Carnival of Santiago de Cuba - Opposition To The Mamarrachos

Opposition To The Mamarrachos

Throughout its history, many Santiaguerans have called for regulation, reform or even abolition of the mamarrachos, which, until the 20th century, was a very spontaneous and unorganized celebration. In 1879, a motion was made in the Municipal Council with regards to the mamarrachos:

“The city councilor Don Francisco Mancebo presents a declaration to the municipal council in which he states that ‘the annual ancient days of popular diversion are approaching in Santiago de Cuba, but nowadays, these festivities are as ridiculous to the eyes of sensible people as they are baneful to the moral and material interests of the city and the region in general. That the diversion referred to is the masquerade or mamarrachos, as it is called here, being permitted on the days of St. John the Baptist, St. Peter, St. James and St. Anne, on which the people en masse and without distinction as to age, sex or color throw themselves into the public streets in dangerous confusion, at least with regards to their social relations, and, inebriated with the heat of those summer days, with the movement, the noise, the bustling and the uproar, with the music and the shameless African tango and the material abuse of alcoholic beverages, deliver themselves over to all manner of disorders, and declares that it is essential to completely prohibit them without fear or vacillation of any kind…’ (Pérez I 1988:111-2).

Three other city councilors presented a more moderate proposal in the form of a list of changes:

  1. "That should not be permitted on days other than those already fixed: St. John, St. Peter, St. James and St. Anne.
  2. That the tumbas would be able to locate themselves in the northern part of the city, from Providencia (Los Maceos) Street to Concha Avenue; from east of Cuartel de Pardos Street to La Ronda (Trocha) Avenue from 12 o’clock midnight on.
  3. That any dance that offends morality be suspended and the organizer be put at the disposition of the mayor.
  4. That any masquerade that offends decency by its costumes, manners or speech be stopped.
  5. That all the heads of the comparsas be obliged to deliver a list with the names of the persons that are to accompany them to the mayor’s office and that they be responsible for whatever lack of respect that may be shown." (Pérez I 1988:111-2)
This was the first attempt by citizens of Santiago (as opposed to colonial authorities) to impose order on the mamarrachos (Pérez I 1988:125, note 52). While there were some who wanted to abolish the mamarrachos, there were others who, while not wishing to abolish it entirely, proposed that it should be purified.

“For some time our days of masquerades have been deteriorating. Much is said with respect to this and it has even been said that the new winds of progress which have blown over Cuba as a result of the conquest of liberty have put an end to these traditions. Carnival is not a lack of culture. It can be made uncivilized. Surely. Who would dare in this respect to qualify as evil the carnival celebrations of Paris, of Nice, of Cologne and of other cities that are the honor and glory of civilization? Who would feel reactionary if they had the good fortune to take part in those battles of flowers where light, roses, beautiful women, perfumes and music delightfully and rapidly intoxicate the senses on the Parisian boulevards; in the enchanting streets lined, like perching doves, with the white houses of Nice? What we have to do is to reform, to civilize our masquerades, because we ought not to let these days of popular diversion disappear from among us, in a country that has suffered so much. In order to civilize our carnavales, they can and should eliminate those uncivilized mamarrachos who smear themselves with dirty shoe polish which is no longer even used on boots; they can and should eliminate certain African survivals with their cohorts of indecorous contortions; they can and should eliminate comparsas or masqueraders who chant immoral songs or attempt to represent immoral figures as well; they can and should, in brief, eliminate everything that might be coarse, dirty or deleterious to culture and to the state of progress of our country, while on the other hand, they should keep educating, socializing, and providing needed enlightenment to those who do these things. Who can do all this? The mayor, the municipal authorities, the priests of the people. That great citizen named Emilio Bacardí began the praiseworthy task which none of his successors in the mayor’s office have continued, I don’t know why. It would be desirable if, every year, when these celebrations arrive, something would be done about this subject that we have lightly touched on, instead of reproducing the canned proclamation which, from having been repeated since the time of Spanish domination, everyone now knows from memory. Let’s not eliminate the masquerades which gladden and satisfy society and the people, but try to keep reforming them. So bring on the congenial days celebrated with spirit, joy, good manners and gladness (Pérez I 1988:183).

The above editorial, taken from La Independencia of July 24, 1908, touches on three interesting themes related to the mamarrachos: firstly, the author demonstrates the dogged admiration for all things European that lay at the root of the belief among some Hispano-Cubans that the mamarrachos was a kind of Venetian Carnival gone wrong. Secondly, the hoped-for purification of the mamarrachos would include the removal of African or Afro-Cuban elements. Finally, it seems that the authorities preferred to limit their efforts at controlling and regulating the mamarrachos to issuing proclamations (see also the sections on opposition to the conga in the article on Conga).

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