The Roots of Carnival in Veracruz, Mexico*

The roots of modern Carnival in Veracruz extend back to the colonial period when residents living in neighborhoods located just outside the city wall (barrios, negros or extramuros) forged new forms of music and dance drawn from European, African and Indigenous traditions. Gradually growing out of the December Corpus Christi religious celebration, porteños fashioned Carnival into a local, pre-Lenten event.

In the late eighteenth century, Carnival-goers in the port wearing colorful costumes and dancing to African-derived chuchumbé rhythms had attracted the attention of local clergy, who subsequently communicated their concerns to church officials in Mexico City. Despite disapproval in certain conservative corners, Carnival steadily evolved during the nineteenth century as participants included both members of the local elite, who tended towards more exclusive indoor balls, as well as the city’s popular classes, who gathered at raucous outdoor street celebrations and public dances over the two-week period leading up to Ash Wednesday.

By the time French Emperor Napoleon III sent an occupying army to Mexico in 1861, the festival had grown significantly to include a number of public dances and parades. But as the war between republican and French forces took a decisive turn in late 1866, political conditions motivated imperial bureaucrats (namely Archduke Maximilian and his conservative Mexican collaborators) to regulate the popular festival. The resulting 1867 "El Carnaval del Imperio" restricted celebrants to a mere three days of partying and stipulated that public processions could only take place within the walls of the city between the hours of six and eight in the evening. The ruling allowed for three public dances to be held either at an area just outside the city wall (later to be dubbed "El recreo de la Alameda") or at the Aduana Quemada near the waterfront. Meantime, approved costumed balls for the city elite were held at the Teatro Principal.

As the more limited festival schedule and sanctioned events introduced by the 1867 regulations reshaped the celebration into something resembling its more current modern form, Carnival in Mexico during the late nineteenth century soon came to be seen by Liberal political elites as an unwanted vestige of Spanish colonialism and a threat to social order. Beginning in the 1880s, authorities in Veracruz and across the nation sought to discourage public observance. Still, popular and elite groups in the city continued to celebrate the pre-Lenten holiday— albeit most often within the private spaces of working tenement courtyards or well-to-do salons.

Whereas authorities during the late nineteenth century had grown suspicious of Carnival because of its reputation as a rite of rebellion, the postrevolutionary coalition that sponsored the festival in 1925 somewhat embraced this essential characteristic. Appropriating the inclusive revolutionary ideal of "Mexico for the Mexicans," organizers helped articulate a key mass political message of the new regime. Working to reestablish the event as an important holiday weekend in the city, organizers hoped Carnival would provide the Veracruz public not only with an opportunity to celebrate after years of social strife, but also an effective means by which people of different class and ethnic backgrounds could take part in a collective affirmation of postrevolutionary civic values. Indeed, as Carnival encouraged a ritualistic dissolution of the old order while simultaneously disseminating postrevolutionary discourse, the celebration afforded porteños a unique opportunity to imagine themselves as part of a renewed local and national community.

Carnival this year in Veracruz is February 25 through March 5, 2003.

*Excerpted from the forthcoming article "Reviving La reina de carnaval: Public Celebration and Postrevolutionary Discourse in Veracruz, Mexico," The Americas: A Quarterly Review of Inter-American Cultural History. Volume 60, No. 1 (July 2003).

Contributor

Andrew Grant Wood

ANDREW GRANT WOOD, the author of Revolution is the Street: Women, Workers, and Protests in Veracruz, 1870 - 1927 (Scholarly Resources, Inc., 2001), is writing a biography of Agustín Lara. He teaches Latin American history at the University of Tulsa.

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