Photos: Arién Chang y Rodolfo Romero
Visiting Camajuaní, especially during the season of Parrandas (traditional, carnival-like street parties), is an encounter with the most authentic part of Cuba, where traditions are preserved intact, and which tends not to be included in guide books.
Simple, warm and spontaneous people live in this peaceful town surrounded by the fertile valleys of Villa Clara province. The town’s name, which comes from pre-Columbian times, means “crystal waters.” It was founded around 1864, when the Ferrocarriles Unidos de Caibarién railway company built a station on the hacienda from which the town took its name. Sometimes it seems like time stands still here.
However, that tranquility vanishes every year in March during Parrandas season. These authentic fiestas combine music, dance, visual arts and fireworks for one of the greatest, most beautiful shows in Cuba.
The tradition is linked to the Remedios Parrandas, which go back to regional celebrations in Spain that were brought to Cuba by Spanish immigrants centuries ago. The first Camajuaní Parrandas were held on January 6, 1894 and are now a strong symbol of the Cuban people’s identiy.
These fiestas have always divided the town into two sides or “camps”: the Barrio de Arriba and the Barrio de Abajo, or La Loma and La Cañada. Later, the two sides were nicknamed Chivos (Goats) and Sapos (Frogs) — representing the Santa Teresa and San José neighborhoods, respectively.
Every year, the parranderos (the party-goers, actually the whole town) work quietly to ensure that their neighborhood is the winner by producing majestic floats, catchy congas and dazzling fireworks.
In a perfect symbiosis of universal culture and local creativity, the floats depict scenes that range from the Moulin Rouge of Paris to an episode from The Arabian Nights, and they compete in a contest on the town’s main streets, filling the evening with color and fantasy.
There were times that were even more phenomenal. Antonio Alemán was a little boy in the early twentieth century, but he remembers how back then, the neighborhoods would produce up to twenty floats each. “Because the Turks and the Chinese would build floats and then donate them to their favorite neighborhood. Once the ‘Frog’ Turks made two floats that were decorated with so much gold and silver that they were guarded by a police cordon,” he recalls.
Perhaps as a contribution by the mixed-race and black Cubans from the surrounding sugar cane mills, these festivities feature the conga or changüí, when the rhythm of the music sends the whole town into the streets to dance. When the changüí starts up, each neighborhood produces its own particular flags and colorful characters that have become symbols of the Parrandas: the Cabezones or Muñecones, giant-headed puppets brought to life by the dancers. They were first brought to Cuba from the Canary Islands in 1921 and then spread to other towns during the 1930s, including the Havana Carnival festivities.
Fireworks start and end the Parrandas in a display of pyrotechnics with Chinese roots, lighting up every corner of Camajuaní and draping the town in a range of indescribable colors. Continuous explosions rock the night as Bengal fires, horsetails and rockets are set off in a glorious celebration of noise, giving meaning to the word Parrandas.
After the last night of revelry, dawn breaks in Camajuaní. Tranquility returns, reminding us of other reasons to come and get to know this spot in Cuba…However, it is a deceptive calm. In each neighborhood, the Sapos and the Chivos have begun to prepare for the next Parrandas.