It’s a once a year, once in a lifetime event and if you are in Santo Domingo, in February, you are the invited guest.
It’s the DR’s biggest street party, with communities throughout the island celebrating their own special version of carnival.
According to the existing documentation, before 1520 there was already a carnival festival in the city of Santo Domingo. Currently, this carnival is the center of official activities, starting with the coronation of King Calife. At the height of the colonial period carnivals were celebrated in Carnestolenda. They were often a culmination of great events and religious festivals, such as those in honor of San Juan Bautista, Las Mercedes, San Miguel, San Carlos, and Corpus Christi.
The carnival changed at the start of the nineteenth century - especially in mid-century- with the socio-economic, political, and urban changes of the city, where the people surged as fundamental protagonists. Meanwhile, in the streets of El Conde and in the private clubs, carnival took on a Europeanized elite expression. Enriquillo Park became the center of the popular carnival, from which many personalities arose such as: "Se me muere Rebeca", "Califa", "Los Indios", "Los Africanos", "Los Ali-Baba", among others. The principal area of celebration is still El Malecón where brightly colored floats and dance troupes march to the rhythm of the music.
One of the best things about Carnival is how eclectic its influences are. Watching the parades, you can see clear influences from spanish culture as well as other European and African countries. Lots of people expresses these cultures by dressing up as costumed characters, each dancing with unique music and dancing skirts.
"El diablo cojuelo" is Carnival's most famous character. He wears a colorful caped suit with with little mirrors, rattles, ribbons, and cowbells meant to parody pretentious medieval gentlemen. The devil's face is covered by a mask with large horns. The people call him "diablo cojuelo," not because it is a devil cult; instead, to mock the devil, who goes by different names in each province's Carnival.
"Roba la gallina" or "The Chicken Thief," is a costumed character who has a large chest and carries an open parasol. He goes to the "colmados" (small cheap retail shops) begging for his chicks, the town's children, who follow along with him in a happy march.
"Se me muere Rebeca" or literally "Rebecca is dying," is a character representing a desperate mother who goes shouting along the parade route that her daughter is gravely ill. She begs for sweets for her daughter, which she then distributes among the children.
"Califé" is a poet who playfully criticizes personalities from the political, social and cultural scene in rhyme. He is followed by a chorus and is dressed in a black tuxedo.
"La muerte en Jeep" or "Death in a Jeep" is represented by a character dressed as a masked skeleton. He escorts the diablos cojuelos.
"Los indios" or "The Indians," is a group that portrays the island's first inhabitants, wearing body paint, feathers, bows and lances.
"Los africanos o los tiznaos" or "The Africans or The Blackfaces" are characters whose bodies are painted black with coal and burned car oil. They portray African slaves who were brought to the country years ago, and dance along the streets.
"Los Alí Babá" or "The Ali Babas" is a group with Oriental themes, who perform synchronized dances in the streets.
The costumes in Carnival are very professional, and require the dedication of some of the best Dominican artists. There is a stunning variety of costumes in the parades. Many of the costumes have spiritual backgrounds, and feature capes with religious symbols. Some have rattles hanging from their capes to clear out negative energy, while others have little dolls on their chest representing that new life must flourish.The Carnival masks originally came from Spain. They were then adapted by Africans, who created the design you see today. The masks are made by "carreteros" out of paper mache, feathers, painted gourds, plantain leaves, jute, and lots of discarded materials.
In addition to their costumes and masks, the diablos cojuelos also set themselves apart by their "vejiga" (an inflated "bladder") that they carry around the city like a whip. It is used to strike the participants as a symbol of purification, in order to eliminate the negative forces so that positive energies can flow into the person through the blows from the vejigas or whips.