This last week was the annual 11 de noviembre festivals in Cartagena, celebrating Cartagena’s declaration of independence from Spain in 1811. Yes, math whizzes, that means this year is the 200th anniversary. So like any good celebration, this one included lots of loud music. Dancing. Late-night parties.
Plus… Various parades, beauty queens, and thousands (millions?) of spray bottles of foam.
Let’s start with the parades.
How many parades there were actually the week of the festivities, I actually don’t know. There was smaller parades for school children, one for gay pride, and one commemorating the route of the original proclamation of independence.
I went to the last of these, a fun group of everyone from school kids to senior citizens dressed up in costumes and marching and dancing through the historic center of Cartagena. We began with the ever-present anthem of Cartagena, then had an reading of the declaration of independence in a small plaza in the barrio of Getsenaní by a lady who I think was the mayor and danced our way past the Centennial Park, under the entrance to El Centro through the 15th Century walls and ended up in front of the Cathedral for an energetic dance by what looked like high school students.
Then on the 10th and 11th itself there were much bigger parades, Rio-style with floats, streams of dancers, and the apparently ubiquitous fire truck to start and police equestrian unit. People call these celebrations Carnival, and for good reason. While nowhere near as large or elaborate as the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Cartagena put on a good show. Elaborate costumes (usually showing more skin than coverings), energetic dancers shakin’ their thing down the parade route or following well-practiced steps with a partner, and costumed bands pounding out African-style beats on drums or playing salsa or vallenato high-stepped down Santander Avenue, the crashing blue of the Caribbean a mere 5 feet from the parade route.
The floats were simple, glittery birds or plants larger-than-life simply providing a vehicle (pun intended) for the Colombian beauty queens.
So on to beauty queens.
A big part of the 11 de noviembre festivos is the Colombian Beauty Pageant. The contestants from different regions all across Colombia (though I did not see one from each so not sure how that works) come to see who will be crowned the new Señorita Colombia. The current riena led the parade on the same float with the Señorita de la Independencia. Between the groups of dances the floats provided the stage for the contestants to wave to the cheering crowds, sporting their elaborate costumes (we did notice that Señorita Cartagena’s 4-inch heels came off half-way through).
But beauty queens were not just in Cartagena this week. Our school, like Barbacoas a few weeks back, had our own “Reinado” where a female contestant from each grade competed to become queen. After a lot of class-time missed in order to introduce them, give them a chance to say a few words on this years’ theme of Santa Ana Muestra Su Raza (Santa Ana Show Your Race/Roots), and give their grade a chance to cheer them as they walked around, catwalk style our multipurpose room, we finally came to the main event.
The event culminated this past week in a full morning of celebrations. We started off with our own parade around town, our queens also on floats. But these weren’t exactly ‘floating…’ Besides the bumpy, rutted, and muddy parade route, our floats weren’t what you might call mechanized. There were two kinds. The first, of course, was your standard donkey cart, pulled by the family horse or donkey of the contestant, and decorated with braided palm leaves and balloons. The second, simpler version, was simply cart. Sans donkey. Older male students took turns pushing the carts in the parade over all of those obstacles in the streets of Santa Ana. One made it the whole way. Unfortunately the cart hosting Kassi, who was representing the teachers, plus two more students barely made it out of the starting gate and tipped. They consolidated themselves on other carts – I mean floats – for the rest of the parade. Past homes and shops with everyone standing in their doorways to see us go by, navigating around puddles and motorcycles, passing pigs and more donkeys who weren’t fortunate enough to get to pull a cart while dealing with a balloon tied between their ears.
We ended up back at the school for part two: dancing and more contestant walking. Each grade did a dance, the queen contestant a central point of the group of anywhere from six to fifteen dancing to all sorts of popular music: salsa, champeta, and reggaeton. At the end, the contestants were all dressed in gowns and we crowned the winners for primary and secondary.
Lots of cheering followed the announcements, followed by glitter being thrown up into the air and accompanied by loud bangs.
Those bangs were caused by what are called buscapies, which brings us to the very important third part of what constitutes Cartagena’s Independence festivities.
Craziness on the street.
First up are our nameless number of spray bottles of foam. Basically regular old shaving cream, but housed in a festivo-themed decorated thinner bottle, available to buy anywhere on the street for 5000 (about $2.70). Walking the streets anytime after about 9:00 in the morning, you are fair game to be sprayed in the face, on your back, or until you resemble some strange tropical snowman.
But as annoying it was to wipe the semi-sticky white residue off your clothes, it was al in good fun. However, let’s get more into this and the less and less fun.
Next up for interesting/different/annoying ways Cartengeros celebrate the Independence are those buscapies. Buscapies are tiny firecrackers let off with annoyingly repetitiveness on streets everywhere. People are subtle about tossing them; you might see a group of people quickly scatter, and then there is a tiny bright flash, and loud pop/explosion, and bluish smoke floats away. Buscapies, consequently, translates to “look for feet.” I don’t have independent confirmation, but I figure the name covers two things: first, they are always thrown on the ground, so yes, you look for them at your feet; secondly after they go off you might actually need to double check and look for your feet. We were advised to wear closed-toed shoes while walking around. They’re small but can definitely pack a punch if you’re right on top of them.
Even less of an interesting tradition is that somehow extortion on the street becomes commonplace. Teenaged boys walk around in pairs or gangs asking everyone for coins, most painted completely black or covered in dark dye so it is easy to spot them. Some carry bottles filled with dye ready to splash it on you if you don’t pay up (though perhaps less than half follow through with their threats). Others have open contains with dye or something that looks a bit like tar. Still others walk around with charred sticks.
Walking through a crowd celebrating might also mean you get splashed on from a nearby puddle, you get water dumped on you, paint smeared on you, or simply caught up in a mob of people where escape is difficult. Also popular more on the outskirts (and on the road back to Santa Ana) is the trick of stringing a rope across a road and refusing to let it down unless the pedestrian, moto, or car pays up (though again you can get by without paying if you just keep going I found). Some of things is good-natured, and I actually enjoyed a cup of water dumped on my headed when I didn’t pay up (since I was so hot and sweaty), but others can get pretty mean.
And of course, there was simply a lot of random dancing in the street, even more music than normal blasting, late-night concerts and parties, decorations and Cartagenian flags everywhere in town, and gallons of Aguila beers, Tres Esquinas rum and agudardiente Antioqueño consumed throughout the day and night.
Apparently most of this happens every week around the 11th so it is hard to tell what parts were special for the 200th anniversary and which are traditions that continue year after year. I am sure some of the processions around town, meetings, and speeches had a little something extra for the bicentennial, because after all, it isn’t every day you get to celebrate something like that, especially on such a cool of a date as 11/11/11.
But you don’t need to wait for the calendar to flip to all those ones to start celebrating. Grab your can of foam, cheer on your favorite beauty queen and join in on the parade.
To see photos from my school’s parade and queen competition, click here.
To see photos of parades, beauty queens, cans of foam, and random dancing and other mayhem in the streets, click here.