People worldwide—from Russia, Croatia and Turkey to Angola, Cape Verde and the Seychelles; from Italy, Germany and the Netherlands, throughout North and South America and the Caribbean—celebrate the public street party and parade most popularly called Mardi Gras or Carnavál. It is thus quite natural that Mazatlán, with our rich immigrant heritage, would be blessed with a Carnavál tradition that is the oldest in Mexico, dating back at least 191 years to 1827.
Tourists frequently feel confused by the fact that Carnavál doesn’t take place on a set date each year. Carnavál in most parts of the world is traditionally held during the week leading up to Lent; it’s the last big blowout before the Christian season of fasting and reflection. Fat Tuesday, the last day of Carnavál, precedes Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Calendar dates change annually because Lent is the 40-day period prior to Easter, a religious holiday based on an ecclesiastical calendar and celebrated on the first Sunday after the Paschal Full Moon.
In its first few decades Mazatlán’s Carnavál was a spontaneous “celebration of the people” during which revelers would decorate buggies, burros, horses, bicycles and eventually cars for the big parade and dance at masquerade balls and street parties. Carnavál de Mazatlán became an official city event with an organizing committee and budget in 1898. Which means that in 2018 we celebrate 120 years of our official fiesta máxima. Carnavál became official because it had grown in size and popularity and required coordination. The story behind that reality, however, is quite interesting.
You may be familiar with the tradition of juegos de harina or throwing colored flour and water during Carnavál, much like Holi in the Hindu tradition. Cascarones, filling egg shells with flour or confetti and then breaking them on people, are part of this tradition, too. The custom seems to have originated in Spain, and is popular throughout many of the former Spanish colonies. Well, those “flour games” (not to be confused with Floral Games) became very popular in the 1800s in Mazatlán—so popular that by the latter part of the century there were two “camps” of Carnavál revelers who annually “warred” with each other, rather similar to the “warring tribes” in New Orleans. According to historian Enrique Vega Ayala, the Abastos group held the territory between 21 de Marzo and Zaragoza streets, while the area belonging to the rival Mueyes went from 21 de Marzo through Playa Sur. People from these two camps would regularly decorate floats and ride them into “enemy” territory, bombarding anyone they could find with flour bombs. For years city officials and upstanding citizens tried to ban such over-the-top revelry, but without success. People like to have fun. Once Carnavál de Mazatlán became official, however, the city began funding the purchase of confetti and serpentine streamers, and the tradition of the “flour wars” receded into a distant memory.
For decades Mazatlán has had three queens each year: Queen of Carnavál (since 1900), Queen of the Floral Games (since 1937), and the Child Queen (since 1968). Historically, however, the king predates the queens. The first Carnavál King was crowned in 1898, two years before the first queen. The King of Joy was originally called the Rey Feo, or Ugly King—the title was changed in 1965. Mazatlán’s very first queen way back in 1900 was not Mexican but was born in Maine, USA: Winnie Farmer. She grew up in Mazatlán, was crowned at 17, moved back to the US in her thirties, and returned to Mazatlán in 1956—aged 64—to ride a float in the Carnavál parade once again.
One of my greatest thrills for many years was joining local legend Maestro Rigoberto Lewis in his workshop to watch him finish up the carrozas alegóricas or royal floats. Maestro Rigo always told me he was born during Carnavál and had it in his blood. He designed the Carnavál de Mazatlán floats for 54 years; those intricately decorated, classical floats, very tall, were his signature style. Maestro Rigo died in 2014, just prior to Carnavál.
Smaller than the revelry in Rio or New Orleans, Mazatlán is said to have the third-largest Carnavál celebrations in the world—remarkable for a city of its size. Our local tradition is a family-friendly one; as far back as 1900 a ball was held for children, and young people city-wide practice their dancing and instrument playing for months before the big day. Along the parade route you will see thousands of families, many of whom put chairs and tents out to guard their viewing area days before the two parades. Most every family in Mazatlán has at least one if not several members who have been in comparsas or dancing troupes in the parade, and many proudly have several generations that have run for Queen or King.
While Carnavál no doubt began among the city’s foreign immigrants, it quickly grew to include people from all strata of society and all walks of life. The five main days of Carnavál include four coronations with concerts (Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Monday), two major ocean-side parades (Sunday and Tuesday), a Burning of Bad Humor (firecracker-laced giant piñata on Saturday), a food show, a carnival with rides and games for the kids over by Sam’s Club, and an incredible fireworks spectacular (Saturday). The last few years they’ve also added a Monday night concert, usually banda Sinaloense music. Party central is the Carnavál zone, which this year they are moving several hundred meters north in order to protect the newly rehabbed Olas Altas. Cultura has reported that the party zone will begin at the deer statue in Olas Altas and extend along Paseo Claussen as far as Casa del Marino. There are usually nearly a half-dozen stages or so set up, each with a different kind of live music playing from evening through the wee hours of the morning: tambora or banda sinaloense, los chirrines (ranchera and norteña), boleros, rock, mariachi… you name it. You’ll find lots to eat and drink, and plenty of vendors selling hats, masks, eyelashes, wigs and lighted toys. More importantly, you’ll laugh and dance the night away! Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.
The activities surrounding Carnavál begin months prior to the main events. Candidates for Carnavál royalty are presented in early October, along with the theme for the upcoming year. Aspiring royalty conduct their fund-raising campaigns including parades (manifestaciones) and ballot-counting in October, November and December, while various dance groups or comparsas city-wide also raise funds for costumes and spend lots of time rehearsing their moves. Excitement builds and most everyone in town is involved in some way or another in this máxima fiesta of the year.
A month or so before Carnavál we usually get an unveiling of the monigotes (1, 2, 3) giant sculptures along the malecón and in the Plaza Machado. A couple of weeks before Carnavál there is an official election of the royalty that takes place in the Angela Peralta Theater. A poetry contest (Juegos Florales or “Floral Games”) has been held since 1925, and there is also a literature prize (since 1965) and one for painters as well (since 1996), with the winners celebrated in a Velada de las Artes concert and performance in the Angela Peralta the Friday before Carnavál.
One of my favorite aspects of Carnavál de Mazatlán is that there are queens and kings from every district of the city and every strata of society. Schools and clubs all over town, including community centers with lots of elderly people, choose a queen or king to dance and revel in the parade. I absolutely love cheering on the grandmas and grandpas each year, some of whom are in their 80s and dance the entire parade route. We are also regaled with the anniversary floats—those queens or kings celebrating their 25th or 50th year since being crowned.
While not “official,” there seems to be an annual “song of Carnavál” that most of the dance troupes play over and over again. We kept track for a few years. Back in 2009 it was Te Presumo; we were blessed that Banda El Recodo was the King of Joy that year. In 2010 it was Julión Alvarez’ La María; in 2011 Chuy Lizárraga’s La Peinada; in 2012 Gloria Estéfan’s WEPA; 2013 was Enrique Iglesias with Pitbull on I Like How It Feels. Let me know what you feel were the most popular songs the last few Carnaváls, and I’ll update the list.
The key thing to remember about Carnavál is: You’re in the right place! Carnavál de Mazatlán rocks, there are loads of activities of every type to enjoy, and you will be welcomed with open arms and lots of dance moves.
Tips for Enjoying Carnával De Mazatlán
- Buy your tickets to the coronations! These are spectacular, world-class events full of pomp and circumstance as well as pyrotechnics, dancing, music and a concert. Everyone should go to at least one, at least once. I’ve known several tourists who didn’t realize you needed tickets for these major events, but you do.
- When you travel to the Carnavál party zone:
- Don’t wear clothes or shoes that you don’t want to get dirty; your feet will be stepped on and beer may be spilled on you.
- Do not take valuables as the huge crowds tend to bring out pickpockets.
- There is a limit the last few years to the number of people permitted into the party zone at any one time. Don’t worry if you wait a while; you will get in eventually, and it’s for safety reasons that they limit entry.
- Remember also that in the zone there are so many people that cell phone networks get overloaded. Don’t rely on texting or calling to stay in touch with your group; name a rendezvous spot and time in case you get separated.
- If you want to see the spectacular Combate Naval fireworks, which recreates a sea-to-shore battle between Mexico and the French, be prepared to be in a human wave/near-million person crowd of revelers; view it as part of the fun. If you don’t want to stand, make your reservations at a restaurant or grab a seat on the malecón Those living in homes with a view will hold parties, if you’re lucky enough to be invited.
- Realize that you cannot attend the coronation of the queen on Saturday AND see the Burning of Bad Humor and Combate Naval fireworks unless you are hugely blessed. The people who do attend all three tend to have official escorts (e.g., royalty and elected officials)! The coronation takes place in the stadium, the fireworks are in Olas Altas, and the traffic in between the two is untenable. You will arrive to slow entry lines and possibly a party zone at maximum capacity. If you plan to see the fireworks, it’s best to attend the other coronations on a different day.
- Hotel rooms overlooking the party zone can be fully booked up to two years ahead of time, and quite a few hotels require a three-night minimum during Carnavál. You’ll see that many people set up whole party spaces along the parade route. The city usually puts up bleachers for the public to use, so if you get to the parade early enough, you might be able to find a seat.