Santiago — carnival city | Explore

Santiago, Cuba’s second-largest city, has long been a hotbed of culture — and it comes to a blaze each July, as Santiago’s unique annual Carnival, centred on the feast of St James the Apostle, takes over. Donna Yawching explains the historical roots of Santiago Carnival, and why it’s a time of year when no one expects to get much sleep

  • Heat and noise, colour and chaos: Santiago de Cuba’s July Carnival overwhelms all the senses. Photo by Torukojin/
  • Huge tractor-drawn floats are the most spectacular part of Santiago’s Carnival. Photo by Age Fotostock/Alamy Stock Photo
  • Dancers of all ages join the street procession. Photo by Hemis/Alamy Stock Photo
  • Another distinctive sight: Muñecones with their giant heads of papier-mâché. Photo by Age Fotostock/Alamy Stock Photo
  • Salsa is the soundtrack of Santiago’s Carnival. Photo by Evelyn Paley/Alamy Stock Photo
  • Photo by Reda & Co Srl/Alamy Stock Photo
  • Carnival in Santiago, Cuba’s second city. Photo by Evelyn Paley/Alamy Stock Photo

Carnival and the Caribbean are like love and marriage, horse and carriage. The noisy, colourful festivals dominate national psyches across the region, and Cuba is no exception.

However, while one Carnival per year is enough for most of the other islands, Cuba — perhaps because of its much larger size — has several, at different times, in different places. And the standout, no-holds-barred, undisputed champion of Cuban Carnivals is the extravaganza that takes place in the eastern city of Santiago at the end of July.

Most of the world’s major Carnivals — Rio, New Orleans, Trinidad and Tobago, Venice — are tied to the Christian season of Lent, and occur in February. “Generally, all festivals begin for religious reasons,” comments Omar Lopez, conservador of the City of Santiago. In Santiago, the religious connection is to Santiago Apostol (St James the Apostle), the patron saint of the city, whose feast day falls on 25 July. But the celebration does not begin or end there: it flows over and around the saint’s commemoration, to give the city an entire week of music, dance, street food, and chimaeric costumery.

Small bands of brightly clad masqueraders, called comparsas and paseos, gather near the waterfront to parade before rows of bleachers and a panel of judges, competing for prestigious prizes (though, this being socialist Cuba, no money is involved!). Congas, which are rhythmic percussion groups punctuated by stridently discordant Chinese horns, move swiftly down the avenue, joined by passersby in a hip-jerking, wide-legged step (arrollando) that looks easier than it is.

Some of the bands, known as carabali, can trace their lineage back to the nineteenth century, with costumes that hark back to the days of slavery and colonialism (and band members who look almost as old!). There is a band of Santiagueritos, the city’s big-headed mascot, and another of Muñecones (big dolls): large papier-mâché heads atop swaying conical bodies. The whole experience is surrealistic, made more so by the fact that this all happens at night, under blazing lights. The overwhelming heat of the city in July would make daytime parades a dangerous proposition.

Undoubtedly, the most spectacular visuals of the Santiago Carnival are provided by the carrozas, huge tractor-drawn floats glittering with lights and lavish decoration. They drift by like jewelled cities, blasting music and bearing energetic salsa dancers dressed like Vegas showgirls. The latter are lithe and lovely, as one might expect; but Cuba is nothing if not equal-opportunity: the crowd favourite is the carroza called Las Voluminosas, where the skimpily-clad dancers are all Triple X-sized, rocking their spandex shorts and halter-tops con gusto.

Adjudicating all these apparitions — not an easy task, one suspects, given the eclectic nature of the displays — is taken very seriously. A panel of seven judges includes specialists in traditional music, dance, and the plastic arts. Bands are judged as much for their adherence to traditional standards as for their design. “El Carnaval has an educational purpose,” the president of the panel tells me. “The aim is to preserve the culture and the traditional ways of the culture, the folklore.”

In this, Cuba differs from many other regional Carnivals, where the aim is simply to party, and the costumes have become generic (beaded or sequinned bikinis, a few feathers, and not much else). The Santiago Carnival has a history that has been as much political as sociological.

“Because of its (geographical) position in the Caribbean, Cuba, and especially Santiago, has had close ties with Haiti, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico,” explains Omar Lopez. “Waves of immigration from these islands have produced mestizaje [mixing] between immigrants, aboriginals, Spanish, Africans, French, and even Chinese. This mixture is the foundation of the Santiago culture. There were strong cultural influences from all of these groups.”

The first enslaved Africans to come to Cuba, in the sixteenth century, arrived via Spain, and were already influenced by European styles of dress, traditions, and culture. Once on the island, each nation or tribe formed its own self-help organisation or cabildo, modeled on the fourteenth-century Spanish administrative structures of the same name. Authorised by the king, and strictly excluding creoles or blacks born in America, these cabildos allowed the Africans to maintain social cohesion and to keep their separate cultures alive.

The slave cabildos were crucial to the development of the Santiago Carnival. On festive days, their members were allowed to play drums, sing, dance, and parade in the streets. Their mamarrachos (burlesque masqueraders) — men dressed as women, or whatever would provoke a laugh — would probably be recognisable in Trinidad’s ole mas tradition.

Later, following Haiti’s slave uprising at the end of the eighteenth century, Cuba was inundated with French plantation owners (and their slaves) fleeing the insurrection. Already, there had evolved some cultural crossover between the French and their slaves; in Cuba, a double transculturation occurred, as these rhythms and dances added yet another rich ingredient to the Carnival melting pot. The legacy of the Haitians can be found in the Tumba Francesa, where the rhythms of traditional drums brought from Niger, Benin, and the Congo are merged with the stately steps of eighteenth-century French minuets and quadrilles which the slaves copied from their masters. (The Tumba Francesa was designated part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2003. Performances are staged daily at the organisation’s headquarters on Calle Pio Rosado, a.k.a. Carniceria.)

At first, the comparsas were strictly African-based, but in the 1940s and 50s other social and ethnic groups joined in, and the Carnival is now a fierce representation of Cuban culture in all its manifestations. Everyone, from octogenarians to young children, is fully involved, with the latter celebrating their own five-day Carnaval Infantil in the days preceding the week-long adult event. Teams of social workers go into the schools — often in disadvantaged neighbourhoods — to teach the dances and traditions and to help produce a comparsa. There is even one group, Sin Barreras (Without Barriers), whose members are physically and mentally handicapped children, many pushed in wheelchairs by adults. In Santiago, the Carnival is all-inclusive.

It is also entirely government-sponsored. Comparsas receive shipments of cloth and paint, gold braid and shoes, to create their costumes and banners, from the Dirección Municipal de la Cultura, and the traditions of history, dance, and music are transmitted through cultural centres known as focos.

Before the Revolution, Carnival activities were sponsored by big companies like Bacardi, but that, of course, ended with socialism. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba — and the Carnival — fell on hard times. The populace barely had enough to eat, far less to spend on festivals. The Revolutionary Government took charge of the event in 1993, emphasising its historic and cultural roots.

Since then, says Lopez, “The Carnival has become more and more brilliant and professional, and gets bigger and bigger each year.” There are now nineteen adult paseos and comparsas, and twenty-three children’s groups. Each comparsa develops its costumes around a theme, usually to do with history or culture, and performs dances to match. Not surprisingly, there is not a whole lot of social satire or criticism, à la Trinidad — this is a festival that knows which side its bread is buttered on!

While all the tourists, and families with children, are flocking to the port area (known as the Alameda) to see the costume parades and gape at the shimmering carrozas, the real Carnival partying is happening elsewhere. In barrios around the city, the major avenues — Trocha, Martí, Cespedes — are given over to food stalls, bars, music stages, and street vendors of every description. “This is where the people enjoy themselves,” says Lopez. “The Carnival is viewed as a reward for their hard work all year round.”

From about 5 pm, the streets start to fill with old and young, dancers and drinkers, friends greeting friends. Music blares from giant speakers (with live bands kicking in around 11 pm), and it’s not a great time for the local pigs, roasted in their numbers on hand-turned spits and converted into fresh-sliced sandwiches. Chickens are no luckier, since exceedingly greasy fried chicken and chips is the other street snack of choice.

The celebrations go on into the wee hours, for a whole week. “No one works very much during the Carnival,” Omar Lopez says wryly. By all accounts, no one gets a lot of sleep, either.

Carnival and Revolution

Santiago, which calls itself the City of Heroes, has a long tradition of revolutionary fervour, and the Carnival over the years has played its part. It was here that Fidel Castro launched his first (disastrously unsuccessful) assault on the dictatorship government of Fulgencio Batista in July 1953, and it was here, on 1 January, 1959, that he gave his historic victory speech.

But Castro’s was only the culmination of a struggle that started in 1868 with the Ten Year War, wherein Cuban-born creoles (known as the mambises) launched the first of many attempts to throw off the oppressive yoke of Spanish colonialism. During this period, and others to come, the Carnival celebrations served as subversive support to the revolutionaries. Songs and costumes often used double entendre as a means of propaganda for the liberationist cause, and mambises disguised as peasants would take advantage of the festival’s bacchanalia to infiltrate the city and carry messages to and from the field.

This tradition of using the Carnival as a cover for conspiracy was the reason Castro, then twenty-seven, chose to attack the Moncada army barracks on 26 July, at the height of the festivities. It was easier to smuggle arms and guerillas into the city with the influx of other countryfolk, and he calculated that most official attention would be focused on maintaining order in the areas of unbridled celebrations. It didn’t quite work out that way. His untested young fighters, recruited and trained in the countryside, were no match for Batista’s soldiery, and Castro and his brother Raul eventually ended up in prison. But the Moncada assault is widely regarded as the opening salvo in a war that would forever change the course of Cuban history — and, perhaps even (given the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1961) that of the world.

The Museum of Carnival

Housed in an eighteenth-century building on Calle Heredia, Santiago’s Museo del Carnaval offers visitors some insight into the city’s largest festival. The museum was founded in 1983 by a group of intellectuals and artists, with the aim of promoting the Santiago Carnival as well as organising international workshops around the theme. It is also an educational resource for schoolchildren to learn about the history and culture of the festival.

“For us researchers, the Museo del Carnaval is very important in maintaining the Santiagueran tradition,” says Josefina Bruff Henry, director of the facility. “The museum is una memoria viva, a living memory of the festival, year after year. The Carnival is of the people, with many anecdotes, involving design, food, traditional songs. It is joy, it’s colorida. The Santiagueran cannot live without his Carnival.”

The museum’s six rooms, tracing the history of the Carnival from its mamarracho origins to contemporary times, are dedicated to the display of historical documentation, period photos, and a selection of African drums and colourful costumes. The texts, unfortunately, are all in Spanish, and difficult to read. However, five days a week at 4 pm (Tuesday to Saturday), there is a live performance of folkloric music and dance, included in the modest price of admission ($1 CUC).

Festival of Fire

As if two weeks of children’s and adult Carnivals were not enough for one month, the early days of July also host Santiago’s Festival del Caribe, also known as the Festival of Fire. Over the course of five days, there are conferences, panel discussions, and lectures on every possible aspect of Caribbean culture — an academic Carnival, as it were, with intellectuals invited from across the region.

For those who prefer their culture live, there is a plethora of performances, exhibitions, and folk ceremonies, taking place at the Casa de Caribe and other venues around the city. Musicians and dancers from across the region take part, with one particular country showcased each year.

“It is an important moment, for the Caribbean region to look inwards at itself and have an intercultural exchange,” explains Omar Lopez, conservador of the City of Santiago. “It also functions as a pre-Carnival to the actual event.”

The festival ends with a street parade by all the different groups and troupes, culminating at the Alameda, where a giant papier-mâché effigy of Satan awaits a match. As the sun goes down, the drumming and chanting rise to a crescendo, the match is struck, and Evil goes up in a whoosh of flames, purged for another year.

Carnival 2019 in Santiago de Cuba runs from 20 to 27 July. Caribbean Airlines operates two return flights weekly from Trinidad to Havana, with local transport connections to Santiago

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