To say that the Carnaval celebration in Las Tablas is its biggest annual party is putting it far too mildly. It’s one of the biggest parties in the entire country. Other major Carnaval locations on the Azuero include Chitré, Parita, Ocú, and Villa de Los Santos, but none can compete with Las Tablas.
Carnaval officially lasts from the Saturday before Ash Wednesday until what we gringos call Fat Tuesday, the last hurrah before the 40 abstemious days of Lent.
In Las Tablas, though, things get started on Friday, with the coronation of the town’s two Carnaval queens. Las Tablas’s first Carnaval queen was crowned in 1937, but since 1950 the town has had two rival queens and their attendant courts, or tunas: that of Calle Arriba (high street) and Calle Abajo (low street).
Throughout Carnaval, the two retinues try to outdo each other in the beauty, opulence, splendor, and ingenuity of their costumes and floats (carros alegóricos). It’s easy to imagine more resources go into creating these than the entire town produces in a year. They also compose songs, called tonadas, that, among other things, praise the beauty and grace of their chosen queen and mock the supposed ugliness and witchiness of the rival one. These puyas (taunts) are part of the fun and usually taken in stride, but the tonadas are approved ahead of time by a censorship board to make sure they don’t get too nasty and personal.
Both tunas take to the streets every day for a huge parade, with different jaw-dropping floats and costumes each day. These are usually incredibly flamboyant and elaborate, reminiscent of those found at Rio de Janeiro’s Carnaval.
Neither costumes nor behavior tend to get as risqué as that at Rio’s Carnaval or even New Orleans’s Mardi Gras. Carnaval everywhere in Panama, while it certainly has a lot of booze and steaminess, is still considered a family affair. In fact, when some revelers acted lewd and showed too much skin during the Carnaval celebration in Chitré in 2002, their “immoral” and “pornographic” behavior caused a public outcry and lots of official tsk-tsking.
Still, this is a decidedly secular celebration with deep pagan roots. The reigning deity is Momo, also known as Momus, the Greek god of laughter and mockery. This is a huge party, the goal of which seems to be to make sure everyone has something to atone for come Lent.
Though masks were featured in Panama’s early Carnaval celebrations, which were officially recognized nationwide in 1910, they quickly faded out and are rarely seen during Panama’s Carnaval today. One Panamanian addition is for the queens to include stunning polleras—Panama’s flowing, embroidered national dress—among their many costumes.
Another important part of the Carnaval celebration, in Las Tablas and throughout the country, is the culecos. Each morning of Carnaval, to the cry of ¡agua, agua!, large water trucks with hoses spray revelers with thousands of gallons of water, cooling them off as they dance in the heat. Some participants also flirtatiously squirt each other with water guns. The tradition is somewhere between a mild version of a wet T-shirt contest and the ritual opening of fire hydrants during a summer heat wave in a U.S. city.
The culecos are such a beloved part of the celebration they’re officially sanctioned even during water shortages, though officials urge residents to conserve water in the days leading up to the celebration.
Music played at maximum volume is an important part of the proceedings, as it is at every Panamanian festivity. Temporary discos sprout up, and murgas (strolling musicians) march in the processions. At night, fireworks light the skies—and maybe houses and partiers, too, given the drunken knuckleheads that sometimes fire off rockets in the middle of downtown.
The celebration climaxes on Tuesday night. Or rather, it climaxes at dawn on Ash Wednesday, since the final party goes all night long.
There’s a saying in Panama, kept alive by its own citizens, that the only thing Panamanians take seriously is Carnaval. In that sense tableños are the most serious people in the country.
No sooner is Carnaval over than plans begin to select the following year’s queens. These are introduced on New Year’s Eve, another huge party that resembles the last night of Carnaval. The two new queens are greeted and the two retiring queens seen off with fireworks and a parade.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition