Remedios y sus Parrandas

Spring 2010

Cuban photographer Alejandro Gortazar writes on the annual carnival and firework celebrations in the small town of Remedios; the focus of his next exhibition

Remedios and its street carnivals

In one of my visits around the island, on my way to Caye Santa Maria, I stopped over in a village north of the province of Villa Clara, San Juan de los Remedios del Cayo, the eighth town founded by the Spanish in Cuba, and a national monument since 1980.

Aside from the beauty of the colonial Villas of Cuba, its architecture and style, I discovered two Catholic churches; I was told the two communicate via an underground tunnel. Wanting to know more, I arrived at the town’s museum, where I was astonished by the history of the place.

I discovered that its tortuous and narrow streets were once the scene of the first fight against the demons, according to old chronicles that were compiled by the erudite Fernando Ortiz in his writings about Remedios. But leaving to one side stories of exorcisms, satanic manifestations and the inquisitorial works by the local priest de la Cruz and with a little effort let us imagine ourselves at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Two in the morning, a thick silence covers the sleeping village. Suddenly, an infernal noise breaks into pieces rest and sleep. Explosions, ‘matracas’, and sounding of cans filled with stones, raise the villagers in a command to attend the Misa de Aguinaldo, which was celebrated from15-23 December.

According to historians and experts, the famous tradition of Remedios finds its origins in this call to Mass. And it was in 1871 when the neighbourhoods of Laguna Buenviaje, San Salvador and Camacho grouped together under the name of San Salvador, under the leadership of Jose Celedio; and the neighbours of Cristo, Carmen, La Parroquia and Bermeja consolidated together as El Carmen under the direction of Cristobal Gail Mateu, the Mallorquin, to form the other group.

At the Parrandas, the tradition maintains an imaginary line divides the town’s square in two, and the two groups confront each other as contenders: San Salvador (los sansaríes), in blue and red represented by a rooster and El Carmen, in brown, represented by a hawk. Both sides carry their respective flags.

Years later, still San Salvador and el Carmen battle, with their music, their colourful lanterns, their monumental carriages and fireworks and, of course, their light displays on opposite sides of the central square.

The parrandas commence with the lightening up of the displays on the square. At 10pm, each side makes their introduction, the winner form the previous year opening up the celebrations. The entry to the square, called ‘salida’, is accompanied by bands of musicians playing traditional polkas. Fireworks, lights and mortars start just as the group reaches the dividing line on the square; from where the opposing group answers the salutation with a similar entry. And they carry on throughout the night alternating their efforts, as in a noisy conversation, where each tries to exceed the other.

Hundreds of people visit the Villa for this event; already early in the year all the guesthouses are reserved for the night of the Parrandas, when the central park is packed with a happy festive spirit from the early hours. There is music everywhere, traditional food and jubilation fill up the village and its vibration can be felt for miles around.

About four or five in the morning, the procession comes out with grand carriages and it is even later that the last, decisive entry takes place. By then the smell of gunpowder inundates the town. The participants from each side, exhausted by hours and hours of firing mortars and the wide range of fire works, make a last effort to reach the final victory.

In this competition, however, there are no winners nor losers, the celebration always wins: the beautiful traditional scene of art and folklore, which are the Parrandas; legitimate pride of the Remedianos.

Of these parrandas, what gives the locals most satisfaction are the light displays on the square, where the efforts of manual workers join, electricians, carpenters, painters and many more.

From 1892 the parrandas extended to other villages: Placetas, Camajuani, Zulueta, Caibaarien, Vueltas, Encrucijada, Calabazar de Sagua, Quemado de Guines and have now reached as far as Chambas in the province of Ciego de Avila.

These days, the Parrandas de Remedios are celebrated on 24 December, Christmas Eve. But days before the celebration begins, men and women abound in the streets of Remedios, making vibrating sounds and playing contagious music that would take over even the exorcisms of the priest in the ancient archives of the Villa of San Juan de los Remedios del Cayo.

All photographs © Alejandro Gortazar

Edited and translated by Maria Castro

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