Cumbia is a sacred word on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, especially during Carnaval season. The dance is a mesmerizing infusion of Spanish dance, African drumbeats and indigenous instruments, an ode to the history of this region. It’s also my personal favorite dance, so I’m going to introduce you to this stunning cultural masterpiece. Continue reading Culture Spotlight: Cumbia
A few posts ago, I talked about Carnaval, the biggest event of the year in coastal Colombia. Here is part two, what it’s like to be a queen of Carnaval!
The festivities started getting into full swing–all the music and conversation revolved around Carnaval. Then came the game-changer: my school asked me to be the queen of professors. They promised I’d only be the international queen, so I would be sidekick to the official king and queen…until the real queen of professors couldn’t make it to the first event and I got promoted in the space of ten minutes from vice-queen to the reigning dignitary who had to open the festivities for the entire school–in Spanish!One of the best memories of queenship was frantically prepping in the school office that day while my fellow English teachers coached me on Spanish inflection and pronunciation and my host mom fussed over my frilly cumbia dress and the flowers in my hair. And that’s how one becomes a school queen, or, as I see it, a school mascot with a much cuter outfit (also itchier.)
As a progressive, independent Western young woman, I’ve never aspired to be a beauty queen; it’s always been a foreign culture to me, with the crowns and fake tans and such. But here in Colombia, you say yes to everything, so I found myself being convinced to be a queen.
“It’s fun!” they said.
“It’s not a big deal!” they said.
Two parades, at least eight events, five dresses, two meltdowns and one crown later, I am writing a “Gringa’s Guide to Being a Carnaval Queen.” Here’s a preview…
Gringa’s Guide to Carnaval Queening
Welcome to your new role! As a gringa, your most important job, like any beauty queen, is to represent your people–in this case, all foreigners. No pressure. All anyone wants is to know that foreigners love and enjoy the host culture, and Colombians are a great example of that. From now on, whenever anyone asks you what you think of Colombia, you just say, “Carnavales!!!” with a big smile and you’re in. If you can throw in a little hip shake that you learned during Carnavales, even better. Here are a few other tips:
1. One Word: Glitter. Be forewarned: they will expect you to know how to make yourself up beauty
queen style. If you’re a mascara and BB cream girl like me, I strongly suggest you either a) find a knowledgeable host sister or b) youtube the hell out of contouring and eye shadow application. Invest in a good bright red lipstick and resign yourself to the inevitable glitter tornado that is the month of March. As for blotting paper, remember that you live in a tropical location and under NO CIRCUMSTANCES can you get makeup on your fancy dresses. If you’re too cheap for oil blotting sheets, know that paper napkins are a really scratchy, thin Plan B.
2. Fake it ’til you make it! For your inner princess, this is your chance to live it up–all eyes are on you! If you don’t have an inner princess, find your inner actress and fake it! Being a queen gives you a rare chance to communicate one message to the entire crowd, so make sure the message is, “I feel so lucky to be queen! This is the coolest experience I’ve ever had in Colombia! I’m having the time of my life up here! I hope I don’t fall!!” And more likely than not, it’ll be true.
3. Find a reina expert. For me, this was my host mother. Her daughter had been a child queen, so she knew the who, what and when of the queenly business. I had no CLUE, which led to more than a few mishaps. Warning: you are responsible for nagging the school to pay
for the dresses (if you’re lucky) (they still owe me), for going to fittings you didn’t know about, for picking up and dropping off the stuff in a timetable you have no idea about, and for finding someone to do your hair before every event. Thankfully, my host mom rescued me from several dramatic emergencies regarding the above rules.
4. Smile for the camera! Camera to the nth power…If I’m ever a real celebrity, I’ll be ready! The smartphones, not-smartphones, pocket cameras and, the most baffling, professional photographers come out at any time. Once, I went to a parade in the nearby town with a bunch of
friends and guess who showed up? The photographer from my school! They have an ingenious business here–these guys have professional or semi-pro cameras and ask you to smile for the camera…a week later, they show up at your doorstep at 8 pm to sell you every single shot they’ve ever taken of you! Apparently, you’re supposed to buy all of them, but at $5,000 pesos ($2.50) a piece, this broke volunteer only took six. Anyway, moral of the story is make sure you practice a sustainable smile and a body-flattering pose, cuz you’re going to see it many, many times in print.
5. Gozar! Once you’re zipped in, sucked in, powdered up and smiling, don’t forget to sit back and enjoy your front row vantage point. It is so incredible to see your own high school students transformed into elegant, expressive, passionate artists, showing their beautiful traditions to the world. When they invite you to join in, forget the precarious crown; the risk of lipstick teeth; the pinching zipper. Throw your hands up in the air, grab a nearby student and dance!!
I feel so honored to have been part of this celebration of the elaborate and beautiful costeno culture. As they say, “quien lo vive es quien lo goza“, or “the one who lives it, enjoys it!”
Appendix A (ish):
These are all the costumes I got to play dress up in! A huge shout out to my school, my host mom and the numerous other helpers who made these outfits possible!!
1. Cumbiambera. This costume is worn for the traditional cumbia dance, which is a fusion of three local cultures: African, European and indigenous. An interesting fact is that the small steps taken originated with the African slaves in the area, who could only lift their feet off the ground a little bit because they worn iron chains on their legs.
The dance is a chase: the man tries to win the woman’s affection three times before she accepts his gift, a lit candle. He then leads her through the dance as she holds the candle and follows his hat. It’s very flirtatious!
2. Garabato. This costume is also a dance outfit in the colors of Barranquilla’s flag (red, green and yellow.) The dance depicts the struggle between life, as shown by the bright outfits, and death, which is played by a character in a skeleton suit. As always in Latin American culture, life wins and everyone celebrates! There’s a whole parade.
3. Skirt and top-cito: (see in the article above) This one was another cumbia outfit, but a little more fancy. It was midriff-baring (no bueno) and had lots of dangly, sparkly things going on. I wore it to dance the faculty presentation dance (a mambo) on the coronation day.
4. Coronation Cumbiambera. The frilly, white princess dress I wore on the Coronation day was also a cumbia dress. It was custom-designed in Barranquilla for a girl who was queen of the town a few years back. Fun fact, she may have been similarly tall and thin, but I was much more endowed in certain areas! That dress was tight! The ladies who helped me zip up said, “maybe if you diet until Friday, you can lose your boobs.” Didn’t work.
5. Orange outfit. Brianna, a fellow volunteer who was a spectacular international queen a town over, loaned me one of her outfits so I wouldn’t have to rent a whole extra dress for some event. While we’re on the subject, she was absolutely stunning in her blue feathered outfit as she paraded through her entire town (up and down
the hills) in stilettos. Kickass queening!
6. Mambo Italiano. (see top photo) The final dress was tailored for our faculty dance. That sounds much more exciting than it actually was–I showed up at the designer’s house for a “final fitting” the morning of the dance to find that she hadn’t even made it yet! She threw some pieces of fabric together for a quick dress, but let’s just say that I won’t be wearing it again–four hours of scratching left me raw and red. Either way, it was a fun dance dress!
It would be impossible to condense the endless stories and embody the full excitement of Carnavales in a simple blog post, but here are a few vignettes to try!
Background of Carnaval Barranquilla’s Carnaval is the world’s second-largest carnival, and the most traditional. The annual four-day festival showcases the Colombian coast’s rich blend of European, African and indigenous cultures through traditional costumes, folk dances and music. The event displays the history and culture of the coast, as well, including the Carnaval king and queen, various characters based on local history and local music.
If you live on the coast, however, Carnaval began long before March–in my town, it seemed that people were in a rush to get Christmas over with so they could focus on carnavales.
“Navidad is big, but Carnaval is bigger,” they promised me.
Beginning in January, it seemed that carnaval was suddenly everywhere. You know how stores seem to put out their Valentine’s Day stuff the day after Christmas? I am pretty sure I woke up on December 26 to carnaval music and neon colors everywhere–the carnaval theme seems to be general disorder, so the more colors and textures, the better! Throw in a can of shaving cream and a box of corn starch to cause further mayhem, and you’ve got yourself a fiesta!
Soon, carnaval took over a prominent place in every conversation, television commercial (look for me!) and class schedule. We didn’t have class on Friday for almost two months because each week there was an event–a parade, a cultural dance contest or a coronation to attend! Walking down the street, a moto would pass, carrying a teenage girl clutching a plastic bag bursting with tulle and sequins–there goes a reina, a queen! On Friday afternoons, the street music would be pumped up, and groups of kids wearing monocuco outfits would run around town,chasing each other around with shaving cream and lining up for the parades. If you’re a monocuco in a parade, your job is to be as energetic and ridiculous as possible–and to dance serrucho, the song of the year, on repeat (on average, 12 times per parade. At least.)
My school asked me to be the international reina, or queen, which gave me a front row seat to understand the significance of the history, traditions and effort behind carnaval. As a reina, I was expected to learn the traditional dances, pose for endless pictures and most of all, with my rey momo (king), animar el publico, or rouse up the crowd! Thankfully, my rey momo, a chemistry professor at our school, was great at getting the crowd energized and choosing the perfect moments to toss his hat into the crowd or pull a professor onto the dance floor for a quick jig. I just had to blow a few kisses and stumble around in high heels!
I’m writing a separate blog entry about the queenship and its adventures, but suffice it to say that as a reina, I had an in-depth view of my first Carnaval and the work and fun involved.
Each week, the fiestas got more elaborate and my students’ attention spans got shorter. Here in the pueblo, there were events every weekend, and Barranquilla had various parades and parties, too. It was hard to pick and choose, but the mantra was, “there’s always another!”
My school held a foro, or forum, of the traditional dances. I was blown away—the bright colors! The pulsing cumbia drumbeats! The flushed dancers with glowing eyes! The elegant dresses! The flashy makeup!
The creativity! The talent! The culture!
If there’s any takeaway from Carnaval, it is that Colombians are born with dance and music in their blood. I saw first graders moving their hips like I have never done in my 23 years (nor will accomplish in the next 23!) I watched cumbia players fall into intricate rhythms and play their instruments with their whole bodies, swaying and tapping the beat.
I watched the entire town go into carnaval-mode, with seamstresses, door-to-door souvenir saleswomen, dance instructors and queens coming out of the woodwork. In true small town fashion, there’s a guy for everything: need a shoe fixed? The guy at the corner does that. Need to borrow a headpiece? The lady across the way rents them. Need a seam mended on your sequin bodice? So-and-so’s aunt does that. Need a crash course in dancing? Here’s last year’s dance winner.
Parade after parade, event after event, we danced, serrucho-ed, cheered, photographed and celebrated towards the culmination: Caraval weekend, March 1-4, 2014. The long-anticipated weekend, attracting tourists and professional pickpocketers from around the globe. Suddenly, arepa prices skyrocketed, the streets started filling with tall, Raybans-sporting pale people, and the carnaval music got even louder.
In rickety buses, overcrowded airplanes, air-conditioned shuttles and little taxis, the world converged on Barranquilla with juicy anticipation, ready to gozar the event of the year.
And that brings us to Friday night of Carnaval.
to be continued…
1. If polyester were edible, we could have solved world hunger with the amount of it in today’s festivities!
2. With the amount of polyester and lace involved in my dress, why did I still have to bare my stomach to the public for the first time since 2002??
3. Being a celebrity is so easy! You just sit there and smile a lot. And do whatever the yelling mob of teachers tells you to do: “sit there!”.. “wave!”… “parade!”…”dance!”
4. This is not what I imagined cultural integration to be like, but someone told me today that I’ve integrated better than previous gringos.
5. Apparently when the guys who sit in the park by my house yell, “bye, my queen!” they are not referring to my actual queenship. They mean, “hey sexy lady!” and I should not respond by curtseying as I walk by to class.
6. You can get points for how much the crowd loves you–so invite all your friends and tell them to bring air horns.
7. I’m going to write a “Gringa’s Guide to Carnaval Duties” to help the next one avoid some of my mishaps and confusion. Chapter One: Finding Dresses Before the Night Before the Ceremony. Chapter Two: Invest in Strong Makeup Remover or Paint Thinner.
8. I have the most talented, cultured, charismatic and energetic students!! They continue to amaze me not only with their traditional, cultural dance skills but also with their creativity and the amount of personality that shows when they’re right in the middle of a carefully rehearsed, complicated dance sequence and you can tell they’re enjoying themselves!
9. I want these little girls and young women to know that they are valued for so much more than their costumes or ability to “serrucho”; they are beautiful because they embrace their cultural roots, they invest their precious energy in making beautiful presentations, they are a wealth of talent and because they are my students!
10. Finally, as a progressive, modern woman, I have a lot of thoughts and feelings on being involved in a beauty pageant. Stay tuned for an upcoming blog on “Beauty Cultures: North and South America.” (I’ll name it something cooler later.)