When people recall the biggest event in their favorite state in Mexico, it is often Carnaval that jumps to mind. Here in Baja, La Paz in Baja California Sur has the grandmother of the events, with Ensenada also maintaining an institutional event and now Loreto has added a Carnaval. People who have attended Carnaval think of it as an undeniable right of spring. But in recent years, the two big Carnaval events in Baja have been under the gun.
In the last few years, Carnaval in both Ensenada and La Paz have flirted with extinction. In 2013, an accomplishment of an otherwise questionable mayor of La Paz, Estella Ponce, managed to gather commercial sponsors to fill the funding gap that was left by a lack of civic funding for the event. Otherwise, the previous year's Carnaval in 2012 would have been the last.
In Ensenada, this year's events lacked the performances of any major acts and the resulting lack of attendance will further endanger Carnaval Ensenada. Ensenada has also produced a couple of years that ended up with budgets in the red and disgruntled vendors and acts waiting long periods or never getting paid. Since the Carnaval committees budgets are between $500,000 and $800,000 US dollars, there are always questions of transparency haunting shortfalls.
In 2016 Carnaval La Paz ended with a budget surplus, and although healthier, isn't out of the woods yet. The new La Paz mayor made a spectacle of being sure all those due money were paid promptly. (This new mayor is also the one that at the last minute. changed the title of the effigy of Bad Humor from what was obviously intended to be Donald Trump to his predecessor, Estella Ponce. It would appear that Carnaval Ensenada is still on life support and several civic leaders have their hand ready to pull the plug.
On the positive side, Carnavals are a significant community bonding event. Unlike the more adult oriented events in New Orleans, Trinidad and Rio, Carnavals in Baja more resemble your Country Fair, with rides, food booths, trinkets and of course, a parade. And unless you are pretty puritanical I have not yet found a float in the La Paz parade that requires covering the young one's eyes. Since the peninsula is the cultural backwater of Mexico, it was also an opportunity to see nationally famous acts on stage.
One of the challenges for Carnaval is that the dates float. Riding with the Christian Easter calendar this year's events were just 4 days later than the earliest Carnaval can possibly fall. This meant weather conditions were about 4 days later than the worst they could possibly be. We were fortunate here in La Paz that the weather was nice, but the early month is the normally the very depths of what winter we have. I think more for the Ensenada activities, this deters visitors from scheduling travel at a time that is usually damp and cold. The floating schedule also makes it difficult to coordinate vacation time, long weekends and holidays.
But the biggest problem Carnavals face is nobody wants to pay for it. I'm going to shift to specifics of Carnaval La Paz here, because I have done more research on this event, but the basic challenge facing Ensenada is the same.
Carnaval La Paz isn't as 'institutional' an event as one might think. It has evolved from an 'A List' social event as recently as the 1920's. In the 1950's La Paz and her much larger sister city across the Sea, Mazatlan began a rivalry that spurred the sophistication, scope and cost of both events.
This year was my 16th Carnaval La Paz, and the event is certainly grown in every aspect since my first. I recall a farm tractor or two towing parade floats in my early years. This year most were in tow behind a $200,000 Sleeper Cab. From 2003-2012, it became a community 'arms race' to make each year's events more spectacular than the past. In 2012, we had national television coverage of Carnaval, which apparently wasn't too successful, as it hasn't happened since.
With the increasing expectations for performing acts and numbers attending the event requiring increased security, the bill for the City of La Paz was rapidly approaching $1 million dollars. For a city of 250,000 people, that is a big chunk of the budget.
Another obstacle is that the cities have changed. Just in the years, I have been in La Paz the downtown area is no longer the retail or commercial center of the city. Instead of Carnaval being an event that brings people to the commercial center, the week of Carnaval actually detracts from the revenues of the vast majority of the cities businesses. And those representatives of business and residents from outside the benefitting areas would rather see tax money spent on repairing their streets, water systems or schools.
I hope that Ensenada can weather this difficult period and the commercial sponsors will continue to see the value in taking their part in these community events. That in the epoch of "me" that the perpetual need for "us" isn't let slide into extinction.
Carnaval is the biggest stage and the greatest moments many of the local youth have an opportunity for. The vast majority of the lead in and filler acts come from local dance studios, music academies, and even karate dojos. Local bands filled all the events in Ensenada this year, to which making it a local event might not be a bad direction to take.
Carnaval also provides a social platform for many charities and even private parties to make money. Space on the Malecon is by the square foot per night, and you have to sell a lot of tamales every night, just to break even. The space rent helps the city off-set the more than 800 police officers that were on duty during Carnaval.
I have been reporting on Carnavals now for 13 years and despite the emergence of the electronic age, both events really failed at their use of virtually free worldwide, pre-event internet public relations. Rather that just cycle the same money around the region, to attract outside attention, visitors and money they need to get on top of the electronic ball.
La Paz has grown more than 25% in the time I have lived here, and at some time in the future, the city should look to subcontracting the event to a professional production company. At some point, the sophistication, expectation of both attendees and sponsors, and the budget will grow too large a job for a volunteer organization to handle. Many cities have found the distinct advantage in having professional negotiators contract talent, arrange logistics and publicize the event. Produced by competitive bid, it can reduce costs, make the event more spectacular and completely absolve civic leaders of accusations of skimming.
Carnaval is a huge pressure relief valve for the young people of the peninsula and has the intrinsic value of community bonding you can't put a price on. This energy, derived from a sense of community, is what powered La Paz through the drug violence in our recent past and put 20,000 people marching in the streets. It is the energy that has little old ladies out sweeping the dirt from the section of the city street in front of their house 24hrs after a Category 4 Hurricane. It is the energy that helped the city get back on its feet with amazing speed and grace. It is an energy that both La Paz and Ensenada would be the lesser, without.