Little-Known Tales of Carnaval’s Origins

At Counterpulse. The image of Adela Chu was taken by Lou Dematteis

At Counterpulse. The image of Adela Chu was taken by Lou Dematteis

In the Mission, tales of sparkly outfits, burnt-out volunteers, and over-ambitious parties are core mythology. Subcultures that may never intersect all breathe a sigh of recognition when they hear tales of the unexpectedly complicated police permit, or the performer who backs out at the last minute, or  the weather that wouldn’t behave.

And so the crowd that gathered at Counterpulse on Wednesday evening was clearly with the writer Willy Lizarraga as he put on a shiny foil hat and described the misadventures that befell Adela Chu, a starry-eyed samba instructor who in 1978 set out to create a full-fledged Brazilian Carnaval in the Mission District.

Among her setbacks: a co-organizer who poaches all of her most talented directors for a paying gig right before the festival date, no money, and the questionable decision to hold Carnaval when it’s traditionally held in Rio de Janeiro- which is to say: in February. As a character in Lizarraga’s story relates, “That’s no time to go dancing around half-naked in the park.” And worse, he later adds, “Her students don’t really know how to samba.”

One-man shows, especially those that involve  jumping among ethnic and gender groups, are almost universally a disaster. But Lizarraga is a deft, unselfconscious performer and mercifully steers clear of any attempt at dialect. The effect is more  like encountering an interesting guest at a cocktail party – but one who comes accompanied by his own drummer, and slide show to offer the history behind the weekend party that will once again take place on May 29th 30th.

Carnaval has origins in the bombastic festivals thrown in Europe before the start of Lent, but it freely and fluidly absorbed every party tradition that lay in its path. Today it is globalized and regionalized – worldwide and incorporating African, South American, and Asian festival traditions. Chu grew up celebrating Carnaval in Colon, Panama. There were no spectators, only participants, and everyone in the town had a role to play. As an adult, she attended Carnavals all over South America (and threw a few small ones of her own in San Francisco – one at the Masonic Temple, one at Ocean Beach) before deciding to throw a proper one, with dancing in the street, and teams of costumed performers, and ridiculous hats.

Like any good story, everything in San Francisco’s Carnaval comes together despite the initial setbacks. A talented drummer named Marcus Gordon rounds up a crew of musical performers.  Another dancer, Pam Minor, comes through with $5 costumes for all. The police permit is gotten, though it will only allow for dancing on the sidewalk. The weather is, predictably, miserable. 1500 people show up anyway.

The Mission District’s Carnaval was fortunate in having Lou Dematteis, most known for his photojournalism in Nicaragua and the Amazon, as its photographer in the early days. Dematteis’ photographs, flashing on the screen behind Lizarraga, reveal a Carnaval that was, from the beginning, goofy, earnest, sincere, and remarkably multicultural. “1978 was a dark year, a dark winter,” says Lizarraga, quoting Pam Minor. Later that year, the city would contend with the murder of hundreds of former San Francisco residents in Jonestown, and of Supervisor Harvey Milk and mayor George Moscone. To Minor, the persistence of Carnaval in 1979 emerges as a defiant counternarrative to the gloom that enveloped the city.

That year the police permit granted dancing in the street – but only half of the street. The rest, it says, has to be left open to traffic.  The half cars/half people rule proves difficult to enforce, and the parade lapses into chaos until a few members of the Mission’s lowrider subculture bring their cars to the front and clear a route for the parade. “Those roving baroque installations – sacred and profane imprecations to the gods” is how Lizarraga describes the lowriders, and audible sighs of nostalgia are heard from the crowd at this.

The size of the crowd means that Carnaval is forced to move to Civic Center the following year, much to Adela Chu’s distress. “Carnaval was my gift to the Mission” she says, and soon enough she’s off to Amsterdam to play with a salsa band. The epic battle between the forces that want to hold Carnaval in the Mission, versus those who want it held at Civic Center, wage on until 2002, when the Mission finally wins.

When the lights come up at the end of the show, it becomes apparent that many of the early volunteers named by Lizarraga and photographed by Dematteis are actually in the theater. In the front row.

“Well, here you are,” says Chris Carlsson, local historian, and the event’s organizer who has taken the microphone “Here you all are. Being reenacted by Willy.” Lizarraga, who has been the soul of cool throughout the performance, looks suddenly nervous.

Marcus Gordon leans forward from his seat and takes the microphone. “I thought it was great, man,” he says, reassuringly.

“I love this story because this is so much of what is great about San Francisco,” says Carlsson. “I feel like we need to keep on affirming this message that so much of what makes this city great is a labor of love. People forget that you can do things because you want to. Not because you have the money.” He pauses. “Any questions?”

A woman raises her hand. She has a box of Carnaval photos at home – is he interested? “You can upload them to Found SF,” says Carlsson. “It’s a historical wiki that I maintain. It’s fairly simple to use. If you think wikis are simple. If you don’t know how to use it, I’ll help you. Any other questions?”

“I have another question,” she says. “Will I finally make money off of this thing?”

“No money,” says Carlsson, laughing. “Labor of love.”

Filed under: Art, Front Page

One Comment

  1. Thanks Heather! Nice piece… I got the essay by Willy up with a bunch of Lou’s photos on the history site:
    http://www.foundsf.org/index.php?title=The_Birth_of_Carnaval_on_the_Streets_of_San_Francisco
    Hope everyone will come and have a look!
    best,
    –cc

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