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Maxine Schur

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Giving the Devil his Due
Celebrating Carnival in La Vega, The Dominican Republic

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 on here.

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 Incredible Hulk.

"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 before us.

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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Articles from the Caribbean
  Dionisio Blanco
  Candido Bido
  Sharon Wilson
  Dennis Valentine
  Don Dahlke
  Maria Henle
  Amos Ferguson
  Paradise on Earth
  Cristina Emmanuel
  Omeilia Marshall
  Giving the Devil His Due
  Euphoria in Eleuthera

Photos: La Vega Carnival

©Maxine Rose Schur 2001. Reproducing or copying photos and articles is strictly prohibited unless expressly granted by the owner. All photos are by the author unless specified.



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