Have you ever heard a ruckus in the street in the evening and opened your front door to sequin-clad women marching through the streets and dancing on truck beds to club music next to illuminated palm trees and balloons as a local politician’s means of garnering votes? I hadn’t either until coming to León. Yet with this nighttime vision I was just dipping my toes into the city’s parade infested waters.
These random parades are large contributors to the aforementioned hullabaloo. Clearly, these “desfiles” aren’t really random but to an outsider they certainly seemed that way as over the coming weeks marching bands would animate the streets anywhere from 6am to 7pm. It turns out they were practicing for the Desfile Patrio, a sort of independence day celebration, where all of the schools in the area would march by my front door for 5 hours. All schools are required to have a band that participates on this day and the students are also required to participate. This tidbit of information explained why you could hardly describe the youngsters’ faces as containing looks of joy as they marched for hours in 90+F degree heat. Fortunately, it’s impossible not to feel merry with the sound of so many creative drums beats and thus their music conveyed a cheerful tone at least.
By happy chance, I was in León during a time of year with many local holidays. So in addition to the ever-practicing school marching bands there were the days to honor saints (and a few virgins). On these days, fireworks were set off at the church devoted to the saint and the church’s congregation carried the figure through the streets with live musical accompaniment to arrive back at the church at which time they lit more fireworks.
One of my favorite festivities was the Gritería Chiquita. From what I understand, in 1947 Volcán Cerro Negro was continuously spewing ash that caused the local people to fear an eruption. A local bishop then called for the people to gather and pray to Mary for salvation from the volcano, promising that if they were saved they would then celebrate the assumption of Mary and give penance on that day each year. Cerro Negro did not erupt so people in León and the area near the volcano celebrate the Gritería Chiquita. The jamboree includes people of all ages lining up to view figures of Mary and participating in a trick-or-treat-like activity at homes, outdoor booths, and churches. To receive a treat you ask, “Quién causa tanta alegría?” (Who causes so much happiness.) A treat-giver replies “La asunción de María” (the assumption of Maria) and gives you a pre-packaged jello piece or other goody (some churches have been known to give nicer things like notebooks). One joyous feature of this celebration was the colorful Gigantonas and Pepe Cabezóns dancing through the streets. Las Gigantonas are figures of tall, regally adorned Spanish women representing the local impression of the Spanish, upper class when they arrived in Nicaragua. These are contrasted with the Pepe Cabezóns that are giant, dark-skinned, bald, mustachioed heads on top of tiny suit-wearing bodies that represent the local, less wealthy Nicaraguan people. The Central Park was packed with people and music with one highlight being “the toro”. This bull is a young man pushing a large wooden cart trimmed with horns around the Central Park. Every so often another young man proceeds to light fireworks that are directed into the crowd at which point people run away screaming as the danger of this fake bull is certainly real.
Another favorite parade was for the Procesión de San Jerónimo. On this day, men start drinking at midnight (possibly before) and mid-morning they crowd the streets in groups each clustered around their own bull. The bull is a round shell painted or decorated with colorful paper that one young, inebriated man puts on and then jumps, spins, and charges the surrounding inebriated men who dodge and whip the bull. When the bull tires he switches out. Then there are men dressed like women. Most interestingly, the locals I asked could not explain what specifically these displays have to do with San Jerónimo. I heard that San Jerónimo was a sinner before he was a saint so maybe it is this aspect that the people cling to. Another local told me the men cross-dress if they are wishing for something, the pregnancy of their wife or the healing of a sick family member. They also mentioned that the parade used to be more organized and now they consider it so debaucherous as to be unsafe for children. And so it seems that perhaps Nicaraguans are not immune from finding excuses to imbibe and forget their worries. Whatever the cause for these parades, it’s delightful to see so many moments of community and celebration.