Belize Carnival A Key Attraction In The September Celebrations

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Dancer cooling off at the Carnival Road March.

We have two Carnival seasons – the traditional Carnival just prior to the Lenten Season like in so many Latin countries, and the Independence Day carnival held in September during the national day celebrations month.

While the traditional Easter season carnival is celebrated in Latino areas of the country such as Corozal and San Pedro Ambergris Caye, the September event is Creole themed. Due to government patronage during the Independence Day month, it is this carnival road march celebrated in Belize City that has become the dominant event of its genre in our country. But Orange Walk has in recent years began to come to the forefront for its well organized and colorful carnival on Independence Day.

Historian, researcher and former Chief Librarian Lawrence Vernon recently looked at the roots of the Belize City Carnival in a local newspaper article:

“It was in 1975 when a few parents put their children in costumes and this was an effort to liven up the tenth of September which was sort of a drab affair with parades. And so to liven up the September celebrations really, these parents saw the need to dress up their children in costumes and let them parade in the streets for a few hours.

“These were encouraged, I think first of all by Henry Young, from the Committee of Forty (a local group that promotes the battle of St. George’s Caye) and Soli Arguelles (a local florist and dance company director). They were sort of pioneers in bringing carnival to the streets.”

Belize City being the home of the largest concentration of Creoles in the country, it goes that this Carnival has borrowed most of its influences from the Afro-Caribbean culture, and this is due in part to many Belizeans attending university in Jamaica and Trinidad.

Indeed, even the Trinidad and Tobago tradition of the J’ouvert (French pronunciation) street party has been introduced. Instead of a large street party however, J’ouvert in Belize is an early dawn pre-carnival event where individuals paint themselves with colored mud and dance to the tune of Calypso, Soca and Reggae Music.

Belize carnival road marchers
Carnival road march dancers and background with rich tapestry of costumes.

J’ouvert ends around 9 in the morning when the sun begins to beat down on the pre-dawn revelers. Some participants retire to rest for the Carnival proper that starts at 1pm. Others continue to party and segue right into the Carnival. And a few of the daring, reckless or under the influence, have taken to a new event called the Bridge Jump – jumping off a bridge to wash away the mud and sweat. They march to the BelCan bridge that spans the Haulover Creek on the Central American thoroughfare in Belize City. From the bridge rails the revelers jump some 20 feet into the creek to cool off. The creek is polluted by sewerage and industrial runoffs, and home to crocodiles. In 2013 the authorities began discouraging the infamous Bridge Jump, and now steer revelers to the sea for their morning bath.

The carnival road march is a sure way to see the largest concentration of scantily clad Belize women. Lawrence Vernon on the carnival costumes:

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Black Pearl Carnival Dancer

“The costumes have become more innovative because at one stage we actually had people from the Caribbean coming in to show us how to make costumes and especially the bigger costumes that they use today for the king and the queen and they also used to parade through the streets. The tradition of carnival goes way back. It came down through North America, Canada, into South America, the Caribbean and eventually reached Belize.

“We adopted what we thought would have suited our purposes in carnival and initially the costumes were just very modest, very austere compared to today where they have become more revealing. Over the years, to more embellish the image of carnival to make it more attractive, the costumes followed suit. And today we have more revealing costumes which some people might find objectionable. But this is a street attraction and you can see from the crowds that line the streets that it has become over the years a real crowd pleaser.”

In 2012 after concerns expressed by Churches over the revealing costumes worn by some of the Belize women taking part in the carnival, the authorities divided the carnival into two clearly separated segments. The first group consists of kids and under age students dressed modestly. The second group consists of adults or seniors and most anything goes for the attire or lack thereof but it is not yet at the level of the Brazil’s Rio Carnival.

The road march itself is organized like any other carnival. Each group has a name, for example Black Pearl, Jump Street Posse, Mother Nature and so on. Groups are sponsored by local political bosses through the government ministries or para-statal organisations they control including the telephone, electricity and water companies. Other sponsors come from the private sector including the local beer monopoly, hardware distributors and others.

Belizean carnival road march dancer
Belize carnival road march dancer. Image credit Tropic.

Trucks equipped with electricity generators and music boxes play popular dance tunes and marchers throng behind doing their choreographed dance moves. Human floats are popular and consist of stupendously decorated frames equipped with wheels towed by one of the more energetic dancers. As this carnival is held at the height of summer, temperatures are usually in the nineties and ambulances follow the parade to attend to dancers or spectators overcome by the heat. The event enjoys live radio and television coverage.

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Carnival J’ouvert revelers in Belize City.

The carnival concludes at one of the public parks in Belize City’s north side. Either the Marion Jones Stadium or the seaside park next to the casino on Princess Market Drive. An after-carnival party follows with local entertainers on stage.