The carnival in Barranquilla might seem like an escape from Colombia’s violent reality. For many Colombians, though, the rhythms, colours and the contagious joy proves that there’s still hope for this war-torn country.
I wake up Saturday, the first of four carnival days, to the sound of the neighbours’ music resonating through the walls. They are playing cumbia, vallenato, reggaeton, salsa, champeta and other rhythms that get my feet moving even before I open my eyes. Everywhere in the working class neighbourhoods of Barranquilla, like here in Villate, loud music is streaming out of picos – enormous speakers. Not only from people’s living rooms, but also from the boots of their cars or on the pavement outside their homes. The desire to share one’s musical preferences with those around you is a characteristic trait of the Caribbean coast, as Alejo Suárez explains:
«If we’re happy, everybody realizes we’re happy, because we turn on the stereo, letting everyone hear our music. And if we are sad, we do exactly the same, he says with a smile.
Coming to Barranquilla at this time of the year is a vitamin boost of dancing people and Caribbean rhythm. The celebration in this city on the Colombian Atlantic Coast reflects Colombia in all its complexity: love of life, dance and music, glamorous carnival queens and popular TV celebrities, the parodic funeral of the rum-drinking womanizer Joselito. And suddenly someone appears on the scene with a machine gun and ruins the party.
The most important parades pass throught Vía 40, the street that runs parallel to the Magdalena River. They are inspired by the spectacular carnival in Rio de Janeiro, which draws heavy sponsorship from local business and costs a lot if you want to sit on one of the stands that are built for the occasion. For those who cannot afford it, or who dislike how commercialized the carnival has become, there are alternative parades which go through the Carrera 44.
I am watching La Gran Parada – the Grand Parade – together with some friends from a stand close to the marine base. Death passes in front of us; behind him an Indian covered in war paint appears, and then a couple of clown-like marimondas and monocucos come dancing along. A headless man walks slowly by, a transvestite poses in bikini streaching out his long legs, and the carnival queen smiles, sweaty and tired, in a gold glittering designerdress. Finally I see some children wearing colourful masks of bulls, vultures, leopards and gorillas.
«When I wear a costume, I enjoy the carnival much more, because I play a role in it», explains Cristóbal Padilla. «You begin to joder la vida – make fun of people. Some of them want to take a picture with you, or they invite you to sit down and join them. You dance with people without knowing who they are, and you get to drink rum for free», he says and laughs.
I meet him during la Noche de Tambó – the drum evening – where he dances cumbia in a crowd of people that moves slowly around the scene, forming a big circle. In the middle of the dancing audience at Peace Square, Petrona Martínez, Totó la Mamposina, Los Gaiteros de Ovejas and other folk musicians are playing and singing. The public, some of them dressed up in large cumbia skirts, others with pink wigs, sombreros vueltiaos and colourful blouses, get carried away by the rhytm.
The route of happiness and pain
Like other carnivals in Latin America, this carnival is also a result of encounters between different cultures. The catholic carnival celebration, which incorporated elements from pagan fertility rites, combined with precolonial and African rituals and festive traditions and developed into something new.
People from all over northern Colombia have brought their legends, costumes and dances to Barranquilla, in particular from the villages at the shores of the powerful Magdalena River, which flows into the sea close to Barranquilla. The carnival of today can be considered a cultural journey through this river, made famous by Gabriel García Márquez’s novels, «Love in the Time of Cholera» and «The General in his Labyrinth».
«The Magdalena River is the route of happiness and carnival heritage leading to Barranquilla. In these villages, so rich in culture, you find joyful and hardworking people», says Danny González.
Normally he is a university lecturer in History of Arts at the University of Atlántico, but now he appears in the doorway of his house wearing a red devil mask which he quickly takes off and reveals a big smile. While the parades have been passing by his house, he and some friends have been drinking rum on the patio. I am invited in and offered a glas as well. As it gets dark, Danny explains that he prefers to celebrate the carnival from the sidelines, from people’s perspective.
He travelled down the Magdalena River in search for the roots of carnival. On his way he stopped at several villages and spoke to people who originated some of the traditions still alive in this enormous, popular celebration. Many of them feel ignored and sidelined by the official carnival organizers. At the same time, they have been harshly affected by the internal armed conflict:
«People have been subjected to massacres and persecution, primarily by the paramilitary, but also by the guerrilla groups. Their land has been stolen from them and they have been displaced from their homes. Many of them have ended up as internally displaced people in Barranquilla. Therefore the Magdalena River is also an escape route. It is a route of pain and violence.»
700 000 people have been internally displaced from their homes on the Caribbean coast as a result of the conflict between the armed forces, the paramilitary groups and the guerrilla. The paramilitaries in northern Colombia, under the command of Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, alias Jorge 40, have committed a significant percentage of the abuses. The so-called Bloque Norte was demobilized in March 2006, but continuing reports of violent activities in the region suggest that the paramilitary structures have not been totally dissolved.
It is still much that is unclear about the demobilization of the paramilitaries, Danny points out. He mentions the threats against the musician and ethnographer Yamil Cure, who participated in the carnival with his project «The King of the River», focusing on the importance of the Magdalena River. He was accused of rebellion, received threats and was forced to leave the city together with his family in 2005.
Alfredo Correa was another carnival enthusiast who suffered baseless accusations of rebellion. This sociologist and unionist was imprisoned for a month in 2004. Two months later he was shot and killed close to his home in the north of Barranquilla. Paramilitary hitmen carried out the killing and Jorge Noguera, the former director of the intelligence agency under the president, has been sentenced to 25 years of prison for co-responsibility for the killing. He was found guilty of conspiring with the paramilitaries and of having provided them with lists of leftist activists and labour union leaders, some of whom later turned up dead.
Carnival: A matter of Life and Death
Although the carnival is first and foremost a celebration of the joy and beauty of life, the war is also a part of it. When I travel from Santa Marta towards Barranquilla, the bus stops at a checkpoint. Suddenly teenagers dressed up in camouflage uniforms point at the travelers with huge toy weapons, remenicent of the roadblocks sat up by illegal armed groups, where people were threatened with death, kidnapped and sometimes even killed. By acting out this kind of serious scenario, the carnival reflects the Colombian reality in all its complexity. This also happens when people parody political characters, guerrilla soldiers and paramilitaries during the parades.
«They are removed from the war scenario and ridiculed», Cristóbal Padilla says.
In the traditional Garabato dance even the Grim Reaper enters the scene. He fights with men and women dressed in vibrant colours, armed with batons, smiles and sensual movements. In this way, life overcomes death year after year. But death is not only a mythical figure: Participating in the carnival could mean risking your life for human rights defenders and others who are suffering political persecution.
«I avoid carnival, because you never know if a killer is hiding behind a mask», explains the university lecturer, poet and unionist Rubén Darío Arroyo from Barranquilla, who had to escape from the city because of threats. On the other hand, Cristóbal, who just like Rubén Darío dreams of political change, says he never has stopped enjoying the carnival. Although hitmen could hide behind masks and costumes, he responds by disguising himself as well. He is not afraid, even though he once saw the paramilitary leader Rodrigo Tovar with his own eyes during carnival:
«I saw him on a stand. We were sitting on the same stand as Jorge 40. I would have thought it impossible for the paramilitaries to gain acces to Barranquilla, because of the resistance and the peaceful attitude of the people. But money corrupts, and they managed to get in via the mafia».
The death and resurrection of Joselito
The carnival celebration continues until Tuesday, when black coffins are carried out to the streets. People are mourning Joselito Carnaval, a rum-drinking womanizer who leaves behind a whole army of widows in black clothes – most of them men disguised as women – after four days of heavy partying. It is said that Joselito rises from the dead on the first day of carnival, and that he dies on the last day, tired and with a massive hangover, and is then brought back to life again the following year.
That this parodic incarnation of the Casanova from the Caribbean coast plays such an important role during the celebration, may have to do with the nature of the carnival itself. The word carnival derives from the latin word carnelevarium, wich means «goodbye meat» and refers to the Catholic prohibition against eating meat and having sex during the 40 days of Lent. The carnival is a time of freedom and celebration of the joys of life, which contrasts to the austerity and abstinence of fasting.
On Ash Wednesday, the day after the carnival has ended, the believers go to church to ask for forgiveness for their sins. Wigs and sombreros are replaced by grey crosses on people’s foreheads. According to Cristóbal Padilla, though, not everything is lost when Joselito is buried:
«Even though Joselito dies, the joy doesn’t come to an end. People are crying and mourning – but then the happiness continues. They are joking with death. I believe that’s what it is all about. The carnival has to do with hope. The pain may go to hell… The carnival responds with life.»