Carnival in Veracruz by Andrew Grant Wood


On The Many Meanings of Carnival


Carnival Procession ca. 1930

Carnival procession ca. 1930 (AGEV)

Carnival is an annual festival that reveals much about the culture of a local population. In Veracruz, Mexico, the pre-Lenten celebration provides a stage upon which residents (porteños) exuberantly display the character, history and tradition. Visitors are welcomed with a warm hospitality unmatched elsewhere in Mexico-or possibly the world. Veracruzanos use the term "alma jarocho"1 to describe the soulful blend of Indian, African and European cultures that have come together in Veracruz to produce a truly unique identity. Situated on the Gulf of Mexico coastline, Veracruz is very much a part of the Caribbean as well as the cultures of Spain and West Africa further to the east.

Carnival celebrants 1928

Carnival celebrants 1928 (AGEV)

Mardi Gras or Carnival is an age-old celebration deeply rooted in ancient pagan and European festival traditions. Starting with the feasts of the New Year, Carnival continues throughout January and much of February before Ash Wednesday begins the forty days of Lent. Throughout the season, celebrants take part in masquerades, street parades, dances, feasting and assorted lively forms of ritualistic behavior. Anticipating Lenten prescriptions for fasting, abstinence and penitence, the week leading up to Ash Wednesday is one where Carnival goers stuff themselves with enough food (particularly meat), down sufficient drink and engage in plenty of sex to last (at least symbolically speaking) until Easter.

While scholars disagree about the connections (or lack thereof) between Carnival and the ancient Greek festivals, and later, Roman rites of Saturnalia and Lupercalia, we know that early Christian church leaders sought to neutralize the popular festival by incorporating it into the newly created Christian calendar sometime around 600. At that time, Pope Gregory deemed that Easter would be observed the first Sunday following the vernal equinox. In doing so, he defined the proceeding forty-day period as Lent. Adapting pagan celebrations to Christianity, the Italian spring festival became known as "Carnelevamen" ("consolation of the flesh"). Soon, this translated into the Italian "carnevale," "carnevale" in French, "carnaval" in Spanish and "carnival" in English-all signifying "farewell to the flesh." The Tuesday before Ash Wednesday became known as Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, Fools Day or Shrove Tuesday and represented the last day of feasting and pleasure seeking before the onset of Lent. Of course it would take quite some time before Christian efforts would prove successful (if ever) in convincing people to abandon their "pagan" ways.

Carnival Devil ca. 1950 Mocking the Inquisition 1950 Carnival King Chaplin I 1931

Carnival devil ca. 1950 (AGN); Mocking the Inquisition 1950 (AGN); Carnival King Chaplin I 1931 (AGEV).

With the celebration culminating on Fat Tuesday, communities across much of Europe typically engaged in exhibitions of public debauchery, orgiastic partying and often, violence. Continuing local traditions established years before, Romans in the seventh and eighth centuries communed with pre-Christian gods in the streets and local theaters. At that time, countless observers witnessed lavish spectacles involving some 20,000 performers in the Coliseum. Later, Parisians in the middle ages paraded live (and sometimes paper maché) bulls known as the Boeuf Gras through the city's central streets and then masqueraded long into the night at exquisite balls. Once enthusiastically endorsed by the French royalty, Mardi Gras after the 1789 Revolution was thought to be an undignified event and suspended before being revived by Napoleon in 1805. Articulated in different ways, the European festival generally encouraged a temporary social-cultural inversion of social hierarchy, sex roles and moral conduct. Before long, the pre-Lenten celebration, along with Christian tradition as a whole, was introduced to the Americas.

Probably the most famous of all American festivals, Carnival in Rio de Janeiro began sometime in the mid-seventeenth century. Taking to the streets, cariocas took part in a boisterous street party known as entrudo. In imperial Brazil (1822-89) the carioca elite sought again to tame Carnival by hosting European styled masked balls. These continued into the 1930s when residents staged legendary balls at the Copacabana Palace and the Municipal Theater. Meanwhile, Carnival clubs organized in various neighborhoods began creating elaborate floats and costumes. With the popularization of the samba in the 1920s and 1930s, street parading of samba schools become a permanent part of Rio's pre-Lenten tradition. Today, a Queen (Rainha do Carnaval) and King (Rei Momo) are selected every year while various samba schools compete for honors.2

Although the earliest observances are unclear, the first documented celebration of Mardi Gras in New Orleans took place in 1743 when residents organized various Carnival balls in honor of the arriving governor Marquis de Vaudreuil. Testifying to the unique character of the city's creole inhabitants, the festival continued even as New Orleans temporarily became part of the Spanish American Empire (1763-1800) and then the United States after the Louisiana in 1803. From this time, many Americans during the early nineteenth century living outside of the French Quarter showed outright disdain for the celebration and considered it an example of "European debauchery." By mid-century the celebration of Mardi Gras had declined because of bad weather, indifference and the appearance of certain youth gangs who pelted maskers with flour, dirt and, sometimes, even bricks. The first "official" instance of Mardi Gras royalty in New Orleans took place in 1872 with the ascension King Rex. The next year Rex was accompanied by the first queen of Mardi Gras, Fanny Hewitt (Mrs. Walker Fern). Carnival in Cuba is equally dynamic and shares many of the same characteristics as celebrations in Louisiana, Mexico and Brazil.3

Carnival in Veracruz

Map of Mexico

Courtesy CIA World Fact Book, 2004

As discussed in chapter 1, Carnival in the Mexican Gulf port town of Veracruz is thought to have evolved out of various Corpus Christi celebrations sometime during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Indeed, references by church officials and travelers to residents dancing the Afro-Caribbean chuchumbé in the streets and partying in popular neighborhoods located just outside the city walls give us some indication, however faint, of pre-Lenten activities. Despite disapproval in certain conservative corners, Carnival steadily evolved during the nineteenth century as participants included both members of the local elite who tended towards more exclusive, indoor balls as well as the city's popular classes who gathered at raucous outdoor street celebrations and public dances over the two week period leading up to Ash Wednesday.

Queen Luz, 1925 Carnival costumes 1928

Patio de Vecindad and Carnival maskers, ca. 1930. (Rockefeller Archive Center, IVEC)

Queen Luz, 1925 (El Dictamen); Carnival costumes 1928 (AGEV).

Similar to efforts elsewhere in the hemisphere during the mid to late nineteenth century, elites occasionally tried to restrict and sometimes even ban the festival. By the time French Emperor Napoleon III sent an occupying army to Mexico in 1861, the Veracruz festival had grown significantly to include a number of public dances and parades. But as the war between republican and French forces took a decisive turn in late 1866, political conditions motivated imperial bureaucrats (namely Archduke Maximilian and his conservative Mexican collaborators) to regulate the popular festival. The resulting 1867 "El Carnaval del Imperio" restricted celebrants to a mere three days of partying and stipulated that public processions only take place within the walls of the city between the hours of six and eight in the evening. The ruling allowed for three public dances to be held either at an area just outside the city wall or near the waterfront. Meantime, approved costumed balls for the city elite were held at the Teatro Principal.

Assorted Carnival Scenes Assorted Carnival Scenes Assorted Carnival Scenes

Assorted carnival scenes (AGEV)

As the more limited festival schedule and sanctioned events introduced by the 1867 regulations reshaped the celebration into something resembling its more current modern form, Carnival in Veracruz (and in other centers such as Mazatlán and Villahermosa) during the late nineteenth century soon came to be seen by political elites as an unwanted vestige of Spanish colonialism as well as a raucous party out of step with the nation's elite-driven desire to modernize. Gradually, authorities across the nation sought to discourage public observance beginning in the 1880s. Still, popular and elite groups in the city continued to celebrate the pre-Lenten holiday-albeit most often within the private spaces of working tenement courtyards or more well-to-do salons. As Mexico entered the twentieth century and soon, a nearly ten year revolutionary conflagration, segregated observance of Carnival would largely remain out of public view.

Whereas authorities during the late nineteenth century had grown suspicious of Carnival because of its reputation as a rite of rebellion, a postrevolutionary coalition of several voluntary associations that sponsored the exuberant Veracruz festival in 1925 somewhat embraced this essential characteristic. Detailed in chapter two, it was an assortment of local business and charity organizations such as the Lonja Mercantil, Red Cross, Rotary Club International, El Casino Español along with the local newspaper El Dictamen who adapted the new revolutionary ideal of "Mexico for the Mexicans" to make their appeal to the Veracruz public. Working to reestablish the event as an important holiday week in the city, promoters hoped Carnival would provide the Veracruz public not only with an opportunity to celebrate after years of social strife but also an effective means by which people of different class and ethnic backgrounds could take part in a collective (re)affirmation of civic values. In the process, as Carnival would encourage a ritualistic dissolution of the old order while simultaneously disseminating postrevolutionary discourse. At the same time, the celebration afforded jarochos a unique opportunity to imagine themselves part of a renewed local and national community.

Queen Raquel and her court 1928.

Queen Rachael and her court 1928 (AGEV).

As with the many European and American celebrations past and present, the Veracruz becomes a stage upon which Carnival is performed. Residents enact all kinds of satirical dramas, take part in various competitions and march in parades costumed as cross dressers, devils, fools, wild animals and many other characters including (today) several derived from popular media. As with all urban festivals, Carnival in Veracruz is an event that features the interaction of different groups: elites and subordinate groups, men and women, old and young and various immigrant and ethnic groups. Numerous preliminary activities notwithstanding, this interaction is facilitated through the scheduling of series of weeklong events. As discussed in chapter two, Carnival officially begins the Tuesday one week prior to Ash Wednesday with the burning of a sacrificial effigy known as Mal Humor. Populating this festival schedule are a host of central characters in this ritual drama. Most important is the Queen who each year reigns over the city during Carnival. She is accompanied in this task by an entourage comprised of a Carnival King, Rey de Alegría, several princesses and princes and special children's court. Along with a number of neighborhood dance groups (comparsas), baton twirlers, bands and floats, the Queen heads up a vast assemblage that circulates through the streets of the city on a daily basis. The history and character of these essential elements are examined in chapter three.

Carnival attracts a huge number of national tourists to Veracruz from Mexico City, Puebla, Xalapa, Orizaba, Córdoba, etc. Estimates figure that approximately 95% of all visitors to the port are Mexican with foreigners making up the remaining 5%. Chapter four considers the early history of Carnival related tourism and commerce.

Finally, chapter five details aspects of the contemporary festival through the lens of cultural geography. Here, I discuss key centers of social interaction such as the main Plaza de Armas, the Malecón and the Avila Camacho Boulevard connected the historic center of Veracruz to the seaside town of Boca del Río. Together, these and other associated "spots" help define the exuberant local culture of Veracruz at a time when the city is at its best: Carnival!

Similar to the pagan rituals which preceded it, Carnival signals a change of season as winter gradually gives way to spring. In this vein, the festival can be appreciated as a fertility rite with participants dancing, singing, dressing in costume, feasting, copulating and celebrating through the night in hope of aiding the coming year's growing season. In certain cultures celebrants imagine themselves cavorting with the dead in this party atmosphere-an enthusiastic communion (realized in part through masking and other symbolic rites) thought to contribute additional blessings to future harvests.

Female revelers ca. 1930

Female revelers ca. 1930 (AGEV)

As seen in the burning of Mal Humor, Carnival has traditionally provided an opportunity to rid the community of harmful elements. The subsequent period of alegría (as well as an often-audacious cycle of bingeing and purging) fulfills-some say-a higher purpose: to help maintain a perspective on one's humanity and sense of belonging. Carnival-in other words-is a celebration that, despite appearances, is ultimately designed preserve the local social order.

Yet while there are parallels between ancient and middle age Europe and today's festivals on this side of the Atlantic, Carnival in the Americas should not be taken as purely a European import. Following historian Peter Burke, this festival tradition in the "New World" city of Veracruz has achieved its own distinctive character due to the participation of women, the centrality of dance and the influence of African culture.4 Reflections on the uniquely "American" character of Veracruz Carnival will be offered by way of conclusion.

Women on float 1928

Women on float 1928 (AGEV)

Many remark that the recent commercialization of Mardi Gras/Carnival has complicated its social meaning and function as countless tourists now flock to huge citywide festivals orchestrated in Rio de Janeiro, New Orleans and Veracruz. Indeed, Carnival today is no longer purely a local celebration with certain seasonal and religious underpinnings but also big business. Although some reminisce nostalgically while deploring the contemporary festival as merely crass commercialism, I (along with the nearly one million who visit the city) believe there is still much to enjoy about Carnival. As almost anyone who has engaged in the pre-Lenten craziness can attest, Carnival's encouraging one to indulge temporarily in a near gluttonous consumption of food, flesh and earthly delights in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday truly has some kind of magical effect. Left with more than simply a nasty hangover or guilty conscience, Carnival's power is an utterly life affirming holiday and an essential "date" on the spring calendar. As a collective act of self-representation and myth making, Carnival tells us much about ourselves and the complex mix of cultures we live with everyday.


1. The term jarocho signifies the regional blend of indigenous, African and European heritage while also insinuating a close connection to other Caribbean cultures.

2 "Carnival in Rio is Dancing to More Commercial Beat," New York Times, February 25, 2004.

3. Following the 1959 Revolution, however, the festival (most dramatically observed in Havana and Santiago) was moved to July to commemorate the revolutionary movement that overthrew Batista.

4. Peter Burke, "The Translation of Culture: Carnival in Two or Three Worlds," (in) Peter Burke, The Varieties of Cultural History. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999), pp. 151-53.

Andrew Grant Wood © 2012