A few days ago, I had a nostalgic moment. When I lived in San Francisco (and was much, much younger), this was the time of year when I used to start anticipating Carnaval. Thinking about the old days, and suddenly I knew what to do with those mis-matched beads! Take the most colorful and make something fun and festive, in memory of those music-filled times.
In San Francisco, Carnaval takes place in May. I first started watching the parade when I lived in the Mission District, not far from where it would begin. Back then (so many years ago), Carnaval was a new phenomenon in SF. It was still possible to leave my apartment on Bartlett & 26th a little early, walk down a couple blocks to Mission Street, and find an empty bench to sit on while we waited for the parade.
It was marvelous. The colorful floats — the bands playing samba and salsa (the drummers were especially stirring) — the beautiful, sparkling dancers. It was all so heady, so exciting. They didn’t put barriers up back then, and before long, watchers would join the parade, often dancing beside and behind their favorite groups.
Before long, however, Carnaval lost its participatory, power-to-the-people atmosphere and became more regulated and business-like, with the performers segregated from the audience, and more of a police presence. (Though nothing like Rio de Janeiro, where it’s a massive, serious institution.) I suppose it was forced to become more coordinated with the SF city government after it grew so much in popularity. I mean, it’s one thing to have riotous good fun, but quite another if an actual riot develops. The parade grew as more and more cultures from the Caribbean, Central and South America were represented. The crowds got bigger and bigger and bigger, until there was little hope of getting a front row seat, much less join in.
I’ve read that in recent times, Carnaval has grown even bigger, and that it has become more like a general spring festival, with parade groups representing countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East as well. It’s now said to be the most diverse Carnaval in the world. I think that’s fabulous, but I hope Latin America is still predominantly featured, as nothing says “fun” and “party” like samba, salsa and soca music!