Dominican Republic: Colorful Characters of Carnival

February is a very special month in the Dominican Republic. Not only does the country celebrate its National Independence Day on February 27, but there are also Carnival festivities and the beginning of Lent which often falls during this time. They are two very different events that seem to clash with the Catholic Church's vision. In fact, for years it has insisted on separating these celebrations. This convergence of events can demonstrate the two sides of a people that are profoundly religious, but at the same time, also like to party. Blogger Rossy Díaz writes how the topic seems to come up at the same time each year [es]:

Es ya conocida la campaña puntual de la comisión asesora permanente para la separación del carnaval de las fechas patrias y la cuaresma, en relación a la conveniencia de movilizar las celebraciones del carnaval(…) Nuestro carnaval, históricamente, se ha crecido con las muestras de patriotismo, con cada expresión viva de nuestra sociedad, con la fe, y seguirá creciendo en esencia, ante las penas y las alegrías de este Caribe que nos une.

This permanent campaign from the standing Advisory Commission for the Separation of National Anniversaries from Carnival and Lent, especially in relation to the desire to change the date of Carnival celebrations, is already well known (…) Our Carnival, historically, has grown with demonstrations of patriotism, with every living expression of our society and faith, and it will continue to grow in essence, along with the joys and sorrows of the Caribbean that unites us.

Jonathan, a reader of the blog En Segundos [es], agrees that the dates should be separate:

Claro que es una locura… CARNAVAL significa Festival de la CARNE, y cuaresma es abstinecia de todo lo que supone “Carne”, sobre todo en el sentido espiritual, pero claro…. ESTA ES LA ISLA ALREVES!!!!!!

Of course it is crazy… CARNIVAL means the festival of the FLESH, and Lent is abstienance from everything that is “carnal,” above all in a spiritual sense, but of course… (the Dominican Republic) is the island of opposites!!!

The Dominican carnival is a centuries-old tradition that goes back to colonial times, with records going back to the year 1520. With a mixture of European and African heritages, the result is a diversity of characters that include the Cojuelo Devils of La Vega, Papeluses of Cotuí, the Santiago piglets, the Macaraos of Salcedo, Guloyas of San Pedro de Macorís, Robalagallina, Califé, and other popular cultural expressions.

Cojuelos Devils. Photo by kptyson and used under a Creative Commons license.

Cojuelos Devils. Photo by kptyson and used under a Creative Commons license.

Carnival groups, parades, and tours to the interior of the country all make up part of the Carnival festivities. On a provincial level, the Carnival of La Vega is probably the most well-known on a global level with the draw of the “vejigazos” (beatings) of the Cojuelo Devils. The tradition is that the costumed devils carry small bags made of animal hide and give “vejigazos” (beatings) to passers-by. The accompanying pain is described by blogger Yaniris López [es] who writes about the essence of Carnival in La Vega:

Un sonido seco seguido de un dolor intenso que hace que te hierva la sangre se escucha cerquita. La rabia se apodera de ti. Un segundo golpe te deja sin fuerzas, seguido de una palabrota amortiguada por el dolor, un dolor tan fuerte que te priva, es decir, no te deja siquiera reaccionar, correr, pedir auxilio…

Y a medida que la sangre y los músculos asimilan el golpe llega la risa, una risa rencorosa que te recuerda que nadie te obligó a lanzarte a las calles y exponerte a los vejigazos de los diablos del carnaval de La Vega…

A nearby dull thud is followed by an intense pain that makes one's blood boil. Anger seizes you. A second blow leaves you weak, followed by a muffled curse because of the pain, a pain so strong that it deprives you, in other words, it does not allow you to react, run, ask for help…

As one's blood and muscles absorb the pain, comes laughter, a spiteful laughter that reminds you that no one forced you to head for the streets and expose yourself to the “beatings” of the Carnival devils of La Vega.

Carnival celebrations culminate with a large parade that takes place in early March along the Malecón in Santo Domingo with the participation of almost all of its characters. The parade takes place usually to the beat of “Baila la Calle” (Street Dance), a song immortalized by the composer Luis Días, who died in late 2009 and to whom this year's Carnival is dedicated.

In contrast to the festive atmosphere of Carnival, once the celebrations end comes the typical recovery days of Lent, which culminates in the celebration of Easter. While the traditions of attending Church, reflection, not eating meat, processions, the burning of Judas, and other related events, Easter in recent years has become an excuse to take a mini-vacation. At that time, Dominican beach resorts become crowded by those looking to escape the routine. Even though the Church has complained, hoteliers do not complain.

Translated by Eduardo Ávila


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