In the morning, we awoke and found Joselito dead. Cause of death: Too much fun during Carnival. Or at least that’s how the story goes. The last day of Barranquilla Carnival is affectionately known as La muerte de Joselito – the death of Joselito.
Tuesday, Fat Tuesday to be exact, is the last day of Carnival. And not just in Barranquilla – Panama, Trinidad, New Orleans (Mardi Gras) were all celebrating today, giving it their all in preparation for the somber that Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season would bring. In my heart, I believe it was the collective force of the diaspora celebrating all over the Americas that day that made me fall in love with Carnival at last.
Today’s parade was a little different. We walked to the other side of town where the parade was already in full force. Seating was not as structured as before so we found ourselves huddling on the curb, cameras out, absorbing the heat and the energy of the parade. The costumes were similar, but the energy clearly exceeded the previous days. Whereas the earlier parades had been experienced behind gates and barriers, here we sat on the curb and had to scoot back to not be trampled by the dancers as they kicked and danced their way down the street. There was no longer an “us” and “them”. People shouted to their friends they recognized beneath all the costumes and eager parents rushed the street to get their baby girl a picture with the queen. This was the dancers’ last chance to get it right and all the choreography was sharp and powerful. It felt less like a parade and more like a neighborhood celebration, a very dramatic and grandiose neighborhood celebration. I huddled with children and my new travel buddies (known only as the Italians) while we eagerly awaited and awed at the costumes, dancers, and characters that strutted past.
On this day, the queen of Carnival (as well as a number of other women) sob their way through the streets mourning Joselito. It is the most dramatic display of emotion you’ll ever see. Women in all black, faux fainting, falling into their partner’s arms, hysterically shrieking over the loss of Joselito. And their entourage rushing to their aide, fanning them and trying to console them. It’s quite a riot and utterly hilarious.
The second most hilarious part of the day were the kids. To my left, a little girl wearing a red and white checkered cumbia skirt was having the time of her life. No more than 2 and a half years old, she jumped whenever the cumbia dancers came by. She held up her skirt to them and waved it around with joy. She always clapped afterwards and then rushed back to her father’s lap. I envisioned her a year later in the carnival like the other young paraders that were passing by. You could see their tired, pained smiles, the extra hard smiles that little kids give when posing for pictures, the smiles they give right before passing out for hours. I imagined their parents put them in the parade because “they’d be so cute” just like the moms who push their young ones in ballet recitals for the pretty costumes and to see their babies on stage. Like the cumbia baby, I bet they had once been eager toddlers uncontrollable with excitement on the sidelines.
Sitting on the side gave me a different perspective of the parade. Now I was looking up and could clearly see the feet of the dancers, so precisely in sync. The cumbia dancers came by holding their skirts high, and for the more advanced, holding burning candles in one hand. What I could see so clearly now was that they shuffled their feet along the ground. Do you know why they shuffle their feet? Shackles….. Shackles.They shuffled their feet because of the shackles of the slaves from whom the dance originated. Drawing on the flutes of indigenous communities and the rhythm of African communities, cumbia had blended the inflences of these groups, like many aspects of Latin American culture. Cumbia started in Colombia around the 17th century during slavery and is derived from the African word cumbe. I remember Jenny had mentioned the shuffling feet earlier, but I had forgotten it until this moment. I couldn’t take my eyes of their feet now. Shackles. My heart dropped each time I thought of it. Shackles. And yet it lived on. That became a key distinguishing feature of the dance, contrasting the fast, free-footed salsa danced in the street parties and clubs.
It had to be the spirit of the ancestors in full force that day because when the Afro-Caribbean bands came out, I lost it. Tears in my eyes, not only at the beauty of the costumes, but the familiarity of the dances. The diaspora, living and breathing and thriving, despite centuries of oppression, despite borders and barriers of language. As they shot their hands to the sky, I saw Black power fists rising in unison as if to say, “We are here. We have conquered.” I saw myself in them, quite literally . The feathered and colorfully-clad dancers hit the same moves we did in the call and response Afrohouse dance circles I lived for at Boston dance festivals and clubs. The familiarity of the Boston dance scene that I missed so dearly was here barely masked by feathers and glitter. Despite different packaging, the roots are hard to deny. Another band passed and afrobeat music played. My eyes lit up as I was transported back to Cambridge living rooms and Youtube playlists of Dami duro and Wizkid, surrounded by folk from the whole African continent, cuttin up and dancing with jollof rice and stewed chicken in hand. I thought of the videos I’d seen from my friends in Trinidad, playing mas, and I envisioned them passing by as the colorful costumes passed. In this land so far away, I felt all the parts of my life coming together.
Leading this one Afro-Caribbean band in particular was a young man in a green underpiece with a matching headpiece, high green leggings, and pointy, feathered, green and yellow wings shooting from his shoulders. From the elation on his face, and the ambition with which he gyrated his hips, I knew he was living his best life. And I was living mine just watching him. He turned toward my side of the crowd to give us a show and our eyes met. Tis the benefit of sitting so close. He saw my eager grin and matched it. As he moved his body in time with the beat, hitting a fast wine, I couldn’t contain myself and found myself moving my hips as well. His aura and energy kept growing, partly fed by our playful competition, partly fed by the crowd who was now screaming and cheering. His song ended and he struck a fierce pose on the final downbeat. He blew me a kiss and mouthed “Maravillosa, mi amor” as he ran off to to catch the band that continued down the street. For those moments, he saw me and I had seen him.
Although I can’t be sure, I feel we shared an understanding of what the music and moves held within them. For me, it was the dance of my adolescence that had caused the screams when the DJ played dutty wine. The same music and moves I’d been introduced to as a child listening to Dolla Wine at a family cookout. The music and moves draw a line across the globe and time, as Jasmine Garsd called it we were living “centuries of musical DNA”. Carried over on ships from its home, it had been renewed on the shores of the Caribbean, repurposed and reworked in Black American dance clubs, revived as a Pan-African dance and music movement brought Afrobeat and soca together to mix with hip hop and rap globally. It had grown and evolved through the lifetime of a young Caribbean-American gyal, snowballing and adding new meaning with each new interaction. That day, the ancestors added a new layer to my snowball, a new way to see and love my culture. I imagine their smiles watching over us as the brilliant rays of the Barranquilla sun, bringing us camaraderie and hope, of a culture, a history everlasting.