by P. Arana
Every so often one, but usually more, of the eager spectators stops and peers down the street, scanning the horizon expectantly for signs. This extended glance is usually followed closely by similar gazes down the line in domino-like effect until, of course, a police car is spotted. At this time, excited whispers will ripple along the line like shivers down a spine. Unuttered, but at the back of everyone's mind, are the words: "Let the partying begin!"
Born as the Latin pagan custom, carrus navalis (ship of fools) in which a magnificently-decorated ship on wheels was pulled to the temples, it grew into the Italian carne (flesh or meat) vale (goodbye) in which agitators unmanageable by the Church, celebrated Bacchanal. The day of unbridled merrymaking so named in honor of Bacchus (Roman god of wine), marked Shrove Tuesday (also known as Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras), the eve of Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the forty Lenten days of eating, drinking and sexual restrictions.
In some parts of the world, that's how carnival started; but in Belize, it was five spirited women who gave birth to the movement. In 1975 Ms. Crystal, Ms. June, Ms. Alice, Ms. Maude and Ms. Myrtle got together on a Sunday as they had done on numerous occasions before that. What was different on this particular afternoon social was the heated discussion of how to spice up the Tenth of September Celebrations. They left bubbling with the excitement of an idea that was still brewing in their heads. None of them envisioned that an acronym formed from their names, C-JAMM, would one day become a household September word in Belize.
Calling themselves the Belize Women for Cultural Preservation, the five mothers from Sixth Street in the King's Park area of Belize City sold their idea to their children, who in turn brought neighborhood friends. That September the costumed group danced through the main streets of Belize City, inadvertently selling their show; the rest of Belize City bought into it. In fact, the concept created such an impression that for the next 25 years, the "Sixth Street Masqueraders", as they were dubbed, saw more neighborhoods forming bands, creating costumes and floats to join in the Carnival parade.
Today, during the designated day in September, 70,000 plus inhabitants and visitors line the streets of Belize City, from Central American Boulevard to the Marion Jones Sporting Complex, to witness the spectacle. As you elbow your way through the crowd, slicing trough the excitement hanging in the air, a few people mumble in protest. Once you move on, though, they return to their happy chatter, assured that no brazen latecomer has succeeded in cutting in and blocking their view. Very few, if any, give thought to carnival's rebellious teenage years.
In the 1980s, the Belize Women for Cultural Preservation was given the task of taking a group of roughly eighty dancers to showcase Belize's culture on the streets of Miami. Dressed in costumes portraying the wildlife of the rainforest, Belize's beasts met the Caribbean's beauties. This affair became a turning point in Belize's carnival history.
Like true adolescents, the dancers returned to Belize demanding why. Why did they have to wear those wretched long skirts? Why couldn't they get costumes that kept them cool in ninety-degree weather? Why did they have to attend those two-hour long practices to learn synchronized dance steps? Why couldn't they just show up on the day of the carnival and dance their hearts out? And why, for heaven's sake, couldn't they have hip names like Gem or Cultural Heritage or C-JAMM? When the parents stopped frowning, they adopted the five-letter acronym and revisited the costume designs. In subsequent years, carnival entered a metamorphic phase. Costume bottoms shortened from the modest ankle-length to conservative knee-length to the provocative bikini-length.
Clearly influenced by carnival in the Caribbean, carnival in Belize is an engaging experience in music, dance, and costumes. It is here that the resemblance ends because carnival in Belize has evolved into its own. An absence of the million-dollar machinery that drives the most famous Caribbean carnivals has left Belizeans with no option but to use head and heart to power the carnival engine. It is a determination whose embers are fanned inside buildings called camps, months in anticipation of the actual event and far from the eyes of the embracing community that comes out to share in its success. Drawing on such inspiration as history, culture, and nationalism, the groups raise funds, design and make costumes and mobilize the business community to pull off the best free and most anticipated cultural production in Belize. Today that show continues to emerge each year. As a result, carnival in Belize has grown up, giving birth to her own offspring.
Carnival in the northernmost town of Corozal is reminiscent of its earlier days in Belize City. Adults make costumes, host practices and organize the road march while children and teenagers are the dancing stars. Since participating groups represent the various elementary and secondary schools in the district, the carnival itself has been made into an educational experience. While floats and costumes depict the Maya, Mestizo, Garifuna, Chinese, East Indian, Creole and Mennonite cultures, this educational focus does not take away from the festive mood. From Santa Rita Hill to Corozal Bay, carnival in Corozal Town is one non-stop jam session.
In neighboring Orange Walk (a.k.a. Sugar City), the ten member committee of the Orange Walk Carnival Group has followed in the footsteps of the Belize Women for Cultural Preservation. Though it cannot accept credit for starting carnival, the committee, including coordinator Flavia Burgos and Production team (Minioli Alonzo, Lupe Salas and Tiburcio Hernandez), has catalyzed the carnival experience in Orange Walk Town. The majorettes and marching bands are still present as they have been since anyone in Orange Walk can remember carnival, but this group has added a new ingredient.
Focused on building and maintaining cultural awareness, the group conducts extensive research to recreate for the performers and audience the connection to their heritage. At the end of each carnival they store the costumes and floats, thus building a visual archive of carnival and of the cultures they have showcased. For them, carnival is not merely limited to the street parade; carnival is an opportunity to learn and pass on traditions. Since this new flavor was added to the pot last year, the group has been spotlighting their Mestizo and Maya culture on the streets of Orange Walk. Judging from the increasing popularity of Orange Walk carnival, the "Latin" flavor has certainly caught Belize's attention.
Whether you choose the Corozal, Orange Walk, or Belize City experience, Carnival is about letting go of your inhibitions. From a distance it looks like a frenzy of colors spurred to movement by towers of speakers pumping out lively soca beats. From the sidelines it becomes a revelry of brightly colored costumes moving with the gyrating seemingly possessed bodies that inhabit them. The jerky, rotating, and trembling dance movements are further accentuated by swaying beads, shimmering materials, and feathered projections adorning the costumes. The masqueraders dance themselves into a high that feeds on itself like an insatiable cycle, keeping fatigue at bay in a move to outbid itself. The soundtrack is hype, energetic, persuading all within earshot to "jump", "mash it up", "raise yu hand", "wine yu waist", "tremble it", and any combination thereof. In response arms flail, feet kick, lifting bodies off the ground, bodies shiver, faces contort and butts jiggle in synchronized motion giving way to cathartic relief reminiscent of some physiological functions. If this sounds unreal to you, come experience it for yourself!
Special Thanks to:
The Belize Women for Cultural Preservation - Mrs. Myrtle Flowers & Mrs. June Singh
Gem Carnival Group - Saira Mahabir
Orange Walk Carnival Group - Flavia Burgos
Erotic Carnival Group - Jose Ketz, David Matus
Images Courtesy of:
Tony Rath Photography