CARNAVAL Prep: The Tale of Arriba and Abajo

Calle Abajo Carnaval Queen

Queen of Calle Abajo,
Las Tablas Carnaval 2013

Did you know the flamboyant spectacle of Carnaval in Las Tablas, Panama was started with a Church fight back in the 17th century?  It seems back then the fervently religious Spanish colonists were divided into two factions, each with its own patron saint.  The Hermitage of Santa Cruz celebrated the Holy Cross on May 3, and Caledonia celebrated Santa Librada on July 20.  Each lusted for the total loyalty and obedience of the people in the Las Tablas area.  But the people, meanwhile, were kind of celebrating pagan festivals that just happened to coincide, date-wise.  Oops.

Not Practical, Not Christian

Somebody (the bishop?) decided this was neither practical nor especially Christian, and determined to fix the situation.  He arbitrarily divided the town in half according to  geography, up-hill and down-, forming a couple of groups he called tunas.  In Spain the word tuna was applied to naughty school boys who danced and drank and played about (with musical instruments, mostly) rather than study.  It also refers to the fruit of the opuntia, the prickly pear cactus.  Either derivative seems appropriate, since the newly formed tunas were both devoted to fun and instantly prickly regarding their rival tuna.  The ecclesiastical authorities hoped this division would conquer the pagan element and unite the religious factions.  And then everyone would celebrate both patron saint days with equal enthusiasm.  That was the plan.

Thou Shalt Not Have Too Much Fun

But the tunas had so much fun (lots of singing and dancing and drinking) that the sacerdotal crowd became alarmed.  There was thunder from the pulpit, a crying out that people were behaving “like pagans” (makes you wonder exactly what they were doing, doesn’t it?) in the middle of the religious festivities.  The clerics clamped down on the fun.  Unwilling to give up such a great party, the dancers-singers-drinkers simply moved their festivities to the week before Lent, to coincide with the carnival holidays in Europe.  Now everybody was happy, because the Church had a long tradition of permitting behavioral excess right before Lent started.

So the people continued to have a fun, excessive, old pagan time every year.

After a while the tunas established headquarters.  The tuna of Calle Arriba (Uphill Street) took the area of Calle Bolivar and the tuna of Calle Abajo (Downhill Street) took the neighborhood of Punta Fogón.  (People move, so today which one you belong to depends on where your mother was born.)  At Carnaval time the tunas convened at their respective headquarters, then paraded the prettiest girls in elaborate costumes (primarily polleras, the national costume) singing insulting songs about the rival tuna, dancing to tamboritos (tunes with drums), drinking ron y cerveza (rum and beer) and having terrific fun.  Yee ha!

Traditions of Carnaval

The traditions of Carnaval center around this rivalry between the tunas.

Hail the Queens

Although young daughters of landowners and politicians served as Queens of the Carnaval during the first half of the twentieth century, it was not until 1950 the first Reina de la Tuna was elected.  Since then, each year, each tuna elects a queen.

The queens are selected almost the minute the everybody drags themselves out of bed on Ash Wednesday because there is a year of work to be done.   Carnaval is a big deal in Las Tablas not just because of tradition, but because it has become essential to the local economy.  Thousands of people from all over Panama and the rest of the world attend Carnaval.  These people need somewhere to stay, and there are few hotels here.  Local people open their homes (for a stiff price), even renting their parking space and their yards to campers.  The money many of the locals take in for this is earmarked to help pay for their children’s education – books, uniforms and tuition – the following year.  (School is not cheap here.)

The visitors have to eat – many good cooks turn professional during Carnaval.  They need beer – small bars are set up.  The participants who wear pollera dress need assistance with preparations (see our article Dressing for Mil Polleras  to understand why).  Local experts hire themselves out to assist with that.  The local jewelers will sell much of their stock of traditional cadenas (traditional, very specific real gold chains) during the year to Carnaval participants as well as to visitors who seek the “real thing.”  The mask-makers will sell lots of elaborate masks, the skilled seamstresses will produce the hand-stitched, very pricey polleras.

Nor is the bounty restricted to the local folk.  Designers from la Ciudad vie for the privilege of concocting the elaborate wardrobes for the queens, each garment bedecked with jewels and frills and sequins and feathers and headdresses more fantastic than those of last year.  Other designers hope for fame and future commissions by designing floats with massive statuary, flowers, feathers and fluff galore.

Yo Lo Pago! (I Will Pay for It)

And none of the stuff that supports the Carnaval is free.  Those floats alone cost a fortune.  You have to pay the tanker truck dudes to park those behemoths in the main square so the people can be wet down.  You need lots and lots and lots, and lots more, firecrackers.  There are the main floats, and the hundreds of of elaborate costumes for the supporting cast, and real gold jewelry with real gemstones in which in which the queen must be decked to uphold the honor of her tuna, not to mention those fancy designers from Panama aren’t footing the bill for the queen’s outfits.  We’re talking about $300,000 per queen.

So who pays for it?  Well, that Ash Wednesday, after the tuna officials have their foreheads marked, they start planning the year’s fund-raisers.    Of course, natually, the people of the tuna contribute. That’s how they vote for the lady of their choice for queen.  And they are pleased and proud to do so.  After all, it is their honor which is at stake.

So are local and national businesses pleased and proud to contribute.  Think of the exposure!  So coughing up $4,000 for a four day ad on the side of one of the tankers in the main park is a no-brainer for one of the cell phone companies, or a national bakery or the like.  It’s as good as a half-time commercial during Super Bowl.

Speaking of which, the whole shebang is televised these days.  Those are good ads to get too.  I can’t verify this, but I would expect the tunas probably manage this and take a percentage. (It seems only right.)

Go Ahead, Insult Me

The tunas also uphold their respective honor during the annual four day war through the public singing of insulting songs (coplas) and the chanting of good-natured digs (puyas) tossed from one tuna at the other.  (Next Wednesday I am pleased to be bringing you a particularly delightful copla about cockroach infestation.)

Being Pleased With Yourself

Another tradition is the culeco (pleased with yourself time) or mojadura (time of wetting).  Those tankers in the park that I mentioned?  Their purpose is to periodically soak the populace, spraying the crowd with fire hoses.  People say it’s to keep everyone cool in the heat, but the origin of the custom lies in pouring water on someone of the opposite sex as a sort-of provocative, flirtatious gesture.  Less flirtatious, but in keeping with the spirit of things, are the kids armed with water guns tearing around, spraying each other and tourists’ cameras.

It’s nice to know the water being sprayed is clean.  Apparently, not all the other Carnavals are quite so careful, but Las Tablas is.  The water is from the local municipal swimming pool.  Ewww?  No.  The pool is closed for several weeks ahead of time and treated so that it is pristinely germ-free when it hits your shirt (and glasses and personal body parts).  Too bad that won’t help your camera.

So the mornings are devoted to culecos – being pleased with yourself while singing and dancing and drumming and getting wet and drinking beer (yes, in the morning).  “Everybody” rests in the afternoon, and then the parade starts in the evening.  The parade is followed by the serious party-down for which Las Tablas Carnaval is famous.  Temporary fondas (eateries), transitory bars and fly-by-nightclubs will have opened in every available empty lot.  Speakers the size of small trucks will be pounding out rock and roll at volumes guaranteed to break your eardrums. Bodies are packed sweat-gland-to-sweat-gland in the streets.

And a good time is had by all.


Many thanks to Maestro José Orestes Moreno Cano, a Las Tablas teacher and local folklore expert, who provided much of this information.  Thanks also to Padre José Antonio De Ágreda, who wrote a history of Las Tablas in 1935.