Carnaval en La Trocha, 2009

Carnaval en La Trocha

© 2009 Lili Bernard

Santiago de Cuba is esteemed for its Carnaval celebrations. My father’s sister, Nena, who is one of my favorite people in the whole wide world, used to live down the hill from us in Santiago de Cuba, on a street called La Trocha. La Trocha is the main street where the Carnaval occurs. My cousin Papito, Nena’s son, recalls how his mother used to rent out their front porch to the kiosk vendors of the Carnaval. This is particularly amusing to me, because my Abuelo José, who was a minister, prohibited his children (my dad and my Tia Nena included) to participate in the Carnaval even when they were adults, because of its pagan nature and because of the activities associated with it — namely music, dance and alcohol. (PHOTO: Carnaval en la Trocha, Oil on Canvas, 72″x60″ © 2009 Lili Bernard)

In the 1500’s, the Spaniards brought the Carnaval celebration to Cuba as part of the pre-Lenten activities of the Catholic Church. It was initially celebrated in February and March as is Mardis Gras in New Orleans. Today, however, the Carnaval in Cuba is celebrated in the summer, during the Fiestas de Mamarrachos. Though now mostly pagan in practice, the Carnaval in Santiago de Cuba begins on June 24, the feast day of Saint John, known as “La Fiesta de San Juan.” On that day the Conga comes out on the street and people, dressed in ordinary clothes, come out of their homes and follow the conga drums along the street, in dance and song. For the next thirty days, the comparsas (performing groups) rehearse their numbers every night. During this time, the city teems with drumming, song and dance in preparation for the main event.

The actual Carnaval takes place from July 24th through July 26th, the feast days of the three Saints Christine, James (known in Cuba as Santiago, the patron Saint of the City of Santiago de Cuba, who rides a white horse), and Anne, respectively. During this celebration the comparsas, dressed in elaborate colorful costumes and caretas (masks), parade the street in drumming, song and choreographed dance. It is a fun time when Cubans who are so heavy burdened can forget about their woes.

I consulted my parents in composing this painting, pried their memory. I was only a toddler when I left Cuba, so my memory of the Carnaval is buried somewhere in my subconscious. My mother remembers how the Godmothers, assigned to each comparsa, gave to the performers coins which were sewn onto the capes and vests of their costumes. My mom also recalls being scared, as a child, of the giant masks and the trance-like African dances of the Carabalí performers. The Carabalí are comparsas which celebrate Cuba’s African roots with costumes and dance pertaining to the Orishas. Orishas are the spiritual manifestations of God which are celebrated in the Santeria religion of Cuba. Santeria was born of a mixing of Yoruba’s Ifa religion, brought to Cuba by the slaves, and of Christianity, brought to the Island by the conquering Spaniards.

My mother loves this painting and says it reminds her of the Carabalí. The people I drew on this painting are born mostly out of my imagination. There are a few people in the scene whose poses I borrowed from some photographs I took of people on the streets, during my homecoming to Santiago de Cuba in 2004. The old lady, dancing in the middle of the painting is my great-grandmother Miss Lou who loved to dance and whom everyone in my family says I resemble in looks and spirit.

I eulogize the souls of my indigenous Cuban ancestors in the presence of the Hatuey beer bottle. Hatuey Cerveza (beer) was brewed and bottled in Santiago de Cuba by Bacardi. One of the other characters in the paintings holds a Bacardi Rum bottle. Before the revolution, Bacardi was also initially distilled and bottled in Santiago de Cuba. The Bacardi brothers migrated to Cuba from Catalonia Spain, as did my grandfather Julio. However, they fought with the Mambises (the Cuban insurgent soldiers) against the Spaniards, during Cuba’s war of independence from Spain.

I painted other symbols of Cuba in the painting. There is a Mariposa flower pinned above the ear of the young performer holding a maraca on the lower left corner. The Mariposa is the national flower of Cuba. In the upper left corner are two Tocorroro birds, perched in a Flamboyante tree. The Tocorroro is the national bird of Cuba.

In this painting I dressed the characters in specific colors and symbols of the Orishas and postured them in dance moves, representative of their Orishas. I learned in Afro-Cuban dance classes that each Orisha has particular choreographed dance moves that pertain to him or her. These moves have been preserved from the Yoruba culture of Central Africa which was brought to Cuba via the slaves. Represented in my painting are the Orishas Chango, Yemayá, Ochun, Babalu Aye, Obatalá, Eleguá, Ogun, Ochosi and Oya. See if you can find them!