Almost a year ago I sat in a conference where one of the speakers stated that El Carnaval was one big coming out party. He continued by adding that this coming out was not limited to sexuality but also included spirituality, gender, and class. This explanation made perfect sense to me. I remembered how for a couple of Sundays in February I would leave my Catholic school uniform at home, changed into the most revealing clothes I owned, and made my way to La Vega for one of the most popular carnaval celebrations in the Dominican Republic. For a couple of days a year I became the woman my family warned me against becoming, the one that for the majority of the year hid anxiously under a knee length skirt. Years later I sit in front of my computer writing an article about the very Carnaval that once freed me.
Many attribute the Dominican carnaval to European origins, but like other colonized traditions, and beliefs, this strips them from all the other components that went into making this tradition what it is today. In the beginning of my research almost all of the articles connected the carnaval’s origins to paganism, but my research showed otherwise. The actual origins of the carnaval we know today are closer to ancient African traditions, which included parading and circling around the village while wearing costumes and masks. Aside from the name, and the religious connection, there was not much contribution made to the Carnaval in terms of its European origins.
The Dominican carnaval is a huge festivity in which the people gather in public spaces and streets to celebrate, express, and transform themselves. Historically, the church, local governors, and slave owners encouraged celebrations like this in Hispaniola, as a way to release pent up pressures. They would release the slaves and allow the poor people to have their carnavals in order to prevent a revolt. Historian Lynn Guitar writes, “Black beauty and sensuality were openly admired…poor women dressed in extravagant gowns—or in barely anything—while men dressed up as women and the “dead” came to life.” This was a celebration for the people, under the pretenses of a religious celebration. One of the earliest carnavals took place in “La Vega Vieja” and was documented by a Spanish traveler in 1520.
When the colony became the Dominican Republic, the carnaval took a more patriotic theme as they celebrated their independence from their neighbor Haiti in 1844 and the Dominican Restoration war in 1865. During the 1916-1924 American occupation, all celebrations in the form of carnaval were prohibited. The efforts of the Marines were focused on modernizing the country through a process of sanitization that they hoped would lead to the “whitening” of the nation. This included the removal of any practices associated with blackness, the carnaval being one of them. The Carnaval was continued after the end of the occupation and new elements were added as a celebration. One example of this is the bee costume still used in the Carnaval in Constanza, which was inspired by local farmers who, during the occupation, knocked over their beehives in order to halt American soldiers in their path.
The present day carnavals and their themes vary depending on the province with some of the most popular masks or characters being El Diablo Cojuelo, El Macarao, and Roba la Gallina. The carnaval IS one big coming out party where people came out from behind the iron bars that guard them and into the streets where for one day they are free to be whomever they wanted to be. This month, millions will head to the streets in one of the biggest parties of the year.
Deconstructing traditions and ideologies such as el carnaval, something that is deeply ingrained in the Dominican identity, is not an easy task; but growth begins with questioning, and the process of deconstructing the things that we simply never questioned. My Catholic school skirt was burned long ago, and the woman I once hid has made her way out into the streets and onto these pages.
The Dictator’s Seduction: Politics and the Popular Imagination in the Era of Trujillo by Lauren H. Derby
Independencia Nacional, Fiestas Patrias y expresión del Carnaval Dominicano: visto desde una perspectiva psicosocial by Josefina Záiter M y Ángela Altagracia Fernández R
The Origins of Carnival– And the Special Traditions of Dominican Carnaval by Lynne Guitar