This article is from the July 2002 The Mexico File newsletter.
Nobody Does It Quite Like Mazatlán
by Jane Onstott
Jane Onstott is a freelance writer, translator, and editor who has contributed several stories to The Mexico File. Her travel guide, National Geographic Traveler Mexico, was published in late 2001 and will be reviewed in the next issue.
In the orchestra pit, the musicians tune up, sawing elegantly at their violins and violas. Trombones and tubas give short practice snorts. Finally the conductor raises his baton, and cultivated classical notes rise appealingly in the night air. Ballerinas in diaphanous pink begin to twirl and leap, deftly caught mid-air by strong young men in tights and troubadour costumes. The audience begins to twitch after just about five minutes of this highbrow stuff. Children and adults start to chat. Latecomers search for their seats, while teens retire to the back of the venue to smooch and flirt. After a lengthy debate with his wife, my neighbor to the right crawls across my lap. After he disappears down the aisle, I struggle to let the music and dance recapture my attention. Then the man returns to his seat, bearing a bowl of glutinous-looking nachos dripping processed cheese and sliced jalape os.
Under what incongruous circumstances, you might wonder, are noisy, nacho-eating patrons-of-the-arts tolerated at the ballet? Well, it’s carnaval in Mazatlán. And we’re watching the ballet in the Teodoro Mariscal Baseball Stadium.
The second-largest city in Sinaloa state (after the capital, Culiacán), Mazatlán boasts one of the largest carnival celebrations in Mexico. It’s also the oldest, and has been celebrated in more or less its present form for more than a hundred years. Less wanton than Rio’s, and more sedate than that of New Orleans or Veracruz, it is nonetheless a spectacular affair that captures the seaside city in late winter and holds it hostage for five days and nights. It’s a commingling of culture and carousing.
The state tourism board touts Mazatlán’s carnival as family-oriented, and it’s true that there are poetry contests and literary awards in addition to the ballet at the baseball stadium. Kids compete for prizes at school, and a couple is elected as diminutive king and queen to reign over the award presentations. Extended families attend rock and ska concerts at venues throughout the city; they dance to tambora, the traditional oompah band music of northern Mexico.
For many families the highlight of the week is the grand parade. Crowds start to fill the street long before dark, standing four deep on the sidewalk, climbing available statues and pillars and posts, and packing onto the tiny balconies of hotels overlooking the scene. (The rest of the year these downtown hotels play second fiddle to the more glamorous accommodations in the Zona Dorada, but during the pre-Lenten festivities, they are in huge demand.) Clowns stomp down the street atop peg-legged stilts. Darling boys and girls in grease paint and animal costumes snake down the avenue in conga lines. Beauty queens wave with youthful exuberance from open cars and atop flatbed trucks. Marching bands rattle and hum.
Along with their court, the carnival king and queen ride in an impressive float made of flowers, colored paper, and nearly anything that glitters or glistens. Impossibly well coifed and dressed to kill despite the heat in tulle, organdy, velveteen, and other sweat-inducing fabrics, they herald the parade as representatives of culture and community pride.
The king and queen are chosen from among Mazatlán’s young elite. The queen especially is chosen not just for her good looks and status within the community, but for her connections. The king, originally dubbed “el rey feo” (the ugly king), is now referred to as “el rey de la alegría,” or the king of happiness. Both preside over the parade and other gatherings wearing sequined, shiny outfits, but it’s the queen who really sparkles. Families spend a fortune on the parade outfit, designed to reflect the year’s carnival theme, and on sophisticated gowns for other carnival events.
By late evening the parade sambas to its finale. The hotdog, popcorn, and corn-on-the-cob vendors hang around a bit, mentally tallying their profits before packing up and heading for home. Youngsters crack their last confetti-filled eggs on the heads of their friends, adding to the debris in the streets. As the families wander home, the roadies kick into gear, erecting multiple music stages along the malecón, downtown Mazatlán’s famous seaside avenue.
The Party Continues
Concerts are held for four consecutive nights up and down the malecón. These all-night dances leave waiters sleeping on their feet and visitors snoring in their hotel rooms until high noon. Local talent boogies each night until nearly dawn, as do better-known national and even international groups. Barricades keep out the freeloaders: there’s a nominal fee (and a long wait in line) to gain entrance to this particular street party, although surrounding streets, bars, and restaurants are packed with people as well with mariachis, tambora bands, and other live music.
Mazatlán is a navy town, and on the Saturday night preceding Lent, big ships lurking just offshore conduct “La Batalla Naval,” a mock maritime battle using an impressive amount of gunpowder. In a moving display, showers of colorful fireworks light up the night sky, reflecting on the dark water below and briefly illuminating the hulking dark ships that launched them. Two- and three-story bars and restaurants along Paseo Claussen and Avenida Olas Altas make excellent vantage points from which to see the show. Since pedestrian traffic slows to a sludgelike crawl and parking spaces disappear as night falls, it’s best to arrive hours early to find a spot.
The Batalla Naval and the ballet are fairly recent additions to the carnival scene, although the parade and election of queen and king have been around since 1900. In general, however, this organized community party began as more chaotic, masculine, and spontaneous encounters between rival groups of local men. The first known pre-Lenten gathering was in 1827, when soldiers (some sources say they were stevedores) in masks and costumes gathered to recite rhyming couplets outlining various grievances. (These rhymes, called comparsas, are still used in communities throughout Mexico and Latin America as a way of airing private and community complaints in a non-threatening, joking manner.) By mid-century custom dictated that two groups of masked, costumed men would meet on Shrove Tuesday (the day before Lent) to dance, sing, and exchange insults in the form of ribald songs. Each year the “festivities” got more boisterous and unruly, until couplets and mock battles evolved to serious street fighting. The two groups traditionally met at the corner of Carnaval and Calle del Vigía (now Angel Flores) streets, in the heart of downtown.
By the end of the 19th century, Mazatlán, like the rest of the country, was experiencing prosperity under the influence of “president-for-life” Porfirio Díaz. Things European were considered civilized, while many Mexican traditions were considered offensively provincial. City officials and prominent citizens were proud of their modern city but embarrassed by the decadence of its popular pre-Lenten customs. They decided to regulate the rowdies by institutionalizing their dramas. Poetry contests replaced the inflammatory rhyming couplets. Hollow eggs filled with confetti replaced the flour-filled projectiles used in earlier years. And a crazy parade with funny cars and ridiculous costumes was created to give free reign to the hilarity and frivolity of past celebrations. Masked balls and popular celebrations were encouraged around Plazuela Machado, Mazatlán’s lovely, palm-shaded square.
With few modifications and exceptions, today’s events reflect the changes instituted more than a hundred years ago. Tens of thousands of visitors, both foreigners and nationals, heed the carnival call. They take over city streets, fill up the bars, cantinas, and restaurants, and play in the surf along the city’s miles-long beach. Hotels in the Zona Dorada, or Golden Zone, pull in 100 percent occupancy, but it’s the “has-been” hotels in Old Mazatlán that are coveted most by the all-night party-makers.