In modern-minded Spain, there is one vestige of
the ancient, the mystical, the pagan—
four days and nights of Carnaval.

The Sacred and Profane of Spanish Carnaval. Peliqueiro in Cantabria. Photo copyright 1993 by Cristina Garcia Rodero

Peliqueiro in Cantabria. Photo © 1993 by Cristina García Rodero.

The Sacred and the Profane of
Spanish Carnaval

by Alan Weisman

with photographs by Cristina García Rodero,
first printed in The Los Angeles Times Magazine, April 11, 1993

The room is a tiny cell in a family compound enclosed by unmortared slate walls more than a thousand years old. Precisely how much more, the four women and two men squeezed into this windowless space don't know, any more than they understand exactly why they will spend the forthcoming hours engaged in feverish ritual. What they do know, they insist, is that like their fathers and grandmothers and forebears beyond them, they were born to this moment.

By the calendar, it is late February, 1993, three days before Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season that precedes Easter. By the map, this is northwestern Spain, a country now free from a dictatorship that, for the best part of this century, crushed traditions such as the one they are about to honor. By some standards, the young women here especially epitomize their modernizing nation: Their dark-eyed charms notwithstanding, they have become not wives but single professionals—a doctor, an archeologist, a chess champion, a historian. But tonight, neither career nor country crosses their minds.

As they expect to do throughout their lives, they have returned this week, like dozens of others, to the vineyards, cobbled paths and turnip fields of Laza, their ancestral hamlet. The region is Galicia, continental Europe's furthest western shore, whose misty seacoast, bagpipes and Celtic legacy are kindred more to Brittany, Wales, Scotland and Ireland than to Madrid, and whose language, galego, tips away from Spanish toward the melodious tongue of neighboring Portugal. As the four women attend to the magical business of transforming two young men into fantastic beings, they re-enter a collective memory far older than the pastiche of kingdoms forged in 1492 by the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile.

”More,” orders Nieves Amado Rolan, the archeologist. The men, Paco and Dopa, stand straighter and tighten their lean bellies as the women wrap yards of wide linen sash around their midriffs. Before the men can relax, Nieves and her companions sew the material onto the men's suspenders, locking them into postures erect as a matador's. The rest of their costume, every centimeter hand-crafted, has required hundreds of hours of local artisans' labor: crocheted lace stockings, embroidered layers of ruffled pants, a brocaded waist jacket, a belt of huge, protruding cowbells, weighing more than 12 pounds. And, leaning darkly against the shadowed wall, are the leather whips and huge masks of painted birch and pelica—animal skins—that for three days will render them peliqueiros, the silent, nameless masters of this ancient Galician village.

From the cities where they now live and work, these people have returned for one of the Old World's most authentic vestiges of a rite that once solemnized the passing of winter into the potent fertility of spring. In Laza, the event is known by its Galician name, entroido: introduction, entry. Elsewhere in Spain and Europe where it is still observed, and in Latin America, where it has been transplanted, it is called carnaval. Centuries ago, when Christianity superimposed its holy calendar on the cycles of nature, the formerly pagan celebration became a brief, sanctioned burst of scheduled excess before 40 somber days of Lenten abstinence and repentance. (One theory holds that the word carnaval derives from “carne va”—“there goes the meat.”) Lent concludes with Easter, the celebration of Christ's Resurrection, coinciding handily with the spring equinox—resurrection of the pagan sun god.

In modern times, humanity's growing urban inclinations have led carnaval even further from its agrarian origins, distorting it into the street orgies of Rio de Janeiro, Tenerife and New Orleans, whose most profound inspiration now seems to be the lucre of tourism. Perhaps as a result, Laza lately has found itself subject to a mounting onslaught of cultural voyeurism, as television crews, non-Galician Spaniards and even Germans and Italians are showing up for their entroido. It is, by all accounts, one of the purest carnavals that still exists. “As long as we do this, our souls remain full,” says Nieves. Yet sometimes, now that her generation no longer makes its living from this land, Nieves wonders if spiritual decline will reach them as well—or their children.

Peliqueiros in Laza wield their whips in a show of power.

Peliqueiros in Laza wield their whips in a show of power. Photo © 1993 by Cristina García Rodero.

Dopa and Paco are ready. The women hand them their peliqueiro masks. The flesh-pink faces are identical: reddened cheeks, slinking mustaches, fur beards and sinister grins, backed by lynx hides and topped by parabolic miters depicting a bull's head and a wolf, respectively. While Generalissimo Francisco Franco was dictator, his Falange guard outlawed the wearing of these masks, claiming that disguises invited easy crime. “Peliqueiro is not a disguise,” Dopa declares. “It is a necessity.” He is echoing the sentiments of his father's generation, whose members secretly took their tradition deep into the forest during those dangerous years. But now, with Spain rushing away from its rural heritage toward the promise of industrial fulfillment in the European Community, there is a new peril: Will so-called social progress reduce carnaval in Laza merely to nostalgia and entertainment—void of meaning beyond what can be exploited by commercial enterprise and anthropologists?

There is only one worthwhile response to the prospect of such a barren future. Dopa and Paco don their masks and rush into the night. From other doorways, more peliqueiros pour into the narrow street, running at full speed. Without breaking stride, they form a line and streak away, their cowbells resounding off the slate walls. The women watch them go, then grab bottles of homemade aguardiente and head for the plaza. The peliqueiros will be back. Entroido has begun.

*       *       *

When the Romans arrived in Galicia two centuries before the birth of Christ, they were convinced they had reached the end of the earth. This impression was heightened by the other-worldly fog that swirls through Galicia's river valleys, filling its craggy estuaries like legions of ghosts pouring off the land and vanishing into the sea. The settlers of the empire's furthest outpost called this the Coast of the Dead. The name still persists, even though Galicia, courtesy of a caravel named La Pinta that sailed one momentous day into one of its fiords, was the first place in Europe to learn that life and the world resumed again across the ocean.

Earlier pagan legends also held that this was where souls made their final pilgrimage. Long before the Romans, the Celts built stone rings at the shoreline's furthest promontories; even today, Galicians believe that at certain times during the year, the dead here renew contact with the living. During November, food from the recent harvest is set out for them. Their presence is sensed again at Christmas, as solstice marks the plunge into winter. At least one anthropologist has written that the various masked beings that surface in Galician villages during carnaval, such as Laza's peliqueiros, represent disembodied spirits making another of their cosmic rounds.

In Laza's central Plaza of the Picota, Juanjo Amado, who has heard his archeologist sister Nieves mention this theory, rolls his eyes. “Traditions aren't defined by what anthropologists think,” he declares. To Juanjo, a theater technician in the city of Santiago de Compostela, 120 miles to the north, a pedantic analysis of vibrant social passions is akin to dissecting songbirds to discover what inspires them to sing. “The people can't explain what entroido means. They just have to do it. It's what they do.”

Carnaval cross-dressing in Arco de la Frontera.

Arco de la Frontera. Photo © 1993 by Cristina García Rodero.

Juanjo, a husky man in his early thirties, is wearing a shimmering pink dress, black mesh stockings, a polka-dot silk scarf, a henna wig and a quarter-inch of rouge. Sitting on the plaza steps on this second night of carnaval, he shares a bottle of white wine recently fermented from his parents' grapes with a friend, 78-year-old Luis Villalobos, and greets the other prodigals who've made it home for entroido. He and Luis toast the old women seated on the second-story iron balconies that ring the plaza, awaiting the evening's bedlam. Nearby, the town's old picota—pillory—stands idle, as it has for centuries during carnaval, when almost any behavior short of manslaughter is not merely permitted, but encouraged.

Juanjo is not the only one who has cross-dressed for the occasion. Under the brightening stars, men in green satin gowns waltz to an arrhythmic band of gray-haired musicians playing tubas, clarinets, a snare drum and bagpipes. Women wearing the coarse woolen robes of Franciscan monks alternately drag on Lucky Strikes and neck with boyfriends swaddled in nuns' habits. A leering bishop appears in mini-cassock, silver lame tights and suede heels. Hundreds of others who jam this tiny triangular plaza are attired more secularly, but equally adroitly: as Tarot cards, as mimosa trees, as Day-Glo caricatures of Basque terrorists.

A parody of Goya's masterpiece, La Maja Desnuda, in Ciudad Real.

A parody of Goya's masterpiece, La Maja Desnuda, in Ciudad Real. Photo © 1993 by Cristina García Rodero.

*       *       *

A galego Moses plops down on the steps next to Luis, shivering in his toga and sandals. While he attacks the chill with a few long pulls on Juanjo's fiery young wine, the sloppy faithful gather to receive his Ten Commandments: “Thou Shalt Love Women Above All Creatures; Thou Shalt Covet Thy Neighbor's Breasts; Let No Act Be Considered Impure; Thou Shalt Take It Off; Thou Shalt (explicit expletive) Whenever and Wherever Possible.” “Amen,” intones the crowd. It isn't that Galicians are unusually lecherous or blasphemous; during carnaval, people are simply relieved, temporarily, of life's chronic pressure to be moral and respectful.

Suddenly, all voices, music and thoughts are overwhelmed by the din of enormous cowbells, as a column of 20 peliqueiros flashes by, their painted faces mute and macabre under the street lamps, their leather whips punishing whoever fails to leap out of the way. The authority they exude bores through the revelry like a hot iron, but as they streak away, carnaval resumes instantly behind them. Watching them go, Luis and Juanjo debate two opposing, locally held hypotheses about the peliqueiros' origins. One, Juanjo says, claims that they derive from Celtic times or earlier, when priests donned the skins of wild animals to absorb their power, then brandished whips to encourage, symbolically if not literally, a fertile reception. Luis prefers the second version. “A duke once owned everything in this valley,” he explains. “The serfs had to pay tribute to his tax collectors. Anyone who didn't pay got whipped.”

South of town, the old crenelated castle belonging to the Duke of Monterrey, who ruled here during the Middle Ages, still towers over the land. According to legend, after America was discovered, he brought back Indian masks from Mexico or Peru to conceal the identity of his tax collectors from the resentful populace. Laza, poised near an ancient trade route connecting Spain, Portugal and France, also was dunned by two lesser dukes, whose crumbling coats of arms still adorn a plaza wall. Today, to be a peliqueiro in Laza is an honor accorded to those young men most adept at emotionally re-creating, through posture and agility with their whips, the chilling qualities of those mythic, bygone oppressors. As they keep returning throughout the evening, multiplying like alien cells that have begun to divide spontaneously, the image of being surrounded by tax collectors imbued with the authority of priests recurs like a Dark Ages nightmare. “Death and taxes,” Luis says, his remaining teeth flashing within his grin. “Nothing changes, ever.”

Arcos de la Frontera.

Arcos de la Frontera. Photo © 1993 by Cristina García Rodero.

Except during carnaval. This is when, for a few moments each year, the people reign. Power is concentrated in the masks thundering by, borne by the sons of the village itself, lashing the crowd ever harder. Priest and politician alike must hide or be pummeled with insult and ridicule; the world is turned upside-down and shaken until the established order cracks loose. Anything is possible, everything is allowed: Humans transform themselves into animals; males become females; peons strut like kings. Social station is scorned, decorum is debunked, blasphemy goes unblamed. In neighboring villages, normally sober citizens drench each other with buckets of water; in Laza, they sling rags soaked in mud until everyone is reduced to muck. Bags appear containing ashes, flour, and—most prized of all—fertilizer crawling with red and black ants. A frenzy erupts; the air fills with stinging, fragrant grime, coating everyone with the earth's sheer essence. Men and women throw each other to the ground and roll in the street. With any luck, the heavens will be shocked and the new season jarred awake. Then, once again, day can steal hours back from the night, vegetation will arouse from hibernation, spring will heave aside winter, and what was dead can live again.

*       *       *

The craving to overthrow the months of dark, cold stagnation is the birthright of any human who evolved away from the tropics. When Christianity swept across ancient Europe, the imposition of Lenten restraint just when blood was beginning to soar with intimations of spring was surely the young Catholic Church's frontal crusade against instincts of the flesh. Previously, the rites of spring in Galicia had been recast with each new culture whose rule spread to the world's known edge. The fertility exhortations of animal-skinned Celtic priests were stretched to encompass a pantheon of Roman winter festivals: Saturnalia, which accompanied the December sowing season; January's Bacchanalia, toasting the god of wine; and the February Lupercalia, invoking the god of flocks and fecundity. By the Middle Ages these rituals had contracted again, confined by a nearly omnipotent church to four days preceding Ash Wednesday, but impossible to abolish. Even the Duke of Monterrey understood that his subjects required this moment of release, now not just from winter, but from the domination of religion over their ancient animal stirrings. Joining the masquerade, he traded places with his vassals, until Lent began and submission was restored.

Carnaval in Lalín.

Lalín. Photo © 1993 by Cristina García Rodero.

On Tuesday, the final day of carnaval in Laza, Nieves, Juanjo and Irene, their chess champion sister, present themselves at their parents' house for lunch. Until last night's desperate need to wash ants from their hair drove them in search of a bath and clean clothes, none has made it home for days. Throughout carnaval, everyone has wandered randomly into houses for meals: by rule, peliqueiros exhausted from their repeated circuits can demand food and drink anywhere, and enough is prepared to accommodate whoever else might appear. Earlier, they'd visited the home of a friend renowned for her bica, the traditional entroido cake, who calculated that she had used nearly 1,500 eggs and a full-grown oak's worth of stove kindling in preparing mass quantities of her specialty.

Now, their mother rounds out custom with a table-sagging spread of the pre-Lenten basic ingredient: pork. Pork raised, slaughtered, dressed, cured and cooked at home—pork shoulder, pork sausage, pork sliced, pork stewed, pork snout; and tail, served with turnip tops, three different home-grown wines and more bica. The feasting lasts nearly three hours. Two other brothers are yet unaccounted for, but their absence is compensated for by the presence of Esther, the doctor; Rosa, the recent history graduate; Juan Luis, the ersatz Moses; and a television crew from Santiago de Compostela.

Groaning slightly, all convene afterward on a balcony that faces the waning sun. Before them, spreading toward the mountains of Portugal, is a pastoral landscape of tiny fields delineated by a maze of low stone walls—landscape that is both Galicia's pride and biggest problem. Remote enough to protect its traditions, Galicia was also the last place in Spain to become acquainted with the notion of mechanized farming. After centuries of continually dividing each family's lands, their farms were eventually no bigger than subsistence plots, tillable only by ox and plow. As a result, in recent generations the majority of Galicians found themselves forced to migrate or starve. Nearly all of this family's kin now live in Argentina, a country reputed to have more galegos than Galicia itself. Another option was for men to labor much of the year elsewhere in Europe while women tended the fields at home. Now, with the European Community removing visa barriers, entire Galician families have left for factories in Germany, Holland and Switzerland. And, as cheaper vegetables and cheeses from EC countries like France and Holland, with modern production methods, further undercut traditional Galician agriculture, entire villages have emptied of all but retired men and black-stockinged widows.

Rey Loco (Crazy King) parades in the streets of Solsona Lerida.

Rey Loco (Crazy King) parades in the streets of Solsona Lerida.
Photo © 1993 by
Cristina García Rodero.

The TV camera from Santiago is rolling; the reporter asks Nieves about the significance of entroido, but she's distracted, thinking about all the fine old stone houses that are now abandoned, whose red tile roofs she can see from this balcony. Juanjo has fallen asleep in the sun, and Moses' commandments, while appropriately sacrilegious for carnaval, are a bit intense for Santiago, the resting place of the Apostle James and one of the Catholic world's most holy sites. “Come to the reading of the Testament tonight,” Nieves tells the crew. “That says it all.”

The Testament, the climax of Laza's carnival, begins at dusk under a new crescent moon. The Praza da Picota is packed to capacity. Sons and daughters of Laza have journeyed across Spain, Europe, and even across the Atlantic to witness this. They cluster and embrace, then press together even tighter as 85 peliqueiros descend simultaneously at full velocity, their bells deafening and whips snapping. They are joined by 15 small boys wearing miniatures of their fathers' venerable masks—the next heirs to the tradition. Finally they withdraw, then return moments later, marching in two lines with the junior peliqueiros clearing a path down the middle for the official Testamentero, mounted on a donkey. This year, it is Dopa, who has traded his mask for a tunic of animal skins. As he reaches the microphone, the peliqueiros lift their masks, and everyone hushes.

The Testament of Laza, read here for centuries, is an annual report delivered as an epic poem. In rhyming couplets, Dopa reduces the politics, sacrileges, vanities, deceptions and indiscretions of another year in the life of his village to the essence of carnaval: a parody of life's sorrows and weaknesses. Around the plaza, faces redden and then relax with laughter, as no one is spared: the local matriarchs who lobbied for the town's latest improvement—cable TV—who were then caught enjoying its X-rated movies; the hunter discovered in intimate pursuit of not a boar, but his best friend's wife; the entire village council, guilty of producing little during the previous year beyond their own flatulence. Lopa's performance, incisive yet good-natured, is received with cheers for the entroido, which has once again eased a year's accumulated pain and opened a way into spring.

Carnaval scene in Madrid.

Madrid. Photo © 1993 by Cristina García Rodero.

*       *       *

Because the Feast Day of St. James falls on a Sunday this year, 1993 marks a Holy Year in Spain. At least two million pilgrims will visit Santiago de Compostela's masterpiece cathedral, where a silver urn holds the Apostle's remains. Some cynics doubt that the beheaded body of James, who supposedly brought the Gospel to Galicia before his martyrdom, was actually returned here by his disciples. They note that in the ninth century, when his relics were miraculously discovered, Christianity was struggling with Islam over Spain's soul and needed a good, strategically placed shrine. Santiago conveniently lay in the path of an ancient pilgrimage that once followed the Milky Way across Europe to Galicia's Coast of the Dead, the end of the earth. Many believe this was yet one more appropriation of another religion's useful customs.

With the legacy of brutal civil war finally buried, thousands of villages elsewhere across Spain are resurrecting another spiritual heritage. From attics and cellars emerge fabulous carnaval masks hidden away for a generation; their meaning, and details of the rituals that once accompanied them, spill from the memories of elderly survivors into their university-educated grandchildren's tape recorders. In cities, far from the soil that spawned it, carnaval has appropriately slickened: Municipal governments—not rebellious citizens—run the proceedings, and testaments have grown from public confessions in the town square to choreographed satires with musical accompaniment, sung by competing groups in lustrous costumes, who sell compact discs of their efforts from passing parade floats.

Yet the concerns that surface in the lyrics aren't too distant from those in Laza. Their country is scrambling for its place in a new economic landscape unmindful of the cycles of nature. Spain, tuning its rusty economic apparatus to the European Community's smooth pitch, suddenly must simultaneously balance 20% unemployment against its highest tax rates in history. But even if such contradictions are someday, somehow, resolved, questions remain that don't appear on ledgers. What will tradition mean in a world whose guiding spirit is a central bank in Brussels? In the interest of ending tribal warfare, such as that which now ravages Eastern Europe, is it time to move beyond old regional identities that divide us, even if homogenized life leaves us groping for something we sense our ancestors had?

A week after carnaval, in Irene Amado's apartment in Santiago de Compostela, she, Nieves and Juanjo gather around a VCR. Sipping coffee, they watch their village and entroido, reduced to a 13-inch image. On the screen, Laza is recognizable but contained, like a caged swallow. And the smells are gone: the turnips, the vineyards. Friends, people they know are interviewed. Dutifully, they identify themselves. The TV reporter bends to a 6-year-old boy, struggling with his mask. “And who are you?” he asks. The reply from the next generation is what finally makes everyone in this room smile. “I am,” the boy tells the camera, “a peliqueiro.”

Cantabria peliqueiro.

Peliqueiro in Cantabria. Photo © 1993 by Cristina García Rodero.

*       *       *

Further Reading




About the Author:
Alan Weisman is a member of the Endicott Studio Circle. Please visit Alan's page for more information on the author and his work.

About the Artist
Cristina García Rodero was born in Puertollano, Spain in 1949, and studied painting at University Complutense du Madrid. Her award-winning work has been exstensively exhibited and collected internationally. In the United States her photographs can be found in The International Center of Photography, New York; The Getty Center, Los Angeles; The Center of Creative Photography, Tucson; The Seattle Art Museum; The Houston Museum of Fine Arts; and other collections. Her books include Festivals and Rituals of Spain;España Oculta: Public Celebrations in Spain, 1974-1989; Cristina García Rodero: Rituales En Haiti; and Four Spanish Photographers : Koldo Chamorro, Christina García Rodero, Joan Fontcuberta, Marta Sentis. About her work, the artist says, “I try to capture the most intense moments, full of life, people as simple as irresistible, with all my inner strength. This is my own personal challenge, one that gives me a strength and knowledge and in which I invest all my heart.” To see more of Rodero's work, visit Children, a gorgeous on-line exhibition of 27 black-and-white photographs presented by the ZoneZero Web site for international photography.

Copyright © Copyright 1993, 2004 by Alan Weisman.This article first appeared in The Los Angeles Times Magazine, April 11, 1993. This material may not be reproduced in any form without the author's express written permission. Photographs used in this article are © 1993 by Cristina García Rodero and may not be reproduced in any form without the photographer's express written permission.

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