by the San Pedro House of CultureA Unique Island Tradition!
El Gran Carnaval de San Pedro is a unique tradition to this island and San Pedro is one of the very last places in the country of Belize that still observes the Pre-lenten Carnaval. It is observed during the week leading up to Ash Wednesday and the Lenten Season. The Pre-lenten Carnaval is a pagan celebration during which time people indulge in bodily pleasures that they will have to give up during lent.
The celebrations begin with the selection of the Carnaval Queen (Reina del Carnaval) followed by the Carnaval Fiesta and culminates with three days of painting and comparsas (The singing dance groups). The celebrations end with the ceremonious burning of an effigy of Don Juan Carnaval on Ash Wednesday (Miercoles de Cenisa), which marks the beginning of Lent (Cuaresma).
During the nightly street festivities, children and adults flood the streets with raw eggs and water paint in hand to paint each other from head to toe.The Origin of Carnaval
Carnaval originated in medieval Europe. According to historians, the celebration has its roots in the pagan Roman celebration of Lupercalia, a February holiday honoring the Roman god of fertility. It involved feasting, drinking, and carnal behavior.
However, another possible explanation harkens back to an ancient pagan celebration involving a procession to the seashore led by an adorned wooden boat followed by paraders in masks. The festival, which honored the Egyptian goddess Isis, was adopted by the Romans and used as a blessing of the fleet at the beginning of the sailing season. The Romans called the event Carrus Navalis, or “ship cart,” easily corrupted to Carnaval.
One explanation for the name of the event is that it is derived from the Latin carne vale, or “farewell to meat or flesh” interpreted to mean letting go of the self, i.e., the social restraints of ordinary life.
The carnival of Cádiz, Spain, even now one of the best known, was particularly influential in shaping the traditions that would later predominate in San Pedro.Los Carnavalistas
Los Carnavalistas refers to persons and groups that organize, promote and keep the Carnaval tradition alive. Los Carnavalistas were tasked not only with composing songs for the comparsas, holding rehearsals but in getting everyone in a festive mood.
Abertano Guerrero was known as a great Carnavalista of the earlier days. Some of the well-known Carnavalistas in the 1940’s included persons such as Zosimo Rodriguez, Pepe Cardenez, Asita Lopez de Aguilar, Isabel Reyes, Juan Guerrero, and Luis Aguilar. Carnavalistas of later generations included Wilfrido “Fido” Nuñez, Japon Tzul, Cristino Muñoz, Osbaldo Cardenez, Benjamin “Benji” Cardenez, Guadalupe “Bensmat” Cardenez, Lincito Arceo. Severito Guerrero and Vilma Arceo are well-known Carnavalistas of the sixties, seventies and eighties. Armando “Jaman” Graniel, Guillermo “Mito” Nuñez, Tuli Lara, Adolfo Ayuso Sr., Turin Mora, Papi Graniel, Omero Graniel, Valdemar Graniel, Manuel Heredia Jr., Tino Gonzalez, Rigoberto Kumul and Pablo Kumul entertained the residents of San Pedro for over two decades.La Musica
In the past, the performances were accompanied by live music with some of the musicians playing violins, guitars, accordion, saxophones, trumpets or harmonicas. They wrote the words for their songs and put them to music.
In the early days, members of Maestro Modie’s band and members from La Banda de San Pedro played in the Carnaval celebrations.
Musicians of the next generation include Donaldo Guerrero (sax), Junior Muñoz (bombo), Wil Alamilla (guitar, accordion), Ovidio Guerrero (accordion), Alan Forman (bombo), Aldo Marin (accordion), Flavio Vasquez (guitar), Santiago Vasquez (guitar), Alberto Nuñez, Jose Gonzalez and Angel Nuñez (keyboard).
Today, Pete Salazar Jr., Alex Noralez, Nestor Rivero, David Aguilar, Ruben Gonzalez and Ramon Guerrero are the main musicians of Carnaval. Composer of the Carnaval songs include Angel Nunez, Felix Ayuso, Severito Guerrero and Manuel Ancona.Los Enmascarados
The Carnaval season began with Los Enmascarados (the masqueraders). Los Enmascarados were men in masks and various disguises who would dance through the streets of San Pedro at night. This usually occurred two to three weeks before the three days of Carnaval.
Accompanied by musicians, they would wear masks made from cardboard boxes and dress in ragged clothe like old men and women, witches, ghosts, demons, and even priests with black cassocks. One man would impersonate the devil (El Diablo) and scare the little children; only the priest could chase him away.
Los Enmascarados danced but did not speak so as to hide their identity. The event resulted in good natured fun, even if largely at the expense of terrified children. Throughout the year, parents often threatened misbehaving children with Los Enmascarados and sometimes got compliance.Los Disfraz
The month of January was characterized by Carnaval-related preparations and activities throughout the village. In addition to the performances of Los Enmascarados, men would dress up as women and go out at night to sing and dance in the street. Their songs were original and usually comical in nature or perhaps contained criticisms, puns or sarcasm. These performances were known as Los Disfraz or the disguise.
The Carnavalistas would compose songs based on events in San Pedro during the past year. One year just before Carnaval, Reynaldo left his wife, Doña Chela. The rumour in the village was that Doña Chela made some tamales, put a spell on them and invited her husband for lunch. The spell worked, and Reynaldo returned home. The Carnavalistas memorialized the situation in the following song for Carnaval:
Vengan muchachas, muchachos a gustar este disfraz
Para que vean de cierto la canción de este tamal
Soldadito de Don Juan, de Belice a Corozal
Fue buscando un yerbatero que le curen el tamalSabado de Bando
The Carnavalistas made their first appearance on Carnival Saturday known as Sabado de Bando (Saturday’s Carnaval Fiesta) and it marked the commencement of the celebrations.
The Carnavalistas painted their faces, often put on colourful costumes and, accompanied by musicians, stood on various street corners around San Pedro. The Carnavalistas started the celebrations with a satirical speech covering some of the main events of the year and ended with a call for everyone to come together for some unrestrained fun. They announced the schedule of events to passers-by with the use of cardboard megaphones.Baile de Disfraz
On Saturday night, the entire village, each person in a costume made especially for the occasion, would attend the baile de disfraz, or masquerade ball, held on La Esplanada, now Central Park. Benita Sansorez, wife of Anastacio “Tacio” Sansorez, organized the ball for many years.
Benita had a book containing pictures of a variety of costumes. For weeks before the ball, she went around the village sharing the book with the young people to give them ideas for their Carnaval disfraz, or disguise. All costumes were made locally.
Memorable costumes included the novia or bride, the Spaniard, the Caballero, the Inglesa or English lady, the Spanish dancer, the soldier and members of various ethnic groups, such as Negritos, Gringos, Chinitos, Cubanitos, Inditos and so on.Las Comparsas
The comparsas or singing dance groups, of San Pedro, like their Spanish cultural forbears, made great preparations for Carnaval. They wrote the words for their songs and put them to music. The comparsas then practiced for two to three weeks before Carnaval. Naturally, the group also put much effort into their creating their costumes.
During El Gran Carnaval de San Pedro, the comparsas danced through the streets of the village accompanied by musicians playing violins, trumpets, harmonicas, guitar, saxaphone and bombo.
The comparsas performed traditional Carnaval acts, usually of Spanish origin. Three crowd favourites were El Torito, La Estudiantina and El Flamenco.
The Carnaval performers also performed Carnaval acts of Afro-Spanish origin from Cuba, namely La Guaranducha, Los Negritos, Las Cubanitas and La Morena Trinidad. Some of the other popular dances that developed from the Carnavals are: Las Hawaiianas, Los Marineros, Los Chinitos, Las Rancheritas, Los Inditos, Los Arabes, La Mucura, La Húngara and Las SanDungas.La Pintadera
Carnaval in San Pedro also prominently featured “painting.” Sunday, the first of the three days of El Gran Carnaval de San Pedro, children and adults were allowed to “paint” anyone in the street with talcum powder or flour.
Special Carnaval eggs were also used as “ammunition.” Egg shells were filled with water and perfume and sealed with candle wax.
On Monday and Tuesday, painting was accomplished with other mild substances, such as lipstick, anil (blue wash) and tisne (black soot), usually mixed with coconut oil or lard to make the “perfect” paint. Another popular paint was made from almagre, an orange powder drifting ashore during World War II.
Today, during the nightly street festivities, children and adults flood the streets with raw eggs and water paint in hand to paint each other from head to toe.Don Juan Carnaval
The main character of the San Pedro Carnaval is the Juan Carnaval. The symbolic role of the Juan Carnaval is to carry all the sins, and take responsibility for all the bad things that occurred throughout the year.
Stories about Don Juan have been passed down through generations and Don Juan has been the main character of great literary books and plays since the 1600s. In all stories of Don Juan, the general storyline remains the same. Don Juan is a wealthy womanizer who took great pride in seducing women. He was known for seducing women, often times married and engaged. Legend has it that he slept with over a thousand different women from eight different countries, and fathered countless children. It is said that eventually he was stabbed to death by one of his jealous wives. Being a wealthy man, he left a will which is read on Ash Wednesday.El Testamento
At dusk on Ash Wednesday, everyone who participated in the Carnaval celebrations would set off in a procession around town with the novias, viudas and the effigy of Don Juan Carnaval. The group would stop at street corners for the reading of parts of Don Juan Carnaval’s last will and testament.
Traditionally, there was a re-enactment of the marriage of Don Juan to his beloved, where many of Don Juan’s former women weep with broken hearts, followed by a reading of his last will and testament at Central Park. In the spirit of celebration, the will of Don Juan was light, entertaining and humorous.
Don Juan was said to have known everybody’s secrets, and his will revealed some of them. Various villagers were targeted with jokes about their love life, future plans, or embarrassing moments. While the reading of the will delighted most of the crowd, sometimes the “jokes” were stinging and left Don Juan Carnaval’s “heirs” angry.El Quema de Juan Carnaval
The last Carnaval performance was the burning of Don Juan Carnaval, which took place on Ash Wednesday in San Pedro. Organizers made a life-sized figure of Don Juan Carnaval by stuffing a pair of trousers and a shirt with dried banana leaves and topping it with a large coconut “head.” A sombrero was placed on the head, on which the eyes, nose and mouth had been painted.
The gathering began at La Esplanada, where Don Juan would be accompanied by two or three brides. His brides were actually men dressed as women and wearing fishing nets for veils. The jealous brides would fight over Don Juan and eventually stab and kill him. The widow would wear a long white wedding dress, although usually pregnant, kept up an incessant wailing and bawling on behalf of her husband. The Carnaval participants would end at a vacant lot where Don Juan Carnaval was burnt, signifying the end of Carnaval.
The burning of the effigy of Don Juan has significance for San Pedranos. It represents the purification of the sins of the past year and the start of Lent in a state of purity and it is also an act of protection for the island, believed to protect the island from spells of misfortune.