Carnaval highlights mixture of serious dialogue and cultural fun
Underneath the colorful dances and intermission churros at this year’s Carnaval, there remains a deeper, more fundamental call from the Association of Latin American Students (ALAS), which runs Carnaval, for increased engagement from students on campus in Latinx culture and issues.
In terms of the diversity of dancers and the packed audiences during each performance, Carnaval certainly succeeded in spreading a message of inclusivity, awareness of vibrant culture and education of an issue often pushed aside.
The more serious tone began with the skit, which focused this year on Argentina’s Dirty War and the fate of the children kidnapped and given to military families from 1974-1983. The skit takes place in 2000 in coordination with Carnaval’s founding at Washington University and the theme Origenes (origins). It follows Wash. U. marketing major Marcela, played by sophomore Drea Gonzalez, as she returns to Argentina following her first Latin American studies class and begins to ask questions about the Dirty War. Soon, she discovers that she is one of the desaparecidos from the Dirty War and attempts to grapple with the changes in her identity.
The skit ends with a cliff-hanger, as Marcela’s biological grandmother appears at the door of her adopted parents’ house.
“I think we chose to end in a cliff-hanger because there really is no way you can deal with finding out that your parents aren’t your real parents. There’s a lot of internal struggle in how you deal with that,” Alejandro Martinez, junior and Carnaval co-chair, said.
“In the video we showed about the children who are desaparecidos, they don’t really go into detail about what it was like to find out,” Madison Felman, senior and Carnaval co-chair, added. “I think that’s a really private thing, and I didn’t want to try to trivialize it for the stage.”
This conflation of identity isn’t the only one that Carnaval planners aimed to spotlight without belittling. Marcela, as we discovered when she returned home, is a lesbian in a loving, committed relationship with Catalina, a girl from her hometown, played by freshman Jordan Sligar. The performance, however, treats their relationship as any other and refrains from making it a focal point of the dialogue.
“Many times I think when shows tackle [lesbian relationships], it’s the issue,” Martinez said. “And it’s very trivialized or fetishized for theater, and we didn’t want to do that at all.”
The dances, too, incorporated gender and sexuality progressivism, with many dances implementing liquid leading, which is where the lead of the moves, traditionally the male, switches back between partners frequently.
Inclusion in the dances also spread to the types of dances featured. With representation from a wide array of Latin American dances, like folklorico, bachata and tango, as well as non-traditional Hispanic dances like West African and hip-hop, the choreographers spread a message of cultural diversity and Latinx universality.
“I don’t think people really realize how diverse the Hispanic culture is. Even in the news or especially with the election going on right now, everyone just focuses on Mexico,” sophomore and skit lead Drea Gonzalez said. “Each country has its own different language. Carnaval really brings that out because it’s the only outlet that Wash. U. has for the Hispanic community to show everybody that we’re all here, [and] we’re all different.”
The vibrant array of costumes and almost flawless—save a couple missteps—execution of dances were incredible to take in, and the audience’s stream of supportive yells and shouts in between performances created a close community environment within the confines of Edison Theatre. Each dance was purposeful and unique in its movements and song choices, which struck a balance between traditional music and modernized remixes. The audience clearly reveled in the dances, and the line in the lobby of Mallinckrodt during intermission for empanadas and churros was so long that many people didn’t reach the front of the line before intermission was over.
For ALAS, this cultural admiration of Latin American dance and food is a double-edged sword: while food and dance are an important part of Latinx identity and heritage, there is much more that people of other ethnicities tend to ignore or de-emphasize.
This balance is epitomized in the first dance, Folklorico. The dancers’ names remained anonymous in the playbill. Instead, there was a message commemorating the 43 students who disappeared from Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in September 2014 en route to commemorating the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre.
“Everyone chose right away not to put our names in the program,” Ignacio Rabadan, Folklorico choreographer and ALAS president, said. “Even though this happened a year ago, it’s still fresh on our minds and shows how even though the government is supposed to serve the people, sometimes it’s not always that way.”
“Those 43 people were students; they were college students. That could be like us—our circumstances were just different,” Rabadan added. “We want to show people that this happens, not just south of us: it happens everywhere in the world, and we want people to know that. So we want to dedicate the fun to them, because God knows what happened to them.”
Though much of the message of Carnaval, especially in the skit, is tragic and thought-provoking, Rabadan emphasizes the importance of humor.
“It’s only evolved and gotten more serious, but still keeping some humor attached to it, I think, is very important,” Rabadan said.
This humor, beyond the delight of the dances, mainly came in the form of Marcela’s friend Fernando, played by Mario Davila, whose petulant behavior and boyish charm had the audience laughing at the breaks of more serious moments.
“Anything bad that has ever happened, people tend to try to forget about it and move on,” Gonzalez said. “Whenever I hear about any Hispanic news, it’s always either in the election or the drug war in Mexico…but the fact that the Dirty War ended in 1983 and that the consequences are still present in Argentina’s society today—that’s really scary.”
The topic, which has been covered up in many retellings of history, reflects an invisibility that ALAS administrators feel exists about Latinx issues on campus, given that only 5.98 percent of Wash. U. students are Hispanic or Latino, according to the most recent polls available. Carnaval, ALAS president and Carnaval co-chairs both tell me, is the only Hispanic cultural event that most students go to during the year, and attendance has traditionally always been low at their other events.
“Wash. U. wants to talk about how it’s so diverse but has one Hispanic Club,” Gonzalez said of the campus climate. “And not saying that’s Wash. U.’s fault…but they play it up to something that it’s not.”
“We can’t just sit here and be sad about how nobody comes to the events,” she added. “But sometimes you would think that we would push—or somebody would push—for the Hispanic community to have a bigger voice on campus, or something, something to get people more involved.”
Rabadan and Felman seconded this opinion, emphasizing that engaging with events like Carnaval and dialogues about Latino heritage and culture on campus is especially important right now, as immigration and xenophobia have become staple topics of news outlets.
“I think this year, since the elections are so close and the Latino vote is very important, I think that influences our show a lot in how we advertise it and how we hope people realize that even though we’re putting on this big dance show, that’s not all the ALAS is—that’s not all we have to offer,” Rabadan said.
The show’s emphasis on inclusivity of dancers and audience members of all backgrounds resonates with the Carnaval show-runners’ perceptions of a hostile time towards people of different heritages. Each emphasized that the engagement of majority populations in the struggles of marginalized groups on campus and groups with traditionally overlooked voices is more important now than ever.
“I feel like everyone sees these events that ALAS puts on or these speakers that we bring, and they think, ‘Oh that’s really interesting,’ and never go,” Gonzalez said. “If everybody thinks like that, nobody goes. You shouldn’t think that just because it says ALAS—just because you’re not that ethnicity—that you can’t also go there and learn things about the country.”
Highlighting the Dirty War, an issue with ever-present, but overlooked, modern sociopolitical ramifications, is an effort to create dialogue about facets of identity and struggle that all Wash. U. students, regardless of their heritage and ethnicity, can relate to and contextualize.
“Talking about stuff like that is not easy. It’s not stuff you bring up in casual conversation, Rabadan said. “It will help people to see that this is an actual problem, [and] to see that it occurs to people in the U.S., like in our skit. And I think it’ll get people to think that this is a serious problem [and] that it happened to multiple people.”
“Our dance is very colorful,” he added. “But our message is surreal. This can happen.”