7 Tips So You Don’t Miss the Best of Carnaval de Mazatlán!

There are a couple of things to know about Carnaval de Mazatlán. First, Mazatlecos are born with Carnaval in their veins; it is part of their DNA. They can critique a Carnaval float like no one else, knowing exactly what makes it work or what it’s lacking. That is part of the reason why it is said to be the third largest in the world. Work and school pretty much come to a halt during the days of Carnaval; it is time to party before the reflective season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.

Second, Carnaval here is a festival of the pueblo, the people. It is an intergenerational family affair. Despite what some outsiders might perceive, it is most definitely NOT a beauty contest, or at least not primarily. And it is not the festival of drunkenness and debauchery that you see elsewhere, though of course it there are people who make it that. The biggest pride for the people of Mazatlán this year is that the King of Carnaval is an ordinary guy from the barrio, a single father to two daughters, who  labors for a living and performs lots of community service work. They will go wild to see him dancing on top of his Carnaval float during the two parades this year. Carnaval includes more upscale activities like classical music concerts, awards for poetry, art and literature, but the beating heart of the week-long event is the mass revelry, where you’ll celebrate with grandparents and children, as well as teenagers and adults of all ages.

Carnaval Calendar
The official calendar of Carnaval events is above, though it is missing a couple of key events such as the Gastronomic Fair (below) and the Lunes de Mascaritas or “Masquerade Monday,” new this year in an attempt to revive an storied city Carnaval tradition. Below are my tips for making the most of your Carnaval experience, in chronological order for the week.

  1. Banda El Recodo’s 80th Anniversary Concert: This year we get an extra day of Carnaval, thanks to it being the 80th anniversary of our beloved, nine-time-Grammy-winning Banda El Recodo. People around the world are so very jealous of those of us who live here in Mazatlán, home to the first Mexican band to perform in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, North and South America. They even have two stars on the walk of fame in Las Vegas. Greg went by their offices today to pick up our credentials for the concert (Wed. Feb. 27th in the stadium, doors open at 5 pm), and he was AMAZED how many people came by and waited at the door, explaining over the intercom that they had taught Poncho or known Joel when they were kids, asking for concert tickets or to talk with a star. Talk about super fans! It is wonderful to have home town heroes with international fame! The band gave out thousands and thousands of free tickets to this huge concert, which will include loads of other stars paying tribute to the Madre de las Bandas. If you have not joined in the excitement of this major event, you are missing out! You’ll see people dressed to the nines and others in jeans, boots, cowboy hats and rhinestones. Heck, just people watching will be a treat!80-Aniversario-de-la-Banda-El-Recodo-2
  2. The Coronation of the King (Thu. Feb. 28th in Sister Cities Park, starting at 8 pm) is always an exceptional concert and it’s always free! This year it will be headlined by another famous local son, Chuy Lizárraga! The coronation of the king has traditionally included much less pomp and circumstance than that of the queens, but it’s still a whole lot of fun—and much rowdier. You’ll most probably see some cool dancing, video effects and staging, as well as a killer fireworks show during the coronation, followed by a stellar concert. I highly recommend attending. Take a portable seat if you need one, and perhaps a cooler of beer, though no doubt there will be vendors galore. This concert attracts a huge crowd. The coronation tends to start on time or perhaps up to an hour late (which here can still be considered “on time,” with the new city administration it’s hard to know what will be different), but the headliner probably won’t play until 10 or 11 pm. Be sure to take a hat and jacket, as the park is right along the malecon, which can get cool and breezy at night. Dress will be casual. Wear closed-toe shoes as there will be a crowd.48391285_2419783844760448_4227020501060419584_o.jpg
  3. See a coronation—of one of the queens! You absolutely must. It will include a world-class concert, but also colorful, spirited dancing by local costumed children and professionals, impressive staging and media effects, and fireworks. My recommendation is that you attend the Coronation of the Queen of the Floral Games (Fri. Mar. 1st in the stadium at 8:30 pm) or Child Queen Coronation (Mon. Mar. 4th) are best, because it will leave your Saturday night free to catch the fireworks and burning of bad humor downtown. It is nearly impossible to see the Saturday coronation and get to Olas Altas in time to see the fireworks, due to the huge traffic jams during Carnaval (and the security line to get into the Carnaval zone). We have tried. The queen and the governor can do it, but they’ve got police escorts. The coronations require tickets, which are still available online at the Cultura Mazatlán site. Lots of people dress NICE for the coronations, and it’s fun to get into the spirit of the event. High heels tend to mean tough walking on the turf of the stadium, however. Be sure to take a jacket and hat, or even a blanket, as the stadium can get damp and cold depending on the day’s weather. You can take binoculars for a better view and, of course, your camera.P1250966©
  4. Saturday of Carnaval is my second-most-favorite night. I spent well over a decade in Japan, and consider myself a connoisseur of good fireworks. The traditional Combate Naval fireworks show (Sat. Mar. 2nd at 10:30 pm in the Olas Altas party zone) is super; I trust it will be this year. The event, however, is attended by 500,000 or more people in a cramped area of town, so be ready to be swept up in a human wave. Honestly, you can quite literally be swept off your feet and taken with the crowd, so be prepared. Besides the fireworks, I encourage you to show up early and walk along to watch the Burning of Bad Humor (Sat. Mar. 2nd at 8 pm at the Deer Statue in Olas Altas). This little-talked about event is a WHOLE lot of fun. It’s a traditional Mexican custom to burn a piñata loaded with a whole lot of firecrackers, an effigy, of some well-hated person from the previous year. If you’ve never seen it, you owe it to yourself to go. Just follow the fireworks (single-shot fireworks that denote a parade route) or wait at the Deer Statue. Rumor has it that this year they’ll burn EPN—Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico’s last president. There won’t be an official announcement till the day before, and the burning is preceded with a poem that roasts the “effigy of honor.”Combate Naval Rosa
    Best bets to see the fireworks are:
    • At this point in time, if you don’t have a reservation (see below), I’d plan to arrive plenty early in Olas Altas on Saturday (maybe 5 or 6 pm) and find a seat on the malecón wall. Plan to hold on to it for dear life. You’ll have to take turns going to the bathroom or picking up refreshments in order to maintain your prime seating. We have done this several years and absolutely loved it. It is an “of the people” experience. There’s great conversation and revelry, and the views are the best ever. Remember there are often fireworks launched from the beach in front of you, and from at least two different barge locations in the bay.
    • My second recommendation to you, if you don’t have a reservation, is to reserve seats on a boat. There are loads of party boats that will head out into the bay to watch the fireworks. The best ones include live music, most will have bars, some have food as well.
    • It’s late, but you may get lucky enough even at this late date to get a reservation at an Olas Altas restaurant or bar. You will have to pay in advance to secure your reservation. Puerto Viejo often opens their roof, as does the Freeman, and all the places along the malecón will be full of people.
    • Get invited to a private party. We have had the pleasure of witnessing Combate Naval from some absolutely breathtaking locations thanks to the generosity of friends. I always say, I’m happy to share my photos of the fireworks in exchange for a great viewing location 😉
    • Make a reservation at one of the hotels in the area—the Belmar, La Siesta, Casa Lucila or Casa de Leyendas. For this year you are probably waaaay too late, but hey, it doesn’t hurt to get ready for Carnaval 2020! Wouldn’t it be wonderful to party on the balcony of your own hotel room?
  5. The Parade!!! The ABSOLUTE FAVORITE event of Carnaval for most mazatlecos, including us. The main parade is the first one (Sun. Mar. 3rd leaving the Fishermen’s Monument and heading north at 5:30 pm). The parade continues to Valentino’s, where it will turn on Rafael Buelna so that the royalty and others can get off the floats. The parade is comprised of quite a few different sections (current royalty, past year’s royalty, and 25 and 50 year commemorations), each of which includes dance troupes and live music, plus incredible floats. People will put chairs out on the malecón 2-4 days ahead of time, staying 24 hours a day to guard their space. Others rent a seat from one of the hotels along the route, or join friends on the pool deck or a balcony of one of the condo buildings along the route. The entire parade route becomes one huge party for several days ahead of the big day. Expect the parade to last until about 10:00 pm. You will need to plan to secure a good viewing spot, though you can crowd in and see it from the back of the pack, too. Bring a chair if you want to sit and don’t have one reserved. The parade is not as horribly crowded as the Combate Naval fireworks. There is a pre-parade that departs about 4:30, when commercial floats toss out lots of freebies to the crowd._DSC1596©
    If you want to see the floats in a more relaxed setting, go to the malecón north of the Sea Lion Statue on Tue. Mar. 5th anytime after about 1:00 pm and before 4:30 pm when the second parade starts. This is prime photo-op time as the dancers are getting ready, putting on their makeup, loosening their muscles, and the royalty will be boarding the floats. The second parade heads south from there to Olas Altas, so you have much more space along which to set your chair and enjoy the parade. This parade is not nearly as crowded as Sunday’s._DSC3428©
  6. The Muestra Gastronómica or Gastronomic Festival (Sun-Tue. Mar. 3rd through 5th from 1-7 pm in Sister Cities Park) is historically a free event, but this year will be a benefit for DIF (municipal family services), Sister Cities Park and The Lighthouse Nature Park. What I love about it is they’re converting it from an upscale affair in the Machado into a family-friendly event in the park! Over 20 local restaurants will participate, there will also be live music, games, face painting and bouncy houses for the kids. You may want to bring your costumes and Carnaval masks and attend the gastronomic fair on Monday, because afterwards the city is rescuing the beloved mazatlecan tradition of Lunes de Mascaritas or “Masquerade Monday,” where young people asked one another, Mascarita, me conoces? or “Masked one, do you know me?” Prizes include a motorcycle and other major goodies, so be sure to give it a shot!52151453_10214065139442926_5662494469413404672_n.jpg, free.
  7. Finally and most obviously, do not miss a night in the Party Zone in Olas Altas! Entrance to the  zone this year is supposed to be free. Normally it was a small fee, to make it accessible to everyone and yet not an even crazier free-for-all. There you will find loads of food and drink, stages with many different kinds of live music, from dusk till the wee hours of the morning. You can’t say you attended Carnaval de Mazatlán if you don’t dance in the street in the party zone at least once! It will be open Feb. 28th to Mar. 5th. I recommend you dress casual, avoid jewelry and don’t take a lot of cash; it’s safe and a great time, but there are pickpockets who come special from out of town, and it’s quite the crowd so easier pickings.P1100271©

Give Me a Light?

Carnaval de Mazatlán 2019 is showing us some incredible artistry, and it’s allowed Greg and me to meet some outstanding artists! This week it was Jorge Osuna, creator of our magically illuminated floats these past nine years. Like me, you may be amazed how they seem to get better and better. Well, this very affable gentleman is an electrical engineer who also happens to have enjoyed drawing and music since he was a kid. He is constantly experimenting and playing around, trying things that haven’t been done before, so that he and his team can bring the most “wow” to Carnaval.

This year you’ll see the first monochromatic illuminated float (orange fabric) as well as the first black float (“people complain that black is not a happy Carnaval color, but at night, with the red lights, the black blends into the environment and it is just incredible!” Jorge tells us. Please remember that Cultura Mazatlán has asked the press not to publish photos of the floats prior to the parades. Thus, what you are seeing below are elements only. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

Jorge did not study set-making, architecture or construction. He runs a lighting business, here and in Culiacán. He specializes in customizing lighting to the venue—the theme of the restaurant, business or event. Raúl Rico used to ask him to do lighting for special projects, staging, etc., and then in late 2009 he asked Jorge to make five floats for a night parade down the malecón. The parade was to accompany the second fireworks show that we did for a few years on Carnaval Monday and was designed to provide a family-friendly Carnaval option outside of drinking and revelry.

I remember that night well. None of us knew what to expect. All the lights on the malecón went dark. After the Child Queen’s coronation behind our house, we could see the five illuminated floats from a great distance, coming our way along the Avenida del Mar. Excitement built and people were thrilled. By the second year the event drew such a huge crowd that they were sadly forced to cancel it. Poof, just like that. Just like AeroFest, another fantastic event that is no longer. The purveyors in the “party zone” in Olas Altas had complained that the light-up parade and fireworks were robbing their crowd. The effort was killed by its own success.

This year the 20 or so workers in the Osuna Workshop will make their first-ever royal float, for the Child Queen, plus nine more—most of the children’s and Floral Games’ sections. In addition to their ten floats, the Osuna team will illuminate the Lewis Family floats. “Carnaval is the pride of Mazatlán. It’s for the pueblo, it’s of the pueblo. All of us who participate in putting it on are a team. We help and support each other. We each have unique contributions,” Jorge tells me.

This taller began working the second week of November. Most everything now is finished, electrified, and they are now “closing it all up,” which means wrapping it in fabric so that it glows and shines during the parades. I joked with Jorge that, as an electrical engineer, working on the Carnaval floats must have taught him a lot about fabric. He belly laughed and told me this story.

Jorge buys fabrics here in Mazatlán, but he also has to travel to Mexico City and Guadalajara to find the best fit for his purposes. People in the fabric shops don’t “get it;” they are used to selling fabric for dresses, curtains, blouses, not Carnaval floats. He remembers the first year, when he’d show up in a fabric shop. He had a light box with him, so he could stretch the fabric over it and see how it looked with the light behind it. It can’t be too translucent, or the bulbs show through; ideal is when it glows. The women in the fabric shop would chuckle and point, gossiping about the “crazy man over there.” Now, however, when he shows up at his favorite fabric shop in Guadalajara, they put Jorge at his own table, pull him up a chair and serve him refreshments. Now they understand the importance of his light box. They are proud to be a small part of Carnaval de Mazatlán, and they know he’ll leave their shop with loads and loads of fabric, helping them fulfill any sales quotas they might have. What a difference a few years makes!

“Mazatlecos have Carnaval in our genetic code. It is imprinted on us our entire lives. People from outside don’t get it,” Jorge told us. People from Guatemala, Veracruz, Mexico City, Chihuahua, Ensenada and Cozumel have asked IngenieroOsuna to make floats for their parades. “No,” he tells them, he is an electrical engineer, he has an empresato run. He does Carnaval de Mazatlán out of love for his city and the privilege to be part of his world-class hometown tradition.

Everything is artisanally done in this workshop. My book club buddy Henry Albuernes is a sculptor who forges the steel frames onto which the lights are fastened before their final draping in fabric. We witnessed a couple of talented women stretching fabric over these mountings and sewing them in place, and there were plenty of electricians working with fabric all over this workshop.

Yes, the electrical connections! You cannot believe how complicated this all is! A normal home, according to Jorge, uses about 4 kilowatts of electricity. Some of his floats use up to 30! He has actually had to install air conditioners inside floats to keep the lights from overheating!

We asked the Ingeniero what becomes of his floats after Carnaval. They are made of steel and will last a long time if stored safely. “I honestly don’t know,” he replies. “I would really like to see them be put to a good use. Given to a school or an orphanage or old folks’ home. The frames could be used to form cement for a permanent statue. I would love to see them come out again on Children’s Day, for a night time parade to delight the kids here in town.”

What are his hopes for Carnaval going forward? Like most of us in Mazatlán, he is also very much hoping that the rumored Carnaval museum becomes a reality. He also would very much like to see the parade route extended. He recommends starting at our new Sister Cities Park, which would add one kilometer to its distance, and also closing the beginning of Rafael Buelna, so that the floats can safely get to the Gran Plaza and the royalty and dancers can de-board securely and peacefully.

Interviewing the three Carnaval float talleres this year was a whole lot of fun. The first two articles can be found here, with Ocean Rodriguez, and here, with the Lewis Family. I hope we’ve helped you get excited about the parades. They are going to ROCK! We’ll see you there!

 

I’ve Seen Carnaval Future…

Ironically, change can sometimes be the best way to honor tradition. And holding inspiration and love for tradition in your soul can bring about the most remarkable innovations and creativity. This year, CULTURA Mazatlán’s desire to bring in younger, fresher, more modern and innovative blood has been a surprising and welcome way to honor our community tradition—what the protagonist of this story calls our “religion.”

You will have heard of Ocean Rodriguez, the young mazatleco who left town 14 years ago to make it big in set design in Mexico City and who has come home to be one of three Carnaval float designers this year. The new city administration has been singing his praises so highly since coming into office that my response to meeting him was, honestly, skeptical. Were we about to meet another over-confident ego? Thankfully that was not at all the case. And, after our community disappointment with the monigotes, I know many of you are worried about the quality of the parade this year.

Touring Ocean’s workshop with him took our breath away, and I don’t say that lightly. We saw intricately detailed, lifelike sculptures, painted in vivid colors and finished in the glitter that is a requirement of a mazatlecan Carnaval parade. We saw a bit of Las Vegas, in the way lightbulbs were used to add flare to large letters. We were awed by moving parts and mechanisms, including machines and a whale spouting. A successful set designer, as Ocean told us, is part “architect, sculptor, mechanic, painter and carpenter,” a jack of all trades or a renaissance artist. I am posting photos of details, only, as CULTURA has requested the press not post photos of Carnaval floats before the parade, so that the public can be surprised and delighted. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

 

Talking with Ocean was a delight. He treasures the uniqueness of Carnaval de Mazatlán deep in his soul, in a manner remarkably similar to that of Maestro Rigo—the designer of our parade floats for 54 years. Ocean, in fact, credits Rigo as his earliest professional inspiration—standing on the street in awe, along with the rest of Mazatlán—of those Barroque-style carros alegóricos was one of the huge joys of his childhood. His grandmother, Emilia Zatarraín, would take him and his cousins to the parade. She was “muy carnavalera,” and from December till Mardi Gras would save egg shells to make cascarones filled with confetti and serpentine, giving each of her grandchildren a “Carnaval kit” every day during the maximum fiesta of our port. Ocean is dedicating the eight floats he is building this year to her memory. And, while the city points to the Lewis family’s creations as honoring Maestro Rigo’s legacy, I believe you can add Ocean’s eight floats to that list. In Ocean’s creations we saw the details, complexities and whimsical surprises that we had been fortunate to witness every year in Maestro Rigo’s workshop, but updated, made with modern techniques, feeling familiar and yet very fresh and new. Kudos and thanks to you, Ocean!

Perhaps most surprisingly is that his workshop was relaxed, joyful. There was none of the last-minute panic, the long days and nights of endless work, that we were so used to experiencing in a Carnaval float workshop. It may have been show, but I believe it’s thanks to the wonders of 3-D printing and modern rendering, as opposed to the gorgeous yet time-consuming artistry of papier maché. Most of the pieces of all eight floats appeared to be nearly ready to assemble, calmly and ahead of schedule!

This year is a dream come true for this young mazatleco, whose most fervent desire is to make his birthplace his home. Having raised a son here who shares that most heartfelt of desires, I know how limited the options for making a living in Mazatlán can be, and sincerely hope that Ocean, who is building a house here, will make Mazatlán his base and continue his internationally renowned career from here. Ocean graduated from ICO, is divorced, and has all his family here in town. He’s designed sets for movies, television (Shark Tank Mexico and many others) and musical tours (Yuri, Enrique Iglesias, David Bisbal…), as well as commercials for some of the world’s most major brands (Pepsi, Burger King…) with the company he founded, Artefacto Sets. Below is one of their promotional videos.

 

Touring a Carnaval float workshop evokes emotions similar to what I imagine touring Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory must feel like. We visited Maestro Rigo’s workshop every year and have visited Maestro González Neri’s several times as well. During the tour you feel excitement, delight, surprise, amazement, wonder… There are lathes and saws to cut wood; there are drills and torches to form metal; turbines, elevators and mechanical pieces; there is tons of Styrofoam, paint, and glitter, glitter, everywhere glitter. People talk of men coming home with lipstick on their collars. From what I can tell, in this industry, you come home with glitter in your hair and styrofoam in places you don’t even want to think about.

I so wanted to take photos of the floats to show you. Sadly, I couldn’t. But they are truly incredible! You will be delighted! As Ocean guided us around he’d say things like, “these are the birds’ wings here and they will go onto the crow there, and the crows will then be mounted to fly over the trees here, and the trees go….” Your imagination soars. The other really impressive thing, to me, is how the floats have elevators and telescoping elements. You see, they are assembled in workshops, which are a certain height. They need to drive out, or, rather, be pulled out, through the door or gate. They assemble the floats in order on Aleman street, and that is a second height. Then, the main Avenida del Mar, cleared of all low-hanging wires and street lights, is a third height. So, all the tall elements telescope out in at least three sections, like the giant drum / cake on the Banda el Recodo float: one part fits into another and those fit into a third. The push of a button enables things to move.

 

The theme, “Equinox: Awakening the Senses” was evident in every aspect of Ocean’s floats, albeit in creative ways. We saw:

  • A shaman in the jungle, highlighting the importance of nature and the danger of climate change.
  • The seasons of spring (a marine scene), winter (an epic struggle with an octopus) and fall (leaves, the autumn moon, and a boat).
  • Huge numerals “80” for El Recodo’s 80thanniversary float.
  • Gigantic statue of Prometheus, the Greek god who gave humans fire.

Ocean is doing the section for the King of Carnaval—renamed this year from King of Joy. We saw a delightful boat with a working paddle wheel, made entirely out of wood. Ocean began designing his floats in early October, and began producing the parts later that same month. He hired trailers to transport them here to Mazatlán a month ago, when he arrived with his team to begin work here in town. He tells us, “No one knows Carnaval like a mazatleco. I have 25 years of my life living and breathing Carnaval. It’s been a lifelong dream to design these floats. But no one is a prophet in their hometown. I had to establish myself in Miami, Bogotá, La Havana, before I finally got to come home to do what I do. I don’t regret that it took so long; I’m ready.”

While Maestro Rigo did things artisanally, with handmade papier maché, in Ocean’s workshop we see auto-cat, plotters, 3D printers, unicel, fiberglass molds, resin—a much higher tech way of creating his intricate, realistic yet fantastical designs that are so unique and yet echo the soul of a Lewis Carnaval. The pieces are still finished up artisanally—hand painted, and adding the glitter is a laborious process. He has hopes that we will see real fire spouting from one of the floats, but that will depend on Protección Civil’s permission. “The finishing with this method is finer, like sculpture. We can get details like fingernails, gestures, how the fabric moves…” Ocean didn’t know Maestro Rigo, though he did meet him once, briefly, when he was younger.

 

So what about this religion stuff? Why does Ocean say that Carnaval is the mazatlecan religion? “I had doubts about using glitter on my floats. Didn’t really want to. So I asked a few people. Put the question up on my Facebook page. I couldn’t believe the ferocity of the response!!! People demanded their glitter, said it wouldn’t be Carnaval without it. They had a fit, like I was breaking a religious truth. Every mazatleco is an art curator of Carnaval floats. Everyone born here can distinguish a good float from a bad one, and critique its elements, tell you what’s missing. What do you call it, if not a religion, when people stand in line over 24 hours to get free tickets for the coronations? What do you call it when they put their chairs out three days ahead of the parade, and spend 24 hours per day guarding their space, if not a religion?”

Religion or not. Carnaval de Mazatlán rocks, and the 2019 parade looks to be no exception I trust you’ll join me, dancing in the streets!

This is the first in a series on the 2019 Carnaval de Mazatlán floats. The second, on the Lewis Family taller, is here. The third and final, about Jorge Osuna’s workshop, is here.

Carnavál 101

P1100207©

The 2018 dates of Carnavál de Mazatlán are February 8-13.

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.

1910

Photo from the CD of the Friends of Viejo Mazatlán

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.

Winnie Farmer

Winnie Farmer,                     Mazatlán’s first Carnavál Queen

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.

cimg01331

Maestro Rigo with me in his taller

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, 23) 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

  1. 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.
  2. When you travel to the Carnavál party zone:
    1. 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.
    2. Do not take valuables as the huge crowds tend to bring out pickpockets.
    3. 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.
    4. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Carnavál Fireworks: Behind the Scenes

p1100449edited

Mike Toth on the right, our connection Ted Allen on the left

I just love how social media and blogging work. Somebody commented on one of my photos of this year’s spectacular Combate Naval fireworks, saying, “My friend is down here from Canada helping with the show.” Really? How cool is that?! So I wrote back, “Please introduce us, and I’ll interview the person.”

Turns out that  Mazatlán’s annual fireworks show, put on when Raúl Rico is head of CULTURA by Lux Pirotecnia (Jorge Márquez) of Mexico City, involves not only Canadians but a German expert as well. Want to know the story?

Mike Toth, the gentleman I interviewed, works for Big Bang Fireworks out of Calgary, one of Canada’s top five fireworks outfits, owned by Dan Roy. Mike’s pyrotechnic journey started out like many of us; he lit off backyard fireworks that gradually gained in size and grandeur. Eventually he had to take a one-day safety course and become licensed. That was ten years ago, and he’s been learning on the job ever since. In Canada his fireworks job is pretty much May through September, plus Christmas and New Year’s.

He tells me the crew here are like brothers to him; they have a whole lot of fun together. They stay in touch throughout the year on WhatsApp and Facebook, despite huge language and culture differences. Two of the crew, Mauricio and Ramses, speak English (as do the three team leads), but most do not. Rodrigo comes from Durango: he’s a cowboy through and through, and César is evidently quite the comedian. Mike shared a few snapshots of his visit with me, below. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

Mike’s technically not down here in Mazatlán working, but rather on vacation—hanging out with the pyrotechnists who are. But he did bring down with him a bunch of equipment: $40,000 worth, more or less. He brought seven panels and even some modules. Why? Well, fireworks equipment is expensive, especially the computerized kind that syncs music and explosions. Thus, Lux and Big Bang often collaborate in order to pool their resources and put on bigger and better shows.

Jorge (Lux) and Dan (Big Bang) are good friends; Jorge’s equipment often helps out during Canada Day (when Big Bang might have 30-40 shows in one day) or Edmonton Klondike Days (10 straight days of fireworks), and Dan’s equipment supplements shows in México during events on Constitution Day, Independence Day and Carnaval. I love fireworks, I’m all about collaboration, and this story is intercultural, so I find this trifecta of my passions very cool!

dsc_0211How does a fireworks show—our Combate Naval, for example—come to be? Jorge designs the show and its accompanying music and scripts it on paper, indicating the type and size of each firework, it’s color combination and time delay. I’m sure CULTURA is involved in some way at the design phase, too, though of course Mike doesn’t know about that. The shells are fixed into a string of ten or so and then put carefully into mortar tubes. There is no wasted space. Inside is an electric match; when the button is pressed, it launches.

Lux Pirotecnia is responsible for four major shows during Carnavál: the three coronations in the stadium, and the Combate Naval on Saturday night. I forgot to ask Mike about the crowning of the King of Joy. The fireworks are stored on a rancho just north of town.

Combate Naval 2017, for the first time ever, involved five barges; this allowed us to see the fireworks closer than we would if shooting exclusively from a ship in the bay. To me it was a HUGE improvement in the show! Unfortunately, however, one barge flipped over before the show due to the heavy waves. We ended up seeing fireworks from four barges or platforms. The barges are first put into position, then the pyrotechnicians go out in small boats to wire them up and turn them on. There was also a ship out there—yes, a real ship. Mike tells me they set up what looked like a helicopter landing platform on the deck of the ship, and from there the fireworks are launched. The capsized barge was rescued after the show, though of course the fireworks were ruined.

Wide-angle shot of Combate Naval

Wide-angle shot of Combate Naval

The main fireworks panel is just above where the Queen and the VIPs sit: at the Pedro Infante statue. All the music is precisely choreographed to each burst of the show, as we all know and so thoroughly enjoy each year—it’s computerization converting gunpowder into beauty for all our enjoyment.

Just how many people are involved in Mazatlán’s Carnavál-related fireworks? There are the three bosses: Jorge, Juan and David, from Lux. There are ten shell crew members, and ten one-shot crew members. There are also three drivers: two trucks and one van. I get a total of 26 fireworks technicians involved in Carnavál. How much does such a show cost? Again, Mike doesn’t get involved in that, and he can only quote Canadian pricing, which averages $1000/minute.

And where does the German connection come in? That would be Klaus Ulrich, the flame expert. If you attended any of the coronations in the stadium, you felt the heat as the  flames reached from the front of the stage towards the sky. That was Klaus’ work. We also experienced the heat of Klaus’ flames from the barges in the bay during Combate Naval.

dsc_0189

Innovative round or wheel-shaped fireworks: crane wheels, with some of Klaus’ flames coming off two of the barges in the bay.

While I love my photos of multiple bursts at once—sort of the panoramic view, Mike’s favorite photo of mine, he says, is that of the crane wheels. Crane wheels? He explained to me the names for some of the effects that we saw in Mazatlán during Carnavál 2017:

  • The most common fireworks effects are often called by flower names, just as they are in the original Chinese and Japanese:
    • Peony (most common)
    • Chrysanthemum (peony with a spark trail)
    • Dahlia (peony with fewer and larger stars)
  • There are also a couple of effects named after trees, including:
    • Palm: Rising tail that bursts at the top with large tendrils.
    • Weeping willow: long-burning stars in a dome-shaped, weeping willow-like arrangement.
  • Aquatics: fireworks that fly into the water and then blow up. Mike says everyone has them. Jorge’s are 8-inch Kamuro shells: a dense burst of silver or gold stars that leave a glitter trail.
  • Camaros: double dome-shaped weeping willow with twinkles that fall to the water or ground.
  • Crane wheels: a one-shot wheel that can shoot sunbursts or a wheel shape. About one meter round, clamps to a plate. One set of fireworks is set at an angle to rotate the wheel, the others are set for the display.
  • Fountains or Gerbs: a thick-walled tube with a narrowing in the tube that produces a long-lasting jet of sparks. We saw these in the stadium and during the Combate Naval.
  • Horsetails: heavy long-burning fireworks in the shape of a horse tail that only travel a short distance from the shell burst before free-falling as glitter to the ground. They’re also known as a waterfall shell.

    Horsetails over Mazatlán

    Horsetails over Mazatlán

  • Rings: launch into the sky and burst into circles, smiley faces, hearts, clovers…
  • Roman candles: long tubes containing several large stars which fire at regular intervals. This Carnavál they used roman candles up to 4 feet tall anchored to a wooden frame, mostly arranged in fan or crisscross shapes, at close proximity to the audience. We see these on the beach during Combate Naval, and also during the coronations.
  • UFOs: one of my favorites of Combate Naval, the best way I can describe it is a spinning top that launches into the air, leaving a twirling vertical tail. Ours then burst at the top to result in a palm tree-like shape. Mike says that in Canada they usually use a round plastic frame, but here in México it’s bamboo. Bravo for México! Our UFOs had 4 herbs to push up and 4 to rotate.

    Slowly rising fireworks that felt magical and looked like palm trees: UFOs

    Slowly rising fireworks that felt magical and looked like palm trees: UFOs

Below I share some of the terms Mike used during the course of our interview, in case you like getting inside the world of a pyrotechnist as much as I do.

  • One-shot tubes: just like the name sounds.
  • Cake: multiple tubes connected by a fuse. When connected they look like a box.
  • Shells or mortars: during Carnavál we saw 3 to 8 inch shells. They are round and look like bombs, which is probably why, in Spanish, they are called “bombas.”
  • Racks: stands that hold multiple fireworks tubes. These include:
    • Flat racks
    • Half moon racks
  • Panels: the computerized panel of buttons that controls the show.

He explained to me that a firework has a lift charge. The fuse wraps around a ball, and a couple of sticks are timed as fuses. That’s how they set timings. The pyrotechnicians can then launch a firework, it goes into the air with the lift charge, and in four seconds, or six, at the height of its trajectory, the secondary fuse sticks will fire and the effect will explode.

rpgs4cs

We all know that here in México people build fireworks. They do so in the USA also. But Mike told me that in Canada it’s against the law to build fireworks! The country’s last firework maker was Hands Company. One of Mike’s dreams is to work in Lux’s shop in Mexico City for a few weeks, so he can have the experience of building fireworks.

Another huge difference that stands out for Mike is, of course, safety. The hand-held bottle rockets that lead every parade in Mazatlán would never be permitted up north, nor would allowing people to sit so closely to the fireworks. He was amazed that people hang their legs off the malecón during the Combate Naval, for example, and loved hearing that people here consider ash burn lucky, just like bird poop. In Canada to launch fireworks you need insurance and permits (which I believe you need here in México as well, at least for the large ones), you have to launch on private property, and you can not shoot fireworks near a lake or river because it upsets the fish. I know fireworks are environmentally hazardous, but they definitely light up my soul.

13576002_1634239313559304_8928762512288910613_o

July 3, 2016 on the Lake Michigan waterfront in Milwaukee

We love Juan José Ruiz of Mazatlán Fireworks, our local expert. He and his guys put on a beautiful 45-minute show for our wedding anniversary party that thrilled all the kids who got to push the buttons on the panel. Juan José tells me that his firm has often done Carnavál Fireworks, also, but that he tends to be asked to do them when the PRI is in charge of the government.

I got hooked on fireworks as a child in Wisconsin, and deepened my love for them living for over a decade in Japan. Mike told me about a couple of fireworks competitions that I need to add to my bucket list, including GlobalFest in Calgary and Montreal’s L’International des Feux Loto-Québec, the world’s biggest fireworks festival. During my research I also found the Tianguis de Pirotecnia San Pablito Tultepec, which is coming up March 4-11 right here in México—we all remember seeing video of the huge explosion in a warehouse there last December. Frequent winners of the international competitions are, of course, Disney, and also Zambelli Fireworks out of Pennsylvania.

13575966_1633335656983003_5535104385485832430_o

Fireworks over Lake Tichigan, Wisconsin, July 2, 2016

Next time you attend a fireworks show, stop and think about all of the people, time, preparation and work involved in delivering the performance you are enjoying. You just might find yourself appreciating the spectacle even more!