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Culture : Riotous 'Carnaval' Mirrors Newly Glitzed-Up Mazatlan : * Parade now features international performers and charges admission.


MAZATLAN, Mexico — For weeks now, Rigo Lewis has lived on cigarettes and coffee in an old warehouse near the docks.

It's the only way the parade organizer can feel sure that three shifts of carpenters, mechanics and unemployed students will transform paper, glue and paint into Mayan temples and Spanish galleons in time for them to cruise down the town's main drag today at the climax of a $1 million party.

This is Carnaval, the local equivalent of New Orleans' Mardi Gras or Rio de Janeiro's Carnival--a week of riotous celebrating that infects the seaports of Roman Catholic countries before the 40 days of sacrifice and repentance that precede Easter.

But Mazatlan's Carnaval is more than aimless fun. It came to international attention later than those more famous celebrations and retains more of its local flavor. It is, in fact, a condensed version of this city's history.

For nearly a century, the pride, grief, bickering and community spirit of this town across the Sea of Cortez from Baja California have been reflected in its Carnavals. "In Mazatlan, we count the years by Carnavals," according to a local saying.

The celebration has been canceled because of plagues, halted after masked revelers assassinated the governor and altered by technological innovations from the automobile to national television cameras. Yet, Carnaval has endured.

"Carnaval is the point of social expression," says Jose Angel Pescador, Mexico's consul general in Los Angeles and a former Mazatlan mayor. "What is going on in Mazatlan is reflected in Carnaval."

These days, Carnaval reflects changing local and national economics, as the port becomes more dependent on tourism and the government cuts back spending.

The result is spectacular Carnavals with internationally known performers and beautiful parades--but also with admission charges that residents such as Martha Alicia Villa and her sister Felicitas say they cannot afford. Even longtime enthusiasts who marvel at the organization and beauty of recent celebrations worry that Carnaval is becoming too commercial.

But Carnaval has always been controversial, from the choice of a queen to the theme of the decorations. There is even controversy about how it began.

City historian Miguel Valadez says it started as a friendly spoof in which rival neighborhoods would make up satirical verses about one another.

Popular legend tells a different story--that Carnaval began as an annual battle between dockworkers and teamsters from different neighborhoods. City authorities first tried to suppress the yearly riot, according to this version, but by 1898 decided instead to tame it, asking respected civic groups to organize a parade and dances at local social clubs.

In either case, the tradition of neighborhood rivalries survived into the 1960s, when teen-agers regularly piled into pickup trucks to cruise the streets and pelt friends with dried egg shells full of confetti.

The satirical rhymes of yesteryear have been replaced by a poetry contest that now launches each year's celebration. And somewhere along the way, it became a custom to burn in effigy the year's biggest local villain--a merchant known for overcharging, an embezzler, a politician.

Carnaval passed through a period of crisis after the assassination of the state governor at the 1944 celebration. Interest fell off until, a decade later, the parade had dwindled to the queen's float, a Pemex company banner and a cannon pulled by sailors.

But the celebration's greatest crisis may yet be its own success, according to critics. Leopoldo Reyes Ruiz, known affectionately around town as "Jimminy Cricket" for his energy and enthusiasm for teaching, is among those most worried.

"It has become too commercial," says ReyesRuiz, who is credited with reviving Carnaval from that earlier low point. He pulls out pictures from past celebrations to show how floats and costumes were once made by families and local talent provided the entertainment. The commercialization "puts tradition in danger, as if it has lost its enchantment," he says.

The changes are a trade-off, comments historian Valadez: "The floats are all beautiful when they are made under the direction of one person who does them very well, but there is no competitive creativity."

Much of the criticism is nostalgia for the sleepy beach town where Carnaval was like a block party. Carnaval is more cosmopolitan today because Mazatlan is, too.

The port, founded as a shipping and fishing center, has been overtaken by Ensenada in commercial fishing. The container dock up the coast at Topolobampo has cut into Mazatlan's freight traffic.

To compensate, the city turned to tourism, building hotels around its scenic bay, welcoming cruise ships and building on its reputation as a place where people know how to have fun. Carnaval has become a key part of that image. It is Mazatlan's biggest tourist attraction, a promotional tool that gives this old city a leg up on shiny new resorts such as Cancun.

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