The Dominican Republic’s annual carnival – as well as a religious pre-Lenten festival – is also a celebration of independence from Haiti on 27 February 1844.
Carnival takes over the whole island – as it does most of the Latin American Caribbean region – every February. It is a major event in the cultural center of Santiago and many other towns, with La Vega especially noted for its Carnaval Vegano held every Sunday during the month. La Vega is partying hard as I squeeze through the welcoming crowds who line the streets while the pre-carnival parade of church groups, bands and cheerleaders make their way around the center.
Once the main event gets underway, I am at first overwhelmed by the mix of colorful costumes, masks and loud music, but I soon start to understand that there are several distinct groups here too. Most wear bright, bulky padded costumes and large, eye-bulging devil masks – competing against each other in style imagination. But darting among them are dancers more simply dressed just in a swimsuit but covered from head to toe in mud, and others in what looks like used black engine oil. It turns out that is exactly what it is.
“Those are Africans – Los Tiznaos or The Stained Ones,” says local historian Carlos Romero. “They are from Santo Domingo and the Mudmen are from Bonao. If you don’t pay them a fine, they may rub against you and ruin your clothes. It’s a way of raising money to pay for the other costumes. These are poor people and the costumes for each neighborhood group, or comparsa, cost a lot. There are about a dozen or so people in a comparsa and they practise for weeks, if not months. Many have been together for years.”
While everyone is friendly, and the Tiznaos leave me alone, Carlos does have one other warning: “Watch out for the Vejiga, too – that’s an inflated animal bladder or balloon that the devils hit you with. They especially love to whack girls on the backside. It brings good luck – they say. Their original job was to clear people out of the way so the parade could get through.”
The Diablo Cojuelo or Limping Devil reflects the religious roots of carnival, and a similar character is described in the novel Don Quijote by Miguel de Cervantes. “He limps because he hurt his leg falling to earth after being banished from heaven because of his mischief,” says Carlos. The holy origins may also explain the lack of women in revealing costumes so dominant in other carnivals such as Rio’s – although many spectators counter the heat by wearing the bare minimum of clothing themselves.
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