Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Cuba’s Las Parrandas: Of New Year’s Parades and Christmas Eve Floats


My annual New Year’s tradition is to start the day (not too early, please!) by watching Pasadena’s Tournament of Roses parade on television. Somehow I can’t get enough of the brass bands and ingenious flower-covered floats, despite the TV commentators’ mindless chatter. Then, on January 2, I make the trek to the small city of Sierra Madre to enjoy the parked floats up close and personal. As everyone knows by now, Rose Parade floats are required to be covered with natural matter: mostly flowers, but also leaves, seeds, and all manner of vegetables. Like, for instance, potatoes serving as cobblestones, or artfully placed lemons and ornamental cabbages suggesting an under-the-seascape. To view the floats in person is to appreciate the craftsmanship that makes them so spectacular.

Of course such craftsmanship is costly, requiring a whole cadre of designers, flower-growers, builders, and so-called petal pushers who lovingly put every bloom and seed-pod in its proper place. Though the Rose Parade attracts a handful of cities and organizations who do the work on a volunteer basis (with the two Cal Poly universities winning many prizes for their home-grown creations) most floats are funded by big corporations, and are brought to life by well-paid professionals. I can’t complain: the results are gorgeous.

Still, dedicated amateurism is something to be prized, especially when it’s generated by community spirit. I was reminded of this lesson on a recent trip to the Cuban town of Remedios. Luckily for me, Christmas Eve was fast approaching, and so I was able to share in the excitement of a unique Cuban celebration, Lax Parrandas. Las Parrandas de San Juan de los Remedios began in the late nineteenth century when a local priest sought to channel the high spirits of Christmas eve by launching a fiesta that included a midnight mass. The town’s neighborhoods were divided into two groups, with every local being designated either a Rooster (Gallo) or a Hawk (Halcón). Leading up to midnight, the two sides still compete fiercely, seeking to outdo one another by way of fireworks, stationery displays, and floats that are ceremonially rolled into the town plaza at 3 a.m. Each side chooses a theme (which is often movie-related). All details are top-secret until they are unveiled in the course of the festivities. Yes, there’s that brief religious interlude, but mostly this is an intensely secular event, fueled by what a certain tour guide I know describes as Vitamin R. (Of course, this means rum.)

Along with my fellow Road Scholars travelers, I was lucky enough to visit a local designer affiliated with the Roosters, and then move on to a tour of the Hawk workshop where the finishing touches were being prepared. (Yes, we were sworn to secrecy.) At the workshop, which was housed in a large warehouse-style building, we watched loyal volunteers and a few state-supported professionals labor to install simple electronics, paint small lightbulbs in brilliant colors, and carve figurines out of large blocks of Styrofoam. The theme, clearly connected to movie as well as literary imagery, was The Chronicles of Narnia, and I was amazed by the spectacular rendering of a giant lion, as well as three-dimension polar bears, reindeer, and other exotic creatures. (In 2017, the rival team had pinned its hopes on The Snow Queen: Cubans seem fascinated by tales of arctic frost.)

Unlike the Rose Parade, Las Parrandas includes no official judging of the year’s best efforts. It’s all in the bragging rights, and each team is cheered on by its local partisans. I won’t take sides, but will merely say Olé, and Feliz Año Nuevo


Sign exhorting volunteers to have the right attitude


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