Our Community - El Gran Carnaval de San Pedro

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 15, No. 4            January 27, 2005

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Comparsas are a wonderful tradition during Carnaval. Year round the sight most anticipated is the men Comparsa, where they dress as women and dance to their heart's delight.
The tradition continues this year with the traditional painting. Kids and adults hit the streets to color each other with paint.

El Gran Carnaval de San Pedro is a unique tradition to this island and one that has been passed down from generation to generation. Although, it seems that with time, some of these wonderful customs are slowly disappearing, many people are striving to keep our traditions alive. Let us travel back to a time when long-time residents of San Pedro, Felipe Paz Sr. (Tio Pil) and Lucio Guerrero (Don Lucito) celebrated this event. The following is what was learned as they reminisced and recalled their fondest memories of Carnaval.

     In the early 1940s, El Gran Carnaval de San Pedro was one of the most anticipated events of the year. It was a time when Sosimo Rodriguez, Pepe Cardenez, Asita Lopez de Aguilar, "Chequete," Isabel Reyes, Luis Aguilar, and others were the "Kings" and "Queens" of carnaval. They were the most well-known "carnavalistas" (carnaval organizers) of the village, responsible for writing and composing comparsas, and getting everyone in a festive mood.

     Carnaval is celebrated annually, on the three days before Ash Wednesday (miercoles de senisa) when Catholics begin the forty-day season of lent. In the early days of carnaval, the program for the grand event was officially announced on Saturday, known as "sabado de bando." In those days, there were very few means of entertainment. Carnaval organizers would paint their faces and/or wear colorful costumes and then stand on different corners of the village accompanied by musicians. They would announce the schedule of events to passers-by using cardboard megaphones, as no electronic amplifiers were available then. Carnaval was basically divided into two groups comparsas (street dancing) and painting.

     Comparsas, in those days, was a very special part of the celebration and it was taken quite seriously. The entire process of planning the comparsa was, in itself, a big deal. First the words of the song were written, next the music was composed and finally the costumes created. Then the practicing commenced and continued for the next two to three weeks prior to the beginning of carnaval. The comparsas usually depicted an ethnic group such as Negritos, Gringos, Chinitos, Cubanitos, Inditos and so on. But it would not be carnaval if one of the comparsa groups did not perform the always-entertaining "Torito" (bull fight dance) and La Estudiantina, a village favorite. La Estudiantina was a potpourri of songs and dances that included the Waltz, Dansa, Shotish, Zapateo, Danzon and Corrido. Providing the rhythm for the comparsas were many talented musicians who were always willing to perform lively music with their violins, trumpets or harmonicas. Those who did not own an instrument were satisfied to be part of the "band" by beating a steel pan or tin can. Since vehicles, in those days, were almost non-existent, the entertainers had the streets to themselves as they made their way around the village performing from house to house. To show support for those participating, the villagers would rise early during the three days of carnaval, do their household chores and patiently await the comparsas. The villagers would join and follow the first three to four comparsas who came out. Those who were a little more shy opted to stay home but supported the "carnavalistas" by using their hard-earned money to pay a whopping 25 to 50 cents as a tip for the entertainment provided by the comparsas. For three days the streets of San Pedro were filled with fun, wonderful music and colorful costumes.

     Comparsas, though, was not the only means of celebrating carnaval. The other festive activity was enjoyed by the "painters." This way of celebrating carnaval in the 1940s was slightly different than it is today, or perhaps it is safer to say, it was done in a more orderly fashion. The first day of carnaval Sunday, was when children and adults were allowed to paint anyone in the street with talcum powder or flour. In those days, if you were out on the street, you were playing or participating in carnival. This was done in a very gentle and mannerly way. Eggs were also a symbol of carnaval. Two small holes were poked into an egg to allow its content to be blown out. The shell would then be set aside to dry before being filled with water and perfume. A piece of cloth was then placed over the holes and sealed with candle wax. Eggs were gently cracked on the head of other "painters" leaving a sweet scent in the air. On the second day, other mild substances were used such as "almagre" (a red powder that was mixed with water to make something similar to water-based paint), "anil" (blue wash) and black soot mixed with coconut oil or lard. Many of the pots on the fire hearth were kept clean during carnaval as everyone wanted some "precious" soot for painting.

     On Ash Wednesday, the locals performed the last carnaval tradition the burning of Don Juan Carnaval. Don Juan Carnaval was a (loudly outspoken), life-sized stuffed doll, and knew everybody's secrets. Two to three "novias" (brides) of Don Juan Carnaval would accompany him at a special gathering usually held at La Esplanada (now Central Park). His brides were actually men, dressed as women, who wore fishing nets for veils. They wept over the death of their beloved Don Juan Carnaval and then his will was read. The will was the best fun and sometimes the most controversial part of this activity. Various people from the village would be targeted and jokes made about their love life, future plans, etc. The whole purpose of this was for everyone to have a good time, but many times the jokes backfired, sometimes causing Don Carnaval's "heirs" to become angry. Following the reading of the will, Don Juan Carnaval was burnt, thus ending another year of carnaval.

     Throughout the years as the older "carnavalistas" departed from this earth, the next generation inherited their talent. Taking their place were extraordinary carnavalistas such as Fido Nuñez, Christino Muñoz, Obaldo Cardenez, Don Severito Guerrero and Doña Vilma Arceo (all deceased) who continued the tradition. Today, carnaval comparsas and painters are kept alive thanks to the dedication of Mr. Lucito Guerrero and his sons Ramon and Severo Guerrero, Señor Jose "Spanish" Pacifico, the San Pedro Lions Club and many others in "Our Community" who strive to make El Gran Carnaval de San Pedro a tradition that will live forever.

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