Mardi Gras in Latin America: Carnival and Hispanic Culture
Mardi Gras is upon us! The festivities have arrived. Every year, they bring plenty of color and celebrations around the world.
If you’re not familiar with Mardi Gras and its origins, it’s a Christian holiday that dates back thousands of years ago to pagan spring and fertility rites. Today, Mardi Gras is a cultural phenomenon.
In Hispanic culture, Mardi Gras is known as Carnaval. The celebrations are so emblematic and often full of debauchery that many of them have evolved to be week-long festivals that are a prelude to Lent. In Spanish-speaking countries, Mardi Gras is a celebration that must be experienced.
Let’s dive into the vivid Mardi Gras celebrations of Latin America.
Are Carnival and Mardi Gras Different?
The name Mardi Gras comes from the French words “mardi” (Tuesday) and “gras” (Fat). The concept of “Fat Tuesday” refers to the day before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent.
The 40 days of Lent that follow are meant to be a period of penance and fasting that culminate on Easter Sunday. In the old days, the Mardi Gras tradition consisted of binging on rich, fatty foods; anticipating the arrival of several weeks of fasting and sacrifice.
The tradition originated with the arrival of Christianity to Rome, leading to its expansion to countries like England, Portugal, Spain, Italy, and ultimately the Americas.
Mardi Gras and Carnival are the same holiday, although they vary depending on the people celebrating it and their cultural traditions. The word carnaval comes from the Medieval Latin word Carnelevarium, which means “to take away meat”; thus, the two names of this festivity are closely related.
Latin American Mardi Gras Celebrations
If you celebrate Mardi Gras back home, you know this holiday is full of flashy costumes, savory foods, live music, and all the dancing you can imagine! Like in New Orleans and Venice; Latin American Mardi Gras celebrations also go above and beyond in being memorable to those who attend. The festivities are marked by a cultural blend of traditions that have evolved since they were brought to America by European colonizers.
Let’s take a look at how eight Latin American countries celebrate Carnival each year!
El Carnaval de Barranquilla was first celebrated after the Spanish brought the festivities to the city of Cartagena. Originally, only African slaves took to the streets with musical instruments, traditional garments, song, and dance.
Today, Colombian Mardi Gras welcomes over 300,000 people from all over the country celebrating Colombia’s diversity, folklore, and modern art. Barranquilla’s Carnaval parade is the second largest in the world and has a different theme each year.
Mardi Gras celebrations in Mexico are as large and diverse as the country.
Towns like Mazatlán focus on highlighting Mexico’s culture, adding banda and grupera music to the mix. It’s the third largest Mardi Gras celebration in the world and welcomes thousands of visitors from all over Sinaloa and surrounding states. The cultural relevance of Mazatlán’s Mardi Gras celebrations includes hosting La Velada de las Artes (Evening of the Arts) and honoring the winner of the Premio Mazatlán de la Literatura (Mazatlan Award for Literature).
El Carnaval de Mazatlán is such a welcoming party that it’s out of the question to be upset during the festivities. On the second day of the festival, attendants celebrate the quema del mal humor (burning of the bad mood). This tradition is an essential part of the Mazatlán Carnival and allows those who celebrate it to get rid of negative vibes by burning them before jumping in on a celebration that goes on for a week. Sinaloenses party under the philosophy of hasta que el cuerpo aguante, meaning you party until your body drops.
Other Mexican towns including Oaxaca, Mérida, Veracruz, and Campeche embrace the folklore and traditions of the different ethnicities and indigenous cultures. Mexican parades include costumes resembling Spanish colonizers, Mayan and Aztec characters, and mythical creatures. The celebration encourages partygoers to wear costumes and masks. There’s live music, plenty of drinking, and eating as many traditional Mexican dishes as you can imagine.
Mardi Gras celebrations in Guatemala usually begin on Thursday and finish on Martes de Carnaval. Musical parades take place all over the country but the true celebration focuses on younger generations. It’s tradition for kids to wear costumes and prepare unique handmade cascarones, colorful egg shells full of confetti known as pica-pica.
In the days leading up to Mardi Gras, cascarones are for sale all over the streets of Guatemala, and they’re a creative activity many Guatemalan kids enjoy at school. The highlight of the celebration is when children crack the cascarones on each other’s heads, making it a holiday suitable for families and people of all ages.
Mardi Gras is celebrated in different parts of Venezuela, the largest celebration being held in El Callao. The festivities focus on highlighting the ethnic diversity of Venezuela and feature parades with Calypso music and emblematic characters known as los diablos (the devils) del Callao.
Los diablos represent the magical-religious part of the festival. They dress in white, red, black, and yellow, covering their faces with large masks with threatening faces. With their contagious dance, they make those around them jump in on the fun. The Carnival of El Callao is known worldwide. In 2016, it was declared Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.
Uruguay is recognized for having the longest Mardi Gras celebrations in the world. Beginning on January 21st, Uruguay’s Carnival is known for the music, fantasy, and rich colors of the parades. It lasts over 45 days with the festivities finishing in mid-March.
Montevideo hosts comedy shows, theater, and costume contests. Mardi Gras is an immense holiday for Uruguayans; it even has a museum! If you get a chance to dabble in these events, you can even join dance rehearsals and practice your Samba skills.
Located at an altitude of 3,700 meters above sea level, the town of Oruro hosts Bolivia’s biggest Mardi Gras celebration. It takes place over six days and displays a range of popular arts in the form of masks, textiles, and embroidery. The main event of the carnival is the procesión (parade) where dancers strut for twenty hours in a four-kilometer stretch. El Carnaval de Oruro has more than 28,000 dancers and 10,000 musicians distributed into fifty groups. It was declared Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2001.
The Dominican Republic’s Mardi Gras celebrations are a gathering of people who hit the streets looking to enjoy a good time. The elements that stand out are a mixture of African traditions brought by the slaves transported to the New World by European colonizers.
El Carnaval Dominicano hosts the Califé Show, where they make fun of controversial politicians and celebrities, making it a playful and amusing celebration. Another curiosity of this holiday is when partygoers hide candy for children to find and pretend to steal their neighbor’s farm animals.
A must for true partygoers and fans of Mardi Gras. It was first celebrated in 1840 with polka and waltz dancing, and in 1917, Samba became the star of the event. The Carnival of Río de Janeiro has become more than a traditional celebration, it’s home to the best Samba dancers and world-class dance competitions.
Mardi Gras in Brazil welcomes millions of people from around the world. It’s a celebration unlike anything you’ve ever seen or experienced with the bright colors, elaborate sequin costumes, delicious food, and large parade floats.
To learn more about the origins of Carnival in Latin America, read Carnival in Latin America: history, tradition, and party!
How do You Celebrate Mardi Gras?
Carnival in Latin America is a huge deal, it has continued to evolve and grow. I hope this blog post gives you more insight on how Latinos enjoy this fantastic holiday.
Are you ready to kick-off the festivities? How do you celebrate Carnival back home? Is it as big as in Latin America? I would love to hear your thoughts. Leave a comment and tell me your favorite part about Mardi Gras!
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