Carnival in Uruguay

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From Montevideo, Capital Iberoamericana del Carnaval (classmark: 2010.11.1880)

Carnival traditions in Latin America are immensely rich. For millions of people, February is linked to heat, music, water fights and a feast of colours. From Oruro’s celebrations in Bolivia to the most internationally renowned parades of Rio de Janeiro, their counterpart in Montevideo (Uruguay) is just as compelling and certainly more enduring, lasting for 40 days. Montevideo’s carnival not only traditionally allows for a general reversal of everyday norms, but also brings together the very diverse pot of cultures that shape Uruguayan society (see: El carnaval de Montevideo: folklore, historia, sociología, classmark: UR.18, at the Seeley Library’s Latin American studies collection; and at the University Library: Identidad y globalización en el carnaval, at 676:85.c.200.83).

Celebrated since colonial times, carnival in Montevideo starts with a parade including floats, giant-headed figures, samba and more. A prominent part of carnival are the satirical and clownish murgas, a type of popular musical theatre with around 17 performers, including singers and percussionists, that originated from the carnival in Cadiz (Spain) and were brought to Uruguay by early 20th century immigrants. Their lyrical content is always related to events (usually political) in Uruguay and it is often used as a form of popular resistance. A book that deals with how carnival practices survived censorship and repression during Uruguay’s dictatorship times is Momo encadenado: crónica del Carnaval en los años de la dictadura, 1972-1985, by Xosé de Enríquez (Montevideo: Ediciones Cruz del Sur, 2004, classmark: 2007.9.154). Every year the carnival is the background to a contest among murgas and often the winner tours other Latin American countries to share an increasingly popular show with wider audiences. Agarrate Catalina has been one of the most popular murgas of recent times, being awarded the carnival’s top prize in several occasions, touring all five continents and even publishing its own book: Agarrate Catalina: el libro (Montevideo: Aguilar, 2010. Classmark: 2010.11.1562). In the book Carnaval a dos voces: el fenómeno de la Catalina y otras polémicas (Montevideo: Medio & Medio, 2009. Classmark: C206.c.8642) Agarrate Catalina is described as a fresh and young sensation developing within the background of the country’s new leftist governments (since 2005) and is placed in the wider context of the Uruguayan carnival being “a way by which a society talks about and showcases itself”.


Another fascinating part of the Montevidean carnival are Las Llamadas. The first (English) ship that brought African slaves to Uruguay moored in 1750 but, according to Antonio Plácido in Carnaval: evocación de Montevideo en la historia y la tradición (Editorial Letras, 1966, on order), it wasn’t until 1870 that the Afro descendant population was allowed to finally join celebrations (see also Memorias de la Bacanal: vida y milagros del carnaval montevideano, 1850-1950. Classmark: 2008.10.1252). Las Llamadas is a parade in which large groups of drummers perform candombe, a unique African rhythm and dance form that developed in the River Plate area alongside tango, which also partially claims African roots. Before the parade itself, different groups called comparsas belonging to different neighbourhoods usually gather around a fire to tune their animal hide drums in a street ritual that attracts young and old alike:


African influences on Latin American carnival celebrations are also dealt with in: Africa en el carnaval mexicano, by Marco Polo Hernández Cuevas (México, D.F.: Plaza y Valdés, 2005. Classmark: C201.d.8869).

More broadly on the theme of the social aspects of carnival in Latin America:

Fiestas y nación en América Latina: las complejidades en algunos ceremoniales de Brasil, Bolivia, Colombia, México y Venezuela. Marcos González Pérez, coordinador. Bogotá: Intercultura, 2011. C208.c.5264
Carnavales y nación: estudios sobre Brasil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba y Venezuela. Marcos González Pérez, coordinador. Bogotá: Intercultura, 2014. C212.c.3597
Expresiones/experiencias en tiempos de carnaval: análisis desde las sensibilidades y la estructuración social. Graciela Magallanes, Claudia Gandía y Gabriela Vergara, compiladoras. Buenos Aires: Ediciones CICCUS, 2015. C213.c.5542
El espíritu del carnaval. Daniel Vidart. Montevideo: Editorial Graffiti, 1997. 9007.c.2638

Clara Panozzo

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