Saturday, 1 March 2014

The Day the Carnival Died?

XMATKUIL, YUCATAN.  It was supposed to be the glorious inauguration of the ‘new’ Carnaval Mérida, and proof of the success of Mayor Renan Barrera’s grand scheme to relocate the event to the Xmatkuil fairgrounds. Instead however, the opening night of ‘Carnaval Mérida 2014’ was nothing short of a disaster, leaving in its wake a trail of broken promises.

The ‘Funeral of Juan Carnaval’, the closing event of the carnival celebrations in Mérida isn’t until Wednesday; last night’s pathetic inauguration might as well have been an actual funeral however; assuming that is that one is used to attending funerals in the middle of the jungle.

The Comité del Carnaval de Mérida and mayor Renan Barrera have today posted closely shot and carefully screened photos on their Facebook pages, purporting to show the ‘fun’ that the attendees had, with similar coverage in the ever obedient ‘Diario de Yucatan’. The reality however was very different to that pictured, with miles of empty palcos and gradas standing witness to Renan’s great mistake.

Getting there was easy enough; in fact, to our surprise, we flew down Calle 50 in record time. Once we realized how few people were at the fairgrounds however, the lack of traffic didn’t seem so strange. Buying seats in a palco was also a breeze, with all ticket windows vacant, and the sellers hustling for custom. We entered the fairgrounds unchallenged and unscreened – broken promise number 1 – “attendees to be screened for knives and other weapons to ensure a ‘secure’ event.”  

We took our seats at 7.15pm, 15 minutes after the scheduled parade start time. Unlike on Paseo de Montejo, where music was always playing, and anticipation high, silence reigned in Section Q, as indeed it did in most other areas. The crickets in the surrounding jungle provided some background noise; the ambiance being one of ‘bus stop in the jungle’ rather than ‘party of the year’. The bus however, was apparently delayed, perhaps while the organizers desperately prayed for more attendees to fill the vast quantity of empty seats. Whichever deity they were entreating however appeared to be otherwise occupied, since the empty seats remained empty, while the crickets continued to sing. The parade finally began at 8.15pm, and advanced painfully slowly along the route, moving for 15 or 20 meters, before unfathomably stopping for interminable periods. Even with these interminable stops, the parade passed in an hour and 20 minutes; leading to speculation that the reason for the stops was to avoid it being over too soon; had it moved at a normal pace throughout, it would have been over in no more than 45 minutes. A (poor quality) video, shot from one of the floats, shows the sparse audience in one of the sections of gradas. It can be seen here:

In addition to the small quantity, sadly, the quality of the floats and costumes was also low; the sponsors presumably unwilling to invest much in an event that, since the start, has been foreseen as a likely failure. It was, without a doubt, the smallest and poorest carnival parade I have ever seen in Mérida. There were fewer floats, less feathers, less glitter, less music. Basically, less of everything. During the parade, we noticed broken promise number 2 – “no beer to be sold on the parade grounds” – both beer vendors (Sol and Corona) were openly selling beer in the palcos, with uniformed staff desperately hunting for customers. I purchased a couple for myself to try to relieve the stultifying boredom. Broken promise number 3 was also in evidence – “no coolers will be allowed into the event”.

Like a dog with its tail between its legs, the parade ended with a whimper, and the sparse crowds headed back into the fairgrounds, eager to experience the fun and excitement promised by ‘Plaza Carnaval’ and its four distinct zones of pleasure for all ages.  The Xmatkuil fairgrounds cover a vast area, and, without the physical barriers that exist on Paseo de Montejo, keeping people together, sparse groups drifted through the empty spaces, seeking, but failing to find any atmosphere. Broken promise number 4 – “the grounds will be divided by zones, each will have a filter, where entry may be denied to people who appear under the influence of alcohol” – there were no obvious divisions between the zones, and there were no filters. Beer vendors, including mobile carts were everywhere. Broken promise number 5 – “the adult zone will be exclusively for those over the age of 18” – small children could be seen playing outside the all but abandoned ‘KeBuena Circo de la Música’.

A decent crowd had gathered at the ‘Salón de las Máscaras’ to see the opening concert featuring well known singer Yuri. Not surprisingly, the crowd at the concert features heavily in the Facebook postings of the Comité del Carnaval de Mérida and mayor Renan Barrera today.

Away from the area of the concert however, vast empty spaces, empty restaurants, and vendors without customers were the grim reality.  In addition to the pictures in this article, more can be seen here:

At the exit, glum faced survey takers were asking the opinion of people leaving. The expression on the face of our questioner left us in no doubt as to what opinions she had been receiving.

The ‘cherry on the cake’ was the (entirely predictable) ‘retén’ shortly after leaving the parking lot, where breathalyzer tests were administered to all drivers. With my ‘designated driver’, I sailed through, however one wonders how many others were caught, and how many of them would have been walking home rather than driving, had the event taken place in the city. I wonder if the Mayor has ever checked the dictionary definition of ‘entrapment’? (“In criminal law, entrapment is a practice whereby officials induce a person to commit an offense that the person would have otherwise been unlikely to commit.”)

Over in Veracruz meanwhile, where they still remember the meaning of carnival, vast crowds are thronging the events centered along the city’s famous malecón. It’s not so far from here, but ideologically, it could be another planet.

What else to say? Social media in Mérida today is full of individuals reporting the death of carnival, a major event in the city since the 19th century.

If Renan Barrera has any sense and indeed any ‘cojones,’ (not sure what it means? Google will enlighten you…) he will admit he was wrong, and swiftly announce plans to return the event to the center of the city in 2015. He still has time to admit the error and correct it, and in doing so, to save his legacy. His myriad detractors would doubtless think better of him if he makes the courageous decision. If he does not, then February 28, 2014, will indeed go down in history as the day that carnival died, and the decision to make the change will become the albatross around the mayor’s neck. If he wants to know what that will feel like, he just needs to ask former mayor Angelica Araujo Lara how that ‘free’ Shakira concert worked out for her…

Oh, and if he does not, I’ll be reporting from Veracruz next year.

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