Giving the Devil his Due
Celebrating Carnival in La Vega, The Dominican
Here come the nuns! So eager to get to church,
they're running down the street. BUT WAIT! These are the nuns from
hell! As they come, they swing rubber sand bags the size of ping
pong paddles. The nuns have a lot of suspicious facial hair and
are itching to whack the rear ends of anyone looking like a sinner
or just anyone with a large derriere. THWACK! I suspect I've fallen
into both categories for I feel a swift blow to my bottom. Now ordinarily
I wouldn't take kindly to strangers smacking me, but today it's
Carnival and I'm standing in the streets of La Vega, getting in
the spirit. And in this small Dominican town nestled in the Cibao
valley, the Carnival spirit is definitely different. Here
people don't give a hoot about exotic dancers, parade floats, guys
on stilts or clowns. No, here Carnival is closest to the medieval
pre-lent mockery of good and evil itself. Contrary to the rest of
the world, the Dominican Republic celebrates Carnival all February
with each region celebrating in its own unique manner. Other towns
may boast more elaborate costumes and expensive floats, but La Vega's
Carnival is the most unusual.
Every Sunday in February, the town divides into
punishers and sinners. The punishers are those who parade, attired
in endless variations of brilliant homemade polyester devil costumes,
and who arbitrarily spank unsuspecting sinners. The sinners are
us --- the spectators who line the parade route and scream with
nervous laughter. So I'm standing, tourist-curious in the crowd
while a bombastic DJ is narrating the scene from a truck whose loudspeakers
blast jumpy merengue music. The parade boasts a seemingly endless
supply of devils who march down the street in both directions at
once and who unexpectedly dart out of line to mete out justice.
Devils in gaudy red costumes lined with jingle bells, feather-lined
purple pantsuits, satanic black robes, devils draped with tin cans,
snakes, fake human heads. All the devils wear huge papier mache
masks that sport real animal teeth and have wide leering mouths,
bovine nostrils and horns that jut out from the forehead curiously
making all these devils look like cows.
This is probably no accident for La Vega sits smack
dab in the center of the country's cattle producing region so Joseph
Campbell might have said there's some powerful myth-making going
THWACK! I got it again! My two teenage sons and
even my own husband laugh with glee but THWACK! their rear ends
also get the treatment. All around us people are laughing. Some
people are getting rowdy. A couple of guys are pushing their friend
into the path of the devils and THWACK! He gets his just desserts.
The word "daredevil" takes on new meaning here as a few sinners
even dare the devils to punish them by sticking their own rear-ends
out, just asking for it.
"Mas Fuerte! Mas Fuerte!" a woman next to me screams
jokingly urging the devils to smack others harder. She's jumping
up and down and laughing and in her excitement falls against me
and we both topple back nearly into the pan of hot oil in which
a street vendor is frying plantains. Laughing, we quickly right
each other, and soon I find myself shouting "Mas Fuerte!' too for
I'm celebrating Carnival Shirley Jackson style. A man dressed as
a pregnant woman dances down the street, another man jiggles his
enormous plastic breasts. The crowd watches amused but really we're
all concentrating on the devils and we're hiding behind each other
like little kids behind their moms and trying in vain to make our
collective bottoms as inconspicuous as possible. A priest parades
but instead of swinging a censer, he's swinging a butt-whacker!
The crowd screams but to no avail for he's followed by the pope
himself! --- looking like... "The Punisher"
"Mas Fuerte!" the woman shrieks. We're all screaming
now and laughing and falling over each other when here they come
--- THE HOPPING COFFINS!!!! Wooden coffins thump thump thump toward
us. The DJ turns up the merengue music louder and sings the coffins'
praises with an enthusiasm bordering on hysteria. Cheers go up!
Each coffin has a hole at the top from which a corpse face leers.
As the DJ exalts this creativity, the coffins hop quickly but awkwardly
on as if in some morbid sack race.
An old man, grizzled and stooped and wearing a
Giants cap weaves through the crowds. He is selling La Vega key
chains, Jesus key chains, Pringles, gum, candy and cheap plastic
masks of discontinued American Super Heroes: Wonder Woman and the
"Fidel! Fidel!" the crowd shouts over the nervous
music as a Castro look-alike puffing a Dominican cigar, swaggers
down the street. Assassinated Dominican dictator, Trujillo is resurrected,
and with a show of fake gunfire, an entourage of Secret Service
men, looking suspiciously the size of twelve year olds, swaggers
Devils march in dazzling purple pantsuits lined
with jingle bells yet they're sober as the judges and every so often
a child runs out from the crowd to tie the laces on a devil's sneaker
like an act of mercy.
Some of the spectators are in costume too -- sort
of. One guy has an enormous snake wrapped around his neck, a group
of nursery school tots have been turned into a gang of red demons.
A few children wear the hand-made "lechone" masks from nearby Santiago,
speckled in pink yellow and blue and sprouting spikes. Others wear
the cheap Superhero masks. Three ragged boys about ten, looking
too poor for costumes, run through the streets, their near-naked
bodies greased with black motor oil. Of course this idea is ingenious
for they can spank others to their hearts' content yet their black
oil-slimed skin is a deterrent to anyone wanting to spank them.
The centrality of the Devil is a medieval concept.
Once the main figure of Corpus Christi, his purpose was to make people
reflect on their sins. The focus on Satan was ultimately banned
by the church in Europe yet in this island town throughout colonial
times, it seems the devil not only remained, but prevailed. For
the good people of La Vega, Carnival is the festival of "Diablo
Cojuelo" the supreme devil and his goofy "punishment" is a five-hundred
year old tradition.
What a wonderful tradition it is. The La Vega carnival
is an enormously satisfying rite of reversal. How many of us might
long to wear a mask and smack the backside of some insufferable
boss? Talk about catharsis! And for kids, what could
be more joyous then publicly, yet anonymously spanking that mean
teacher or bratty brother? Time out of time, La Vega at Carnival
time is a town in its subjunctive mood, celebrating in a mood of
feeling, willing and desiring, a mood of fantasizing.
I may never see this festivity again but when Lent
rolls around next year I'll remember it and know that the hardworking
people of La Vega are getting what was coming to them all year ---
a devilish good time.
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