Carnival in Latina America: History, Tradition, & Party!
I’m sure you’ve seen the pictures: the colorful costumes, mystifying masks, and flamboyant parades where beautiful and happy people dance through the streets of some gorgeous tropical city in an exotic country. Yes, we are talking about some of the most amazing celebrations in the world: Carnival in Latin America! Have you added these festivities to your bucket list yet? Or better yet, are you making plans to visit?
Obviously, the Rio Carnival is the one everybody has in mind when talking about this topic, but you’ll be surprised to discover how rich and diverse the history and traditions of carnivals are throughout the Americas.
It’s common knowledge that Carnival is a Catholic celebration that takes place in several countries around the world, just before the Lent season starts. In Christianity, Lent is a time of fasting and austerity to prepare for the arrival of Easter.
Actually, the Latin term carnem levare or carnelevarium means “to take away meat.” And here comes the interesting spin, because in Spanish and other Romance languages carne holds the double meaning of both meat and flesh.
So, basically you could say that Carnival is the last chance to have some fun (and eat some good steaks) before Ash Wednesday kick-starts the 40 days of Lent.
It’s worth mentioning that some researchers consider Carnival a pagan festivity that predates Christianity. Interestingly, high levels of syncretism (or fusing of beliefs) took place among different religions of antiquity, which has contributed to a cultural blending of spiritual and philosophical ideas. However, for the purposes of this article, we’ll stick with the Catholic version of Carnival.
Latin American History of Carnival
You may be wondering, how did a European tradition of Middle Eastern (or even pagan) origins became such a distinctive feature of so many cultures at the other end of the world?
Two words: colonization and syncretism (that word again).
When Europeans arrived to the Americas, they brought their culture with them, leading to the creation of a new cultural paradigm in the places where they first settled.
In some countries, such as the U.S., that paradigm was almost a carbon copy from the predominant one in Europe, as cultural exchange with the original inhabitants of the territory was minimal.
Syncretism and Mestizaje
In other parts of the continent, such as in Latin America, cultural exchange was much more extensive due in part to larger populations of indigenous peoples in this region, but also to something that the English colonizers wouldn’t dare to do in North America: mestizaje (crossbreeding).
Mestizaje is a Spanish word that means much more than just crossbreeding. It’s a cultural mix, a fusion of cosmologies; one that gives birth to a new culture that was non-existent before. This mestizaje is the reason why all those Carnivals in Latin America seem so exotic to the Western eye, even when the origins of the festivity are well-known to them.
Best Carnivals in Latin America
Enough with the history and let’s get to the fun part. Which Latin American countries celebrate a Carnival? And even more important, which are the best Carnivals in the region?
Where Carnival is Celebrated
Answering the first question is easy, as pretty much every Latin American country holds a version of Carnival in some way or another. It can be a big one, like that in Rio, or a smaller celebration in some obscure village hidden in the mountains, such as the one taking place in Quebrada de Humahuaca in Argentina. Either way, the origin and meaning of the festivity are the same.
The Best Kinds of Carnival
However, the second question is tricky, as it all depends on what you might be looking to experience. Because Rio’s Carnival is definitely one of the most exhilarating parties on Earth but, are you ready to handle the 2-million people multitude that gathers every night on the streets of Rio?
Choose Your Kind of Carnival
So, what is your kind of Carnival?
The Crazy Ones
These Carnivals are all about the party. Lots of music, dance, drinks, and non-stop fiesta, usually with many, many people around.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
The Carnival of Rio is by far the largest, most famous Carnival in the world. Besides some Mardi Gras images or iconic Venetian masks, Rio is what most people have in mind when they think about Carnival.
And with good reason. Just check out the following fun-facts about it:
- The 2020 Rio Carnival will have over 300 Carnival Street Parties. Next year, that number will surely grow.
- The Sambodromo (Samba Stadium) was originally designed by famous modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer and has a capacity for 72,000 samba-lovers.
- The Gay Costume Ball takes place on the last night of Carnival, Fat Tuesday. Organized by the famous Scala nightclub, it has become one of the most anticipated and extravagant events of the Carnival, as the LGBTQ+ community takes over the night and closes out the festivities in style.
The hometown of Shakira certainly knows how to party! Considered the second-largest in the world, the Carnival of Barranquilla is a delightful mix of color, dance and good vibes.
Included in the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2008, Barranquilla’s Carnival is a micro-cosmos of Colombian society (and Latin America’s too). In it, dances, instruments, and rhythms of European, African or indigenous people of the Americas, mix to create new cultural expressions.
Veracruz & Mazatlán, México
You can’t talk about great fiestas and not include a Mexican one. So, here you have two! One in the Gulf of Mexico, and the other one in the Pacific Ocean. Both are very similar in style and, even when the Carnival of Veracruz is the most famous, the one in Mazatlán has become a little more trendy recently.
Both Carnivals start with the Quema del Mal Humor (Burning of the Bad Mood) and end with another burning, that of Juan Carnaval, a character that represents the spirit of the Carnival.
In Veracruz, married ladies and single girls play a baseball match to decide who owns the town for the year. While in Mazatlán, they actually fight a naval battle right on the sea with a choreographed fireworks spectacle accompanying the action.
The Hipster Ones
Do you know how a hipster always finds something unique and different in everything he or she does? Well, this couple of Carnivals are unique and different. You won’t get a party for the ages, but the experience is like no other.
Recognized by UNESCO as Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, the Carnival of Oruro has a very indigenous flavor as the city was a center of pilgrimage way before the Spanish arrived to the Americas
The traditional Diablada (Dance of the Devils) is a ritualistic parade of hundreds of devils in a symbolic battle between the forces of Good and Evil.
The longest Carnival in the world, it runs for 40 days to compensate for the 40 days of Lent (you can’t deny their logic).
The African-Uruguayan music style of Candombe is the star of the festival, as Candombe is to the Carnival of Montevideo what Samba is to that in Rio.
Not the largest or most famous, but still worth a mention:
- Encarnación, Paraguay, with a 12,000-seats Sambadrome.
- Las Tablas, Panama, and its Mojadera (water spray).
- Quebrada de Humahuaca, Argentina, where a Pujllay (little devil) is dug up to dance and drink for nine days before being buried again for the rest of the year.
Useful Words for a Spanish-Speaking Carnival
|los fuegos artificiales||fway-gohs are-tee-fee-syah-lays||fireworks|
What else do you need to know about Carnivals in Latin America? It’s time to book those tickets, pack that suitcase and experience the spectacular fusion of cultures that these festivals celebrate! Then, if you like Latin American parties, maybe you’ll enjoy learning about their New Year’s celebrations. Just don’t forget to take your free class at Homeschool Spanish Academy and get ready for the fiesta!
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