Cultures Grow on the Vine of Tradition

Carnaval de Mazatlán 2019 is the fifth anniversary of the death of our local legend, Maestro Rigo Lewis. Born on Valentine’s Day 1935, it was rather the fact that he was born as the Carnaval queen processed to her coronation that would define the reality of his life. He counted his age in queens rather than years.

Greg and I were privileged to count Maestro Rigo as a friend and visited him in his workshop every year. Rigo designed his very first float as a sophomore in high school (1960) when his art teacher, Nana Ramirez, had him build one for the Revolution Day parade. He was afraid of flying so never traveled the world, but instead he spent 54 years bringing the world to Mazatlán—who doesn’t remember his Doge’s Palace or Amazon jungle—via the design and production of our world-famous Carnaval floats in his signature baroque style with loads of flourishes and curly-cues finished in trademarked glitter blends and metallic foils. Beginning the following year he began designing many of the royal costumes as well. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

The loss of Maestro Rigo in 2014 at age 78 sent Mazatlán into community mourning. Fortunately, his sister and nieces stepped up to ensure his floats for that year were finished and ready for the parade. This year the family is back, invited to create 13 floats from the over 2500 sketches that Rigo left behind. “My uncle left designs for 100 more Carnavals,” said his niece, Mariana Lewis.

That is how a group of housewives, out of love for their brother and uncle, have come to be Carnaval float designers. Each of them has memories of folding paper and working on floats from the time they were children, so the vocation is far from new to them. They are using Maestro Rigo’s designs and techniques in order to honor his legacy. Many of the same artists and laborers from his workshop have come back to help with this year’s floats. Rigo taught them, they know what they’re doing, and they work hard out of tribute to him. “I traveled to San Antonio in September with a very long list of things to buy. I kept checking back in with my mother, to make sure I was getting the right things, that I had everything,” one of the nieces told me.

The Lewis family is in charge of creating 13 floats, including the royal floats for both adult queens and most of the Floral Games section of the parade. The main royal float is called “The Light,” and symbolizes the pinnacle of the equinox. It is a Renaissance-style design, 15 meters tall (two meters less than Rigo’s tallest) and has four mythical lions along the sides. “Every queen always told Rigo that her float was the most beautiful ever,” her family recalls. Lori Lizárraga, last year’s queen, brought a photo of Rigo to the taller the morning I was there, as a thank you to the family. They promptly mounted it on top of the main float, at least while it’s there in the workshop. The float for the Queen of the Floral Games looks absolutely incredible to me. It is the castle of Chapultepec, right down to its black and white tiled floors and Maximiliano and Carlotta. The queen’s section will open with her jewels—diamonds, rubies, emeralds… Please note that CULTURA has asked that the press not show any photos of the floats prior to the big day; thus, you will see photos of details and elements only.

Everything in this workshop is handmade, mostly of papier maché. We noticed a few molds into which papier maché is placed to create baroque, filigree-style adornments. As with any Carnaval workshop, there was loads of glitter; though here, the mixes of colors are trademarked, and I’m told it’s not standard “glitter” but squares much larger than normal. “I was in Guadalajara with my daughter when the Químico called, asking me to come back to Mazatlán for a very important matter,” Rigo’s sister Ana told me. They have worked on the floats for four months, this past month here in their cramped, open-air workshop downtown. They were given a large covered workshop out in Urías, but were happy to find this one closer to home. Though, as it’s open air, they struggle with dust and wind; several of them had coughs and colds.

The floats are so tall, as was Rigo’s tradition, that they either fold down or telescope up so that they can make it out of the workshop and onto the street. “We are on schedule. We have many figures finished and stored in a safe, covered space, ready for final installation. We have lots of decorative pieces that still need to be mounted. We are doing well,” Mariana said.

This year people will not be allowed to dance in the streets, we were told. Due to the width of the royal floats, people will need to stand or sit in the bicycle lane and beyond, behind the barrier that will be set up.

The float for last year’s queen includes a giant crown that goes up top, and chinacos or Mexican Independence fighters who will be mounted above canons on the float. There will also be a volcano that erupts—confetti! It should be a lot of fun.

Parade 2019 looks to delight, as we have these blasts from the past, Jorge Osuna’s illuminated floats, and Ocean Rodriguez’ innovative, high-tech renditions. There is something for everyone. In closing, the Lewis family reminded me that Rigo always wanted a Carnaval museum. He bought land on which to build one before he died. They tell me they will announce plans for it next Valentine’s Day, his birthday, 2020.

This is the second in our series on the 2019 Carnaval de Mazatlán floats. The first, on Ocean Rodriguez, is here, and the third and final, on Jorge Osuna’s workshop, here.

Rigo Lewis, Maestro De Carnaval

We LOVE Carnavál de Mazatlán, as you know. It is the third largest (and best 🙂 ) in the world. We’ve done several blog posts about the two annual parades (see 2010 parade photos here), as well as the
crownings (this one links to crowning my favorite Banda, El Recodo, King of Joy) and wonderful pre-events.

Carnavál in Mazatlán has some of, if not the best, carrozas alegóricas or floats of any Mardi Gras parade anywhere. And, the man behind most of that has been Maestro Rigoberto Lewis.

This afternoon luck was with us. It’s hot out. We dropped Danny off at Scouts, and we had eaten lunch downtown. We were going to stop by Mati for a paleta. It’s a wonderful, historic ice cream maker here in town.

Well, as we got out of the car to walk over to buy our paletas, we noticed a big door open to our right, and, lo and behold, carrozas alegóricas!!! We were so excited! El tallér! But, even better than that, there were a few people putting the finishing touches on the frontispiece of a statue, and who was supervising but… Maestro Lewis!

Maestro Rigo has made the carrozas for over fifty years (he started as a sophomore in high school), as well as designed most of the royal costumes (starting in 1961). He was born during a Carnavál, on February 14. He is a Valentine’s baby, but the fact that he was born during Carnaval has been a much more defining fact of his life.
He very graciously invited us in. We watched them work for a bit, and then he proceeded to tell us a few stories about the plans for next week’s defile carnavalero for Independence Day, as well as his current thoughts about life. He showed us the floats he created originally for Culiacán, but which those of us here in Mazatlán will be fortunate enough to enjoy instead. He allowed Greg to take the picture of him with me that you can see above.

We talked for a while, we watched, we looked around, we went across the street to buy ice cream and bring some back for Maestro Rigo and his workers, and we delighted in our good fortune.

This is a photo of El Maestro that I took as he walked in the Carnavál parade No 1 earlier this year, 2010. I have some great footage of him straightening the queen’s dress as she mounts the float, too. The second parade was marred, unfortunately, by mass panic. The first parade was perfect.

This photo of Maestro Rigoberto is taken from the Carnavál de Mazatlán site.

Some other articles on Rigoberto Lewis and his history of float-making:

El Sol de Mazatlán, 2008
Pacific Pearl, in English, 2001
El Noroeste, 2009