Carnival in The Dominican Republic

The Dominican carnival is an explosion of joy. A show of cultural identity and spontaneity that encompasses many aspects of Dominican society. This joyful explosion is made evident with the increasing popularity of carnival each year in February. Many characters enrich the popular celebrations with unlimited color. However, the most popular and the most appreciated are the devils.

The origin of carnival in The Dominican Republic is closely entwined with its history. Its mixed cultural heritage imparts it its own unique style even as it is celebrated in the different regions of the country. At times, what shines through is that what is important at carnival time is that Dominicans share their joyous warmth , humility and passion for friendship. This joy is evident every Sunday in every village square with the culminating carnival parades at the end of each season.

The creativity of the people is manifested in the chants that the characters exchange with spectators, in the costumes of all participants and in the themes chosen by the proud clusters of participants in every parade. Carnival has become a popular celebration that encourages complete family participation. From very young children to young adults and older adults, everyone participates in their own way in this spontaneous bacchanalia of song and dance that awakens the feeling of being a Dominican with every passing weekend in February.

In The Dominican Republic, carnival is expressed differently throughout the different regions of the country. Each community adds its own particular flavor to the celebrations. However, most towns have a parade with groups of people dressed in the same colors or wearing the same costumes, some may be in floats, or they may wear masks and represent various allegorical characters.

In many of the towns, the tradition may include devils chasing spectators when they venture across their paths. The devils playfully tap celebrants with their traditional vejigas.

The most authentic and original ways to celebrate are obviously produced by the people's spontaneity. The humble masses improvise with the most unexpected materials in order to have a chance to take part in the carnival celebrations. Cardboard, plastic, discarded jugs, fruit, etc as well as improvised forms of make up are some of the ways the people make do. The people's imagination helps them create the most astonishing images of illusion and fantasy allowing them to forget and to have a merry time even if it is only for the season.


How masks are used

Masks have the power to transform those who wear them. When one wears a mask there is a transformation into someone different. Masks not only change the person wearing them, but also those who interact with them. The most ancient masks were used to represent supernatural spirits or to let us contact higher beings whom we believe may influence our lives. This spiritual use of masks is evident in some ancient African traditions and many native American tribes of the American North and West.

Some other ceremonial uses are found in Bali, for Example, where beliefs in interaction with the spiritual realm are very strong. Many of the rituals have to do with beliefs in the healing power of the beings represented, as found in some Sri Lankan traditions, as well as in the Iroquois Indians of North America. Sometimes the practices have to do with ushering in a good harvest or to bring about much needed rain in agricultural societies.

Many beliefs celebrate the beginning or the end of a season. The ancient Celts, for example, are the precursors of celebrating the end of the summer season. The celebration of Halloween, for instance, may be tied to the Celtic celebration of the spirits in late October when evil forces were repelled by bonfires.

In Tibet, the new year is ushered in by a masked "Cham" who chases demons and evil spirits.

In ancient Mexico, Pre-Columbian people celebrated, among others, the dance of the tiger. The jaguar was considered the king of the beasts because it was the most feared mammal in The Americas. The dance is performed with a wooden mask that represents the spirit of the jaguar. This dance is currently practiced in various regions of central Mexico.

In ancient Greece, the use of masks begins with performances by masked actors. These performances date from the VI Century A.D. Masks were used to help the actors convey stories and traditions that included feasts in honor of Dionysius the god of wine and plants.

For the most part, people tend to associate the use of masks with ancient pagan rituals. One wears a mask to seek protection from evil spirits during the time that we believe demons are present.

In the European Christian tradition, the word "carnaval" has been linked to the idea of "good bye to the flesh", referring to the 40 days of lent. During this time, Christians, in particular, Catholics were prescribed not to eat meat according to the traditional religious precepts. Therefore, the days preceding Lent became a period of abandon and indulging. The celebration becomes an escape to the pressure and to the rigidity of religious tradition.

In the case of Spain, where carnival is celebrated mainly in the south of the country, many towns , such as Cadiz, celebrate with elegant processions and parades with colorful, bright and elaborate costumes. In most regions in Spain, carnival is celebrated the week before Ash Wednesday. The streets are filled with costumes and floats. Parades and masks are an important part of the carnival celebrations. Carnival in Spain has a liberating aspect to it, in the sense that participants parody everyday life. The point is to laugh at rigidity, at authority and the rules that govern people"s lives , even if it is only for the moment. The intent is clearly to ridicule our frailties and faults by means of traditional chants, games and farces. Carnival has a tendency to equalize all social sectors. All sectors participate as one. Since The Dominican Republic is culturally Spanish, these influences are clearly felt in the Dominican carnival.

 


The Dominican Republic and its art

The Dominican Republic is situated in the center of the archipelago that forms the Greater Antillies. It is under The Tropic of Cancer in the Northern Hemisphere. The country extends 48,442 Square kilometers.

It occupies 2 thirds of the eastern end of the island of Hispaniola, which it shares with the nation of Haiti on the western end.

The island has a few navigable rivers and the climate is warm as it is typical of the tropics. The island was discovered and colonized by Spain. It was originally populated by Taino and Carib Indians that spoke the Arawak language. It is generally believed that Native Americans inhabited the island continually since 800 A.D.

In 1492 , the first European colony in the Americas is established, producing the first social and cultural institutions in the new world. The mixture of the Spaniards with the indigenous population, as well as the descendants of African slaves originate the typical Dominican with evident and diverse ethnicity.

Dominican art is a very important part of the culture. Contemporary Dominican sculpture and painting have their beginnings in the early 1930's with the immigration of Spanish artists and intellectuals who fled the civil war in Spain to become established in The Dominican Republic. With their arrival, the school of Beaux Arts is founded. It educated a new generation of Dominican artists who begin a tradition of painting and sculpture that its widely recognized internationally today.


The history of carnival celebrations in The Dominican Republic

The people's spontaneity plays an important part with respect to tracing the origin of carnival celebrations in The Dominican Republic. According to local legends, People in Santiago, in particular, began celebrating in the years subsequent to the nation's independence from Spain. Dominicans begin to develop their own identity as citizens. Traditions and celebrations begin to solidify and establish themselves as purely Dominican for the first time. It has been said that The Dominican carnival has various elements that enhance its origins. Many of its themes seem to have close connections with European or African elements, all of them mixed with celebrations once considered religious.

The local version of the ever present anthropomorphic devil, is El Diablo Cojuelo, (in Santiago, El Lechon). It has been suggested this character might be a referent stemming from Spanish literature, specifically from the novel, "Don Quijote" by Miguel de Cervantes, where a character appears described as a devil dressed in a costume with mirrors and bells and who carries an inflated animal bladder as his weapon.

In the towns of Santiago and La Vega, the origin of carnival is associated with activities common in developing provincial towns. In Santiago , Carnival started being celebrated as a social activity in a local club called "Club Santiago". In this club, wealthy families gathered to celebrate dances and society balls where for the first time masks and costumes are worn. Many families in Santiago still maintain close ties with the land of their forefathers who came directly from Spain and some continue to preserve their beliefs and traditions. When some of the upper class families begin to distance themselves from the masses, a new club is created, "El Centro de Recreo". This society club holds private functions for upper crust families where private masquerade balls are held.

The celebrations then begin to involve all social classes. At this point most of the towns by the early 1900's already had their own local celebrations. This is where the idea of availing yourself of a costume and mask or make yourself up begins to become popular with all social groups.

In the beginning, the different groups of people that paraded down the main street had difficulty getting around the crowds. It is said that the devils came about because the costumed participants needed some bodyguards to facilitate their movement in the crowd. The devils used a whip and an inflated pig bladder to ward off the crowds.

These beginning days of carnival celebrations have been spoken of as a duality describing episodes of sadness in our history (the war of independence) that are celebrated with dance and revelry. They seem to be a rebirth after death, a spring celebration of fertility in a land sometimes inhospitable. A celebration with euphoric and deafening sounds that help the people forget repression and bad times. Ironically, carnival celebrations begin to replace the fervor with which Dominicans once celebrated their feast of independence.

Many of the towns in the interior hold their local celebrations after holy week. Some have been known to burn their masks after each celebration. These practices include the spreading of the ashes over the soil. This events seem to have an obvious connection with spring celebrations common in other cultures which denote rebirth and renewal in springtime. This ritual aspect of regional celebrations is not surprising when we consider other European traditions that have been transplanted in the Americas.

 


Dominican creativity

The fact that The Dominican Republic is an island might provide us with some insight into why we celebrate carnival with such vigor and enthusiasm. During a time in our history, the island was abandoned by Spain for a period of time. The Island was invaded and ransacked repeatedly by pirates and opportunists. Dominicans have developed an ability to survive and make do with the most limited of resources and in the most extreme conditions of despair without the option of receiving any help from any outside source. This can do attitude has helped Dominicans develop an admirable and unlimited creative ability. Throughout the years , the masks and costumes have been created by using discarded materials and pieces of scrap left over from local industries. When children do not have any money or the means to acquire a mask, they fashion them out of cardboard or some recycled plastic, for example. They have devised many different ways to paint their faces without actually having to buy make up.

Dominican carnival is celebrated principally in February. There are presently a few communities that prolong their celebrations to include a few days in March.

Each Sunday afternoon in February, in every major town groups of children, and adults alike shed their inhibitions and wear all kinds of costumes and masks assuming the identity of the different carnival characters. These characters, such as the chicken thief (Robalagallinas), The Bear Man (Nicolas Den Den), Los Indios (The Indians), etc., all come with their own particular folk story and invite their own corresponding traditional chant. However, the devil, is always the central protagonist in all festivities. Known by many different names; "Lechones", "Diablos Cojuelos", "Toros", or "Cachuas" ; all represent the evil one. The conceptual framework that outlines the identity of all these devils is the eternal confrontation between the forces of good and evil. The Diablos cojuelos, in fact, according to popular legend dress in a colorful, and somewhat ridiculous costume that many have suggested mocks the appearance of the earlier colonizers of the Americas. The people started to view the Europeans as the oppressors. All these influences intermingle with a varied array of costumes which appear to be a product of the popular imagination.


La Vega


Visiting maskmaker in La Vega

The towns of Santiago and La Vega have traditionally celebrated carnival with the most continuity. These two towns stand out as having the most original and most recognizable Dominican masks. Carnival in La Vega is celebrated in a somewhat different fashion that in Santiago. La Vega is similar in that it is a provincial community, mainly sustained by agriculture and cattle ranching. Its provincial character makes La Vega a more traditionalist environment and in the process becomes a protector of its local folklore and traditions. As in traditional carnival celebrations, carnival in La Vega is celebrated on two levels. The popular carnival, celebrated every Sunday in the central plaza and its environs. It includes the massive and unlimited participation of the people . In second place, the social carnival . These are carnival celebrations in private clubs, local businesses and their employees, as well as contests and other private balls which limit participation to members.

The popular carnival in La Vega allows participation of registered groups known as comparsas. These groups are well organized and many have participated together for many years. The groups can include from 10 to 15 people and sometimes many more. The traditional costumes are carefully sewn months in advance and are very elaborate and colorful. The masks from La Vega are unmistakable because they are extremely frightening, many times grotesque and very elaborate. They are highly decorated with rhinestones and feathers. They generally have bulging eyes with bloodshot veins and rows upon rows of sharp fangs that seem to sprout out of their menacing, scowling mouths. The horns are short and can be as many as 3 on either side.

A veritable cottage industry has been created to provide masks to all the groups that take part in all the activities every year in February. The preparations can begin as early as December, creating much needed economic activity for the town.

Carnival in La Vega is one of the most popular celebrations in the country. Many people from all over the nation, as well as from other countries, are taking an annual trip to take part in the celebrations. The event appears to get the support and protection of private citizens and businesses, as well as the government. The carnival events are getting more and more organized and it seems to have paid off since their popularity continues to increase.


Santiago




Visiting maskmaker in Santiago

In Santiago, carnival has more historically verifiable roots. Santiago has always been considered a town where many of the political forces that have ruled the nation have originated. In particular, because many families of influence have traditionally resided in Santiago. This is evident in the popular myth that most Dominican presidents have come from Santiago. The popular celebrations in Santiago have been preserved thanks to the class interplay typical of a provincial town. The duality of the popular carnival and the celebrations in private clubs is also manifest in Santiago. People in Santiago are very proud of their very unique and very original costumes. People from all social classes work very hard to preserve this very valuable and irreplaceable part of the identity of the people of Santiago.

The celebration is kicked off every year with a very serious and well organized mask making competition where many local artisans attempt to impress a panel of judges with their most colorful and impressive creations in various categories. This wonderful event confers great artistic recognition to the creations entered by the most humble and, in many cases, unknown mask makers in the town. Thus becoming a celebration of popular creativity and ingenuity. These contests preserve a very unique and very special part of Dominican culture in the region.

Some local legends describe the Diablo Cojuelo, or Lechon as a demon who was banished to Earth for being such a clownish prankster. The demon fell awkwardly and hurt his leg. Therefore, he is called "cojuelo", or "The one who walks with a limp". When the devils parade, he walks as if he were limping. The Lechones in Santiago are the local conception of zoomorphic creatures that appear wherever pseudo Christian and/or pagan celebrations take place around Ash Wednesday. In Santiago , the tradition of making paper mache masks probably came with Spanish colonizers centuries ago. In Santiago, to be precise, after the War of Restoration in which Dominicans celebrated their recently regained independence, the carnival tradition dates back to the 1870's.

There are two basic mask types in Santiago which originated in two different neighborhoods. The mask from La Joya has multiple small horns attached around the two main horns. This mask has a longer, pointed snout. The second type is Los Pepines. It has a broader face which sometimes can be likened to that of a duck. Its horns are smooth and generally longer. The different styles probably originated because of long standing rivalries between the neighborhoods. The ongoing battle for bragging rights is kept alive by the advent of different styles of masks every few years. This desire to make your own neighborhood stand out has in turn propelled the local artisans to come up with unique designs to represent the different groups from all over the town.

How the masks are made

The making of masks in Santiago is closely connected with the agrarian and cattle farming culture in the Dominican Republic. In Santiago, the slaughterhouse played an important role earlier on. The slaughterhouse leftovers such as teeth, hides, horns and the like, provided a ready made source of materials for the earlier mask makers. It is easy to imagine that the horns and the desiccated bladders originated in the subculture of the slaughterhouse. The slaughterhouse was located in La Joya, one of the neighborhoods that historically has celebrated carnival since its inception in Santiago. La joya was right next to the river.

From the river, therefore, clay is extracted to fabricate the molds to shape the face structure of the mask. The mold is formed freehand and its measurements are adjusted by using a ribbon to measure the wearer's head. The mold is dried in the sun. The molds can dry in about a day given the prevalent hot sun of the tropics. The horns are formed around left over horns from the slaughterhouse. They are used as molds over and over every year. Mostly old newspapers are used as the source for paper. Brown paper grocery bags are sometimes used. 7 to 8 layers of paper are placed on the molds to make sure the shell is resistant enough to be worn a few times. The preferred adhesive is yuca starch cooked into a paste and preserved with lime juice and rind to prevent the mix from spoiling in the heat. Once the horns are attached to the face structure, holes are drawn and cut for the eyes and mouth.

When the mask has been properly sanded and polished it is painted with household oil paint. After the mask is painted and dried, pieces of foam are placed on the inside to accommodate the wearer's face. The last step is to fit it with elastic bands to fasten it to the head.




Ivan Erickson is a native of the Dominican Republic, now a citizen of The US, who works to promote the art of Dominican mask making in communities around Long Island and New York. He has received support from The East End Art Council, The NY State Council on The Arts , The Huntington Arts Council and The New York Folklore Society for various projects. His work comes after years of direct observation and informal training with traditional mask makers in Santiago, Dominican Republic, where he grew up and went to school. He visits periodically with mastercraft people in his hometown to keep abreast of new ideas and to enjoy carnival. He starts each mask with a clay mold for the face structure and adds horns molded on real cow's horns to the finished shell. After days of layering, glueing, drying, and sanding, the masks are finished with sign painters enamels. All his masks are one of a kind pieces. They range from 25'' X 30'' to 30'' X 40''. He may be contacted at ivan@dominicanmasks.com