celebration, instead of coming apart. And, while obviously these are the sentiments of the entire population, those thoughts were echoed by many of the people I talked to about Carnaval.
Still, while this is the current state of things, I'm not sure if there is a possible solution. The way the system is currently set up, the Queen is expected to be well off, given the enormous amount of financial responsibilities that are laid upon her throughout the year. It would take some strong leadership from the families who run Barranquilla to make any changes, and that doesn't seem to be the direction the city is headed in.
But anyway, with that discussion/rant/observation out of the way… let’s talk about the fun stuff!
It’s difficult to capture the essence and grandeur of Carnaval in a blog post, but basically for the 4 weeks leading up to Carnaval (and especially the 4 days of Carnaval) the city is electric. Music playing at all hours of the nights, dance troupes practicing in empty parking lots, bands holding impromptu concerts on the street corners, and all sorts of parades being held on the weekends.
Leading up to the Carnaval, I had the opportunity to take a trip with several other teachers to Santo Tomas, a nearby town that is home to what many say is a better Batalla de Flores (i.e. main parade) than even Barranquilla.
The parade is more reminiscent of what the Carnaval in Barranquilla used to be about. The town comes together (all of the town) to line the streets, join the dance, and celebrate together. There are no bars between the seats and the parades, you can join in, you can greet your friends and family, and not have to worry about security guards swarming all over you.
The families who were seated around us were some of the most friendly, giving people I had ever met in my life. We danced with them, we played with their kids, they shared their food and drink with us, and it was a wonderful afternoon.
[ And you can see all of the photos from Santo Tomas here ]
After that, there were a few other parades and activities leading up to the main event, but the big excitement came on Saturday, the day of the Batalla de Flores in Barranquilla! I had heard that it was possible to start at the beginning of the parade and walk up it (in the opposite direction of the parade) in order to take some good photos, see the groups warming up, and basically interact with everyone instead of just watching.
So, I decided my best bet was to make a fake press pass, bring along my trusty Canon DSLR, and try to convince whatever security I came across that I was working for a magazine/travel site in the states and that I should really be allowed to hop the fence and roam freely.
With a group of 5 other gringos and one Colombian, we headed to the parade with that plan in mind. And, low and behold, after 20 or so minutes of searching for a relatively uncrowded spot to try, the plan worked! While the fake press pass was enough to get security to consider letting us in, since our group was rather large, it also took a $50,000 peso bribe (the equivalent of $25 US). Not bad, considering tickets for a single person for the day were going for around $50.
And with that, we were in! The parade was ours! We roamed down the line, chatting with groups, getting free “backstage” concerts, climbing up on floats, and in general having unfettered access to anything we wanted. It was a great way to start the official weekend of Carnaval, and definitely a highlight.
[ You can see all of the Batalla de Flores Photos Here ]
After the parade, there were numerous other concerts in the streets, more parades, dance circles, and so on. My goal for this year (seeing as it is my last year here) was to throw myself completely into the madness of Carnaval, and I feel like I accomplished that. But, by the end of that 4th day, I was officially worn out (and not necessarily ready to get back to teaching).
All that being said, the Barranquilla Carnaval holds the title of second largest carnaval in South America (next to Rio) for a reason. It is a massive, monstrous event and, without a doubt, the experience of a lifetime. If you’re in the mood to see any of the events in more detail, the queen this year did an awesome job of curating a YouTube channel full of events and parades!
Thanks for reading, and next time I’ll be writing about a lovely little spot along the Barranquillan cost called Boca de Ceniza. And a special howdy to Dad and Brenda who will be joining me next weekend for a little taste of Colombia!