TDR: The Drama Review 44.2 (2000) 56-83
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Fun with Nationalism at Argentina's Carnival
Carnival, Buenos Aires, around 1900: The vast Great Hall of the daily newspaper La Prensa has been transformed. 1 Workday clamor has been replaced by the excited buzz of a thousand conversations: exclaiming over costumes, gossiping about dances and parties, arguing, flirting. The five tiers of balconies overlooking the main floor are crammed with over a thousand men, women, and children of Buenos Aires society, dressed to the nines or costumed elaborately. One tier houses the judges who will award the coveted La Prensa medals. Next to them, staff reporters dutifully jot down notes to fill the next day's edition. Starting well after dark the main floor begins to fill with spectators, who also line the street outside. The contests begin. Hour after hour the societies, choruses, orchestras, carriages, criollo groups, 2 with gauchos (roughly, Argentine cowboy figures), and cocoliches (clownish parodies of immigrants who fancied themselves gauchos) in tow, and as many as 12,000 masked and costumed individuals parade through the Hall, reciting odes to La Prensa , singing the national anthem or melodies from their countries of origin, performing choreographed marches, patriotic skits, lascivious dances, and astonishing feats of horseback acrobatics.
The societies have rehearsed for months in anticipation of this week. A harried official checks each group's registration and hurries them along, insisting that ambitious programs be cut short. People grumble and some ignore his admonitions, but most understand, as the line to enter the hall takes up block after block on the Avenida de Mayo. Many groups will not be allowed in before the Hall is obliged to turn them away, around 5:00 a.m., in order to allow a little rest before the next day's festivities--and enough time to get out the paper. The police, sometimes arrogant, sometimes violent, work overtime to contain the "human wave" in front of the Hall, some of whom respond with taunts and jeers. Electric lights strung especially for carnival lend brilliance to the scene. Despite the police prohibition against an official course along the Avenida de Mayo, spectators are jammed along the sides of the streets and occupy every single table in every cafe, flirting with bourgeois women throwing confetti and paper streamers from the balconies above. The [End Page 56] [Begin Page 58] groups perform for them as they wait. The immigrant members of a centro criollo (a criollo group or club) act out a pantomime, a battle between gauchos and "Indians." The delighted crowd cheers as the last Indian kills the last gaucho, whose son then kills the last Indian; only the son, neither gaucho nor Indian, survives. Close on his heels prances a gleeful cocoliche, burlesquing the immigrants' gaucho performances. The reverent catcalls echo longest for him. (La Prensa 25 February 1900:5; 27 February 1900:5; 24 February 1903:5).
This centro criollo's performance, considered in the context of the city-wide festivities, begins to hint at some of the ways Buenos Aires carnival in the first years of the 20th century provided a stage on which porteños (inhabitants of this capital city) spectacularized their relationships to the Argentine nation. In a period of massive European immigration and immigrant assimilation; amid a tide of rising restrictionist sentiment against working-class, trade unionist, and anarchist immigrants; at a moment when the violent marginalization of indigenous and Afro-Argentines appeared largely accomplished, carnival extended a site for the negotiation and contestation of shifting national boundaries.
Immigrant carnival celebrations appear to historical observers only via a series of mediations, for even the views of turn-of-the-century carnival audiences were mediated by the press and the social sectors it represented. From the earliest stages of creative production, performers worked knowing they had to please not only their class and national peers, but elite audiences as well--the judges, for example, or carnival-goers in wealthy neighborhoods. Observers not present at the party, regardless of their position...