Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Carnival relocation – but why?

As local media outlets in Merida are today reporting, the deadline for deciding the location for Merida’s 2014 Carnival is fast looming on the horizon.

Mayor Renan Barrera is calling on state governor Rolando Zapata to provide the city with free use of the Xmatkuil fairgrounds, and says that he believes he will have the governor’s support on the issue. If the city fails to secure usage of the grounds at Xmatkuil, Barrera has stated that he will seek alternative venues to avoid using Paseo de Montejo.

The real question though is why the carnival needs to be moved in the first place. The official version is that moving the event to Xmatkuil will “improve the safety, health, and cultural aspects”. So, to follow established reasoning when listening to politicians speaking, those are obviously NOT the reasons.

Let’s take a quick look at them. First, safety. We can hit that one on the head right away, by looking at a glowing report published at the end of Carnival 2013 by the Secretary of Public Security (SSP) who stated that no major crime had taken place during the event. On the final day as an example, 170,000 people were reported to have attended, with 72 arrests, mainly for disorderly conduct due to alcohol consumption. Due to the central location, most of the ‘borrachos’ can stagger home at the end of the day. One can only imagine the carnage if, instead, they get in their cars and attempt to drive home from Xmatkuil. The city and state provide a huge (some would say overbearing) police presence, quite easily taking care of safety. Move along please, nothing to see here.

Second, health. No concrete examples have been provided as to the ‘health’ risks posed by the current location, beyond a vague suggestion that a lack of adequate food stands may prove a sanitary issue. Anyone who has been to the carnival in the past will agree that the food stands are no more or less insanitary than any other food stand in Merida.

Third, cultural aspects.  Again, nothing concrete has been provided as to how the move would improve things culturally, beyond the comments that moving would help to ‘renew the concept of the carnival to make it a tourist attraction, generating economic benefit… instead of being a giant street saloon’. Somehow, it seems that culturally, showcasing the event in the city’s historic center and along its premier thoroughfare would be light years ahead of a soulless park far to the south.   

One doesn’t have to look too far to find the real reasons; in fact, they are lined up along the sides of Paseo Montejo, in the form of the hotels and business owners fronting the famous boulevard. Perhaps more telling is that the driving force behind the change is ‘The Business Sector’ of Merida, according to media reports, whose cries for change have for years fallen on deaf ears at city hall, but who, in newly elected Mayor Renan Barrera, have finally found a sympathetic listener. These hotel and business owners resent the fact that for 5 days each year, vehicular traffic is restricted to their properties, and access is reduced. Instead of embracing the carnival and marketing it to their advantage, they take every opportunity to complain about it and campaign for its move.

The fact is that all the most famous carnivals in the world take place in the streets of the cities concerned, not in parks 20km distant. Merida’s carnival is already one of its premier tourist attractions; however that will quickly change if the event is banished to the wilds of Xmatkuil.

The ‘benefits to the people’ of moving are constantly touted; however, Merida has a huge population within walking distance or a short bus ride from the current carnival location, including vast numbers of low income families, who are happy to be able to walk with their children to enjoy a fun, exciting, colorful, and above all free day out. How are they to fare if the event is moved to Xmatkuil? The cost of transportation alone will make their attendance prohibitive, and one has to wonder whether “generating economic benefit” is code for “an entrance fee will be charged”? ‘The Business Sector’ is not interested in these people; they are of no economic worth, and are not customers of the hotels and businesses along the Paseo. If a way could be found to ban them altogether, it would probably be welcomed. In reality however, this is the same thing, since carnival is probably the only time in the year when they darken the Paseo with their presence, leaving it, for the rest of the year to the rich, white, ‘entitled’ community and the tourists.

A ‘sub-theme’ in all of this appears to be a growing puritanical movement to restrict ‘fun’ (remember the ‘giant street saloon’ comment, clearly meant to incite horror in the reader that such a thing could exist?), which has been encroaching on other events in the region recently, notably in Progreso, where once bustling, party like street events have been reduced to the atmosphere of a church coffee social.  Merida is a warm, tropical city, and its events should reflect that.

The carnival has taken place on Paseo de Montejo for 80 years, long before any of the current hotel and business owners were in place. They should embrace this tradition, and indeed seek to enhance and expand it.

The fairgrounds at Xmatkuil are indeed grossly underutilized, and a plan should be developed to benefit from the facilities throughout the year. This however, is not the answer.

Unfortunately, despite the public ‘discussion’ taking place, it appears that the decision has already been taken, and that the ‘anti-carnival’ shills have finally got what they have been waiting for and salivating over for years. The result, sadly, will likely be the end of carnival in Merida as we know it, and the end of Merida as one of the foremost carnival locations in North America.

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