Las Tablas Carnival

Las Tablas Carnival
Carnival is a big deal in many Latin American countries; in Panama, for example, there is a saying that goes, “The only thing Panamanians take seriously is Carnival”. One of the most famous Carnival celebrations in Panama is the Las Tablas Carnival, held in the capital of Los Santos Province.

Despite being a provincial capital, Las Tablas is a small town with a population a little over 9,000. However, once a year it attracts thousands of people, Panamanians and foreigners alike, who are drawn by the town’s boisterous Carnival. The history of the Las Tablas Carnival can be traced back to colonial times, but it was made official by a decree issued in 1910 and took its current shape around 1950.

The Carnival of Las Tablas is built around a competition between two factions (tunas), Calle Arriba (uptown faction, literally “Street Above”) and Calle Abajo (downtown faction, literally “Street Below”). During most of the year, the two parts of the town are friendly, but their friendship turns into rivalry during the Carnival. Each of the tunas has elaborate costumes, floats, and even their own Carnival Queen with her court.

The Carnival of Las Tablas kicks off on the Friday before Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent) with the crowning of both Carnival Queens representing the town’s feuding factions. Over the next four days, the tunas will try and outdo each other in everything: costumes, floats, staging of their performances, fireworks, and more.

During the Carnival, the competing tunas perform traditional musical compositions called tonadas, which consist of vocal and instrumental parts. Their themes may vary, but one of the Carnival traditions is that each tuna will praise the beauty and grace of their Queen, while mocking the Queen of the rival tuna. These jabs are mostly goodhearted and part of the fun, but they are pre-approved ahead of time to make sure the satirical comments don’t get too nasty and personal.

The mojaderas are another indispensable attribute of the Las Tablas Carnival. Thousands of people gather in the streets and are soaked in water to combat the heat. Tanker trucks with hoses, called the culecas, cruise the streets, spraying the revelers, but many carnival-goers also take matters into their own hands and chase each other with water guns or water balloons, shaving cream, and blue dye. Basically, the mojaderas are street parties with water fights, loud music, dancing, and lots of cool beer that start in the morning and last until the early hours of the afternoon.

In the evening, the culecas disappear, giving way to the Carnival parades. Of course, each of the tunas has its own procession with elaborate floats, brass bands, drummers, dancers, and other performers dressed in sparkly costumes. The processions make their way to the main square of Los Tablas, and after several hours of showing off, head back to their respective neighborhoods.

The Carnival of Las Tablas concludes with the burial of the sardine (El Entierro de la Sardina), an old tradition that symbolizes the burial of all the sins and vices committed during the festivities. Given its satirical nature, the burial of the sardine is cheerful and somewhat burlesque rather than sad and somber.

Las Tablas Carnival





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