Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Dancing With the Devils in the Dominican Republic

Dancing With the Devils in the Dominican Republic
The New York Times

A SMALL, pothole-laden city in the central valley ofthe Dominican Republic, anchored by aconcrete-pillared, irregularly shaped cathedral whosedecidedly ugly look takes some time to grow on you, LaVega isn't high on the to-do list of most travelers.There are no beaches, a few tolerable hotels, someunremarkable restaurants and, for 11 months of theyear, no real reason to go there.

But that changes in February, when Carnaval comes totown. Then, the quiet streets of La Vega are crowdedwith visitors who seem to double the population of200,000, the clubs fill with deafening music thatkeeps their customers dancing until almost dawn, and -most notably - grotesquely beautiful, intricatelydecorated, jingle-bell-draped demons race through thestreets of the jam-packed town every Sunday, whippinganyone who dares to get in their way with reinforcedcow bladders that carry a surprisingly nasty sting.

It is a month peppered with street concerts thatattract the country's big music stars; of weeks spentwith family members who have returned home to relivethe traditions of their childhood; of days and nights filled with music - the blaring brass of merengue, the tinny guitar of bachata, both played at absurdly highvolumes on huge portable speakers - that acts as akind of nonstop soundtrack to the surreal events that unfold as Carnaval gathers steam.

Carnaval takes place on each weekend of February, with parades on Sundays, culminating with the largest one, on Feb. 27, Dominican Independence Day. Many Dominicancities and towns have their own Carnaval traditions,usually with some demonic or outrageous character asits symbol and centerpiece. But none rivals that of LaVega, and, in fact, many other cities send representatives there on the 27th to march alongside that town's famed diablos cojuelos - horned, fanged, winged creatures whose outfits are created inramshackle workshops by people who have been honingthis skill for years.

The legendary Dominican singer Fernandito Villalona summed up the experience in a Spanish-language merengue that you'll hear repeatedly if you go to LaVega:

When February comes, everything is happiness, Dance in the street by night, dance in the street by day ...

Historians trace such carnival celebrations (carnaval, in Spanish) as far back as pagan Rome and even ancient Egypt, but the modern incarnation emerged from Catholic traditions that came with colonialism andwere deeply influenced by African slaves. The word carnival is said to come from the Latin "carne vale," a farewell to meat, which explains why it was traditionally celebrated in the three days before Lent, ending with Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, festivities preceding Ash Wednesday. But in theDominican Republic it has become more closely associated with Independence Day.

In La Vega, Carnaval is a decidedly multigenerational event. While local partygoers in their teens and 20's rule the streets and the clubs - witness the beer-swilling, high-decibel gathering Friday night atthe Parque de los Estudiantes, a pocket park at a busy intersection - their parents and grandparents are equally enthusiastic participants in the celebrations. During my visit last February, on the final weekend of the celebrations, one of the best dancers around was Lisa Fernanda Tapia, shaking her hips as she stood onthe outskirts of a huge street party late into aSaturday night. The next day, she turned 4.

I arrived in La Vega on a Friday afternoon, and encountered a typical, humming Dominican town, full of boisterous, friendly people - many of whom were gathered in the town square, where some kids shined shoes and others chased pigeons while a nearby vendor sold coconut sweets for 5 pesos apiece.

Using my cellphone (a worker at the local Verizonoffice had helped me temporarily reprogram it with alocal number - very convenient), I called Mayobanex Mota, the nephew of an acquaintance of a friend of mine in New York, hoping to get some advice on what to do in La Vega. He turned out to be the head of Los Rebeldes, one of the top local teams - members of which dress in identical diablo cojuelo costumes. That meant he had little time to be a guide, but did give some excellent advice (and some pretty good coffee) in his family's backyard before I set off to explore LaVega.

I seemed to be one of the few foreigners in town for the celebration. The half-dozen groups of non-Dominicans that I talked to were resort workers, Peace Corps volunteers and artists from places ranging from Kansas to Chile who were all now living in this country. The only other vacationers I met were Dominican-Americans, back home for a visit.

On Friday night, after an unmemorable dinner of shrimp and the fried mashed plantain dish known as mofongo at a drab restaurant that resembled a hospital cafeteria, I set out on my own to the Parque de los Estudiantes, to mix with the locals, and ended up sharing a few big bottles of Presidente beer from a nearby open-air bar with a group of men and women in their 20's. (The ability to speak Spanish is definitely a plus in LaVega, but visitors will also encounter many Veganos, as the residents are known, who have spent some time or perhaps lived, in the United States, and can helpout when language skills falter.)

Later, we all headed to Kafe Klaro, a disco decoratedwith diablos cojuelos costumes and so popular I had to park my rental car on the grassy median of the road, the only space available. My New York-bred fear of tickets, I was assured, was unfounded.

The next day, Mayobanex rode with me to the Altos de Hatico section of town to see the workshops where the amazing costumes are made. For weeks and months before Carnaval starts, dozens of teams design their own costumes as their public awaits, wondering what theywill have come up with this year and sharing any secrets that escape. At over $1,000 a costume, several months' salary for most, the designs of the elite teams are highly guarded, and in recent years have grown increasingly complex and creative and, alas, often sponsored by corporations.

Living in a largely Dominican neighborhood in NewYork, I had heard a lot about the workmanship that went into these costumes and seen many examples of them at various festivals and at community centers. But to see their humble origins was a shock.

Our first stop was a rusty ramshackle shed, full ofindustrial sewing machines and littered with scraps of fabric where Ángel Fidelio Jorge, known as Fillo, had workers putting the finishing touches on a costume or two. Fillo, in his early 50's, works with a team that numbers 35 or so at its peak, working nonstop in the weeks leading up to Carnaval tailoring the multilayered, jingle-bell-heavy suits according to lists of measurements that teams submit.

Since it was the last weekend of Carnaval, activity was slow, and Fillo didn't seem to mind the company. Nearby, in the back of a run-down concrete house, Melvin Marte and his crew turn out papier-mâché masks from molds so intricately twisted and diabolical they could have emerged from a Hollywood costume shop.

BY the time we got back to town, the Saturday night festivities were under way, and visitors began to flood the town. Many of the Carnaval costume-making teams - groups with names like the Broncos, theBuddies, the Ants and the Scorpions - set up cuevas,or caves, which serve as gathering places for theirfriends, staging grounds for the parade on Sunday and ground zero for the after-party. Usually, they are just the equivalent of party tents with bleachers, but in recent years a few groups have begun to out do the others.

I thought Mayobanex was boasting when he declared theRebels' cave the talk of the 2005 Carnaval, but he was right: the city was buzzing about the elaborate pirateship they had set up along the main parade route, complete with a mast, rope ladders and plenty of planks. And admission to the upper level, with its great views, was reserved for friends and family.

Outside their cueva, available to the public, theRebels had created what may be the first machine in history to measure how hard you can swing a dried bladder. The test-of-strength gadget, called avejigómetro, or bladder-meter, looks like a cannon. Wind up and bash the back end with your handycow-bladder whip, and out flies a ball. The farther it goes, the stronger you are. Or, put another way, the more pain you would have inflicted on somebody's rearend.

I stuck around the Rebels' cave as the parade route began to fill the streets for the Saturday evening festivities. And, in the Dominican Republic, festivity means loud music. By 10 o'clock, a nearly full moon had risen behind a stage that would later feature live bands, and conversation was possible only by direct mouth-to-eardrum shouting. All around me, people were dancing to reggaetón hits like Daddy Yankee's"Gasolina," which in February was reaching its apogee.

Sunday morning broke and I took off to wander the streets and scout out the best spot to watch the afternoon parade. Signs of preparation were everywhere. Off Parque las Palmas, a square park blocked off by Do Not Enter signs that everyone was ignoring, a teenage boy set up blocks of ice and bottles of syrup for frío-fríos, the local snow cone. A few blocks away, a hollow-cheeked older man, Gil Tineo, hung his stock of colorful, cloth-covered fauxvejigas on a clothesline between two posts. He told me he expected to sell 100 or so for 25 or 30 pesos each.(But not everyone was in parade mode: several evangelical churches were conducting energetic services audible from the sidewalk.)

By early afternoon, the streets were packed: sellers of Munchkin Land-like lollipops lugged their wares through the crowd, people sucked ice-cold passion-fruit juice through straws, and among those carving out dance spaces in this mass of humanity was a little girl in a frilly pink dress dancing with acostumed penguin.

The best viewing spots were anywhere with barriers separating the street from the crowd, because as the day went on, the crowd elsewhere surged out little by little, occasionally nearly blocking the procession until a few demonic whips got cracking. It was not a place for the claustrophobic.

I could hear the somewhat disorderly parade before I could see it, as cheers rose from the crowd down the street as groups of dancing diablos appeared. Those residents who had taken to rooftops or perched in trees were the first to see the marchers, swinging their vejigas as they swept down the street in somewhat disorderly fashion, eliciting shouts of delight from the crowd.

Some teams had stunning costumes, ranging from royal blue and gold to neon green to a rather startling orange. Other traditional (and nutty) Carnaval characters also made an appearance, likeRobalagallina, which means "steal the hen" and generally is a man dressed as an ample woman, usually,for some reason, with rollers in her hair and holdingan umbrella.

La Vega's elaborately costumed diablos are, deservedly, the central attraction. With their deeply grooved faces, jutting demonic eyes (usually red), outsize fangs and brilliant colors, they are irresistible - and for many local children, irresistibly scary. The vejigazos, or bladder attacks, don't help, and many children in the Dominican Republic grow up with a kind of love-fear relationshipto Carnaval. In recent years, the Carnaval authorities have tried to restrict the whipping: only on thestreet, and only on the behind. (The sidewalk, and other parts of the body, are safe zones.)

Many of the visitors dispersed after the parade ended,but for those who stayed, the party had just begun. Freed from their marching orders, devils roamed the streets, doling out freelance vejigazos, and kids whose parents bought them vejigas from vendors joinedin. On one street corner, I saw a boy not much olderthan 3 wielding his yellow and black vejiga like anexpert. He did not wear a mask, but the diabolical look in his face as he swatted stranger after stranger showed he didn't need one. I considered the playground fate of his future classmates and shook my head.

Just before walking over to the final event of the weekend - a massive outdoor concert featuring two of the country's most beloved merengue stars, Fernandito Villalona and Toño Rosario - I bumped into a hulk of adiablo named Juan Carlos Mota, Mayobanex's brother, outfitted in a red and gold, gladiator-inspired devilsuit. Hearing that I had remained largely unscathed from the vejigazos, he reared back and took a massive swing. It stung badly, but it didn't hurt as much as I had feared - at least not then.

The next day, as I settled into my seat on the airplane, and flinched at the sensation, I realized I was leaving La Vega with a black-and-blue souvenir of the place. It would be a long three-and-a-half-hour trip back home to New York.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this article, it also describes our experience in LaVega in 2005. Very good and again thaks for sharing.

John K said...

Anthony, I thought of you and Monaga when I read this article yesterday. Your site was the first place I'd ever seen photos of the Carnaval in La Vega. You all were there at the same time as the reporter, right? He probably didn't even realize there were other Americans in his midst, and probably thought you were all Dominicans! BTW, did you all get whacked on the behind with one of those air bladders?

Monaga said...

Hola John,

yes, we were there the same time as the reporter, and fortunately they didn't hit me with one of those air bladders. I have seen very few men get hit, it is usually the woman.