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Last Chance for Pleasures of the Flesh! Carnaval in the Dominican RepublicBack to top Back to main Skip to menu
Last Chance for Pleasures of the Flesh! Carnaval in the Dominican Republic
However, not all Carnaval preparations are carried out by female fingers. Most of the papier-mache masks, for example, are made by teams of men. The making of masks is closely connected with the agricultural background of the Dominican Republic. Cattle farming 'left-overs' were clearly in use in most of the masks of bygone days, items which the cattle slaughterhouses did not use, for example, teeth, hide, horns and hair. Clay is extracted from rivers to make the moulds on which to shape the face of the mask, which is thensun-dried. The horns are attached using a glue made from yucca starch mixed with lime juice to prevent it becoming rancid in the heat. After this the holes are cut for eyes and mouth. The final work is sanding, polishing and painting of the mask and fitting of comfort foam inside so that the wearer's face does not get scarred.
Men also make (and use!) the vejigas - dried reinforced cow or pig bladders which are used to swipe at the unsuspecting. If you are attending a Carnaval procession watch the back of your legs - these 'weapons' can pack a nasty punch and leave a mess of bruises. Last year the La Vega Carnaval, which of all the towns tends to be the one with the most spectacular reputation, even had a vejigometro - a machine for measuring how hard you can swing the vejigas. This comprised of a cannon shaped structure which sent a ball flying out when thwacked. The further the ball goes, the crueller your 'hit'.
There is, of course, a historical tradition behind the vejigas - it is said that, in days of yore, the procession onlookers or 'sinners' morphed from procession onlookers to rowdy mobs. The role of the devils or 'punishers' was similar to that of present day law enforcement authorities using either water cannon or tear gas at a G8 Summit, for example, namely crowd control. The devils aimed to push the mob back in order to protect their fellow costumed procession participants. These devils are known as 'diablos cojuelos' or 'crippled demons' which always seems a bit of a misnomer since they are mainly the people doing the (if only temporary) crippling! Legend has it that the diablo cojuelo (or Lechon in the town of Santiago) was a demon banished from the afterlife to earth; he fell awkwardly and hurt his leg and became 'cojuelo' - the one who walks with a limp. The costumes which the devils sport are designed to mock the appearance of the Spaniards at the time when they colonised the Dominican Republic. Those who have read Don Quijote by Miguel de Cervantes may recall a character described as a devil, dressed in a costume with mirrors and bells and who carries an inflated animal bladder as his weapon.
There are other Carnaval characters to look out for: Roba la Gallina, for example, (steal the hen) is usually a man dressed as an overweight woman, often with rollers in her hair and sometimes carrying an umbrella; Se me Muere Rebeca is a crying mother with a sick child (represented by a doll) who asks at the corner stores for delicacies for her child. These are, in fact, passed on to all the children who follow behind this character. The tourist to the Dominican Republic who has been faced with the 'mymother/sister/cousin needs an operation' routine will be relieved to know that this is actually based on historical tradition and is part of the culture! Calife is another character - a poet who pens verses mocking the current politicians. Calife characters are particularly busy in 2006 Carnaval since we have municipal and congressional elections here in DR in May with all the attendant spin in advance - plenty of material there for Calife.......... There are also Los Trasvestis (you have probably guessed! These are men dressed as women) and Los Africanos and Los Indios. The latter are participants imitating the original Taino Indian inhabitants of the Dominican Republic. The former represent African slaves - to do this the whole body is painted with charcoal and sump oil - don't get too close!
The visitor to these celebrations needs joie de vivre, stamina, eyes in the back of his head and earplugs. Other than that, it is all huge fun! I have this on good authority from my husband who in 2005 was part of the Puerto Plata Carnaval Parade, riding on the float of a local charity for children of which he is a committee member. As a foreigner (albeit living in Puerto Plata some 13 years), it is a great honour to be invited to participate in the actual procession, so this is not an offer which you refuse. He came home exhausted, dehydrated and with ears ringing. Dominicans, on the other hand, can keep up the level of energy required for hours.
Only the seriously uptight could fail to catch the Dominicans' infectious sense of fun. This is there all the time, just that it is more noticeable during Carnaval. Carnaval is indeed a family activity encompassing the very small to grandparents. If, as a visitor, you have the slightest amount of extroversion, join in the dancing. As a gringo with two left feet you will probably win the title of 'gringo cojuelo' but no one will mind and all will cheer you on. If you are a weight trainer go to the La Vega Carnaval and have a go at the vejigometro - but if you do well, expect to be challenged to repeat your performance again and again. Dominican machismo would allow for nothing else.
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