Friday, February 19, 2010

Buenos Aires: Carnaval Meets Chinese New Year's

New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro get all the press, but Argentina too enjoys Carnaval in the weeks before Lent. The biggest celebrations take place in the Mesopotamian cities of Gualeguaychú and Corrientes, but over the past decade or so it’s taken off in Buenos Aires. In fact, as I walked downtown on Monday, the pounding drums that I originally assumed to be part of a political demonstration - I was only a few blocks from the Congreso Nacional and the booming “bombos” are part of every protest - turned out to be murgas (community dance troupes) from the city’s southern and western barrios.

Unlike the spectacle of Rio or the chaos of New Orleans, Carnaval celebrations in Buenos Aires tend to be relatively small, neighborhood-oriented events, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t lively. With leaping dancers directed by whistle-blowing leaders, the advancing parades resemble African-American “stepping” in some ways. In fact, some of the participants are clearly Afro-Argentine, even though that population is less conspicuous than it was in the 19th century - “forgotten, but not gone” in the words of historian George Reid Andrews.

The murgas often bear colorful names - my favorite is Los Mocosos de Liniers (“The Snots of Liniers”) and their costumes are equally colorful even if Carnaval is not so flamboyant as in Brazil, Argentina’s Mesopotamian provinces, or Uruguay for that matter. Uruguay still maintains a fairly large Afro-Uruguayan population, generally estimated at about five percent, and their influence is far more conspicuous in Montevideo and other coastal cities and towns.

Carnaval is not the only celebration in Buenos Aires at this season. Last weekend, tens of thousands of Porteños crowded the barrio of Belgrano, where Chinese New Year’s parades now take place. Last year, in fact, the ambassador of the People’s Republic sponsored construction of a portal to the barrio’s Chinatown, which is most obvious on both sides of Arribeños street.

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