The Patronal Festival of Vueltas in Cuban Miami
The Patronal Festival of Vueltas in Cuban Miami
“No One Loses, They Always Win!”
Abstract and Keywords
For many years, Cubans in the United States mostly regarded themselves not as immigrants but as exiles with a limited tenure. In Miami, they have redefined parts of their social and political structure in order to cope with the difficult transition between their past and their present, and have also retained many aspects of their culture. This chapter examines the patronal festival celebrated by Miami’s Cuban population who were former residents of Vueltas, Cuba. It first provides a background on patronal festivals in general before focusing on the patronal festival of Vueltas. The chapter then considers how Miami Cubans have preserved their social organization through Los Municipios de Cuba en el Exilio (Cuban Municipalities in Exile) and discusses the significance of the Vueltas festival within the social context as well as its adaptation to new conditions in Miami.
A veces me pregunto dónde termina la verdad y dónde comienza el folclor en esas Habanas imaginarias que nos inventamos en las esquinas de Miami. [Sometimes I ask myself where truth ends and folklore begins in these imaginary Havanas that we invent on the streets of Miami.]
—NÉSTOR DÍAZ DE VILLEGAS
Like many other immigrant groups, Cubans in Miami have reconstructed parts of their social and political structure in order to negotiate the difficult transition between their past and their present. For decades, most Cubans regarded themselves as exiles with a limited tenure in this country rather than as immigrants. Thus, they held on tightly to previous forms of social organization. Moreover, the community’s large size (approximately 900,000 Cubans and Cuban Americans in south Florida) in combination with its concentration within a relatively small area (primarily Miami-Dade County and secondarily south Florida) also have contributed to the retention of many cultural patterns. This chapter will examine the patronal festival celebrated by former residents of Vueltas, Cuba, its significance within the social context, and its adaptation to new conditions in Miami.
Festivals are complex, periodic phenomena that celebrate significant times and events through patterned actions. Among their most important functions are the generation of positive emotions and social cohesion through the suspension of normal routine combined with activities that induce a sense of physical well-being. In the case of immigrant communities, (p.24) festivals also serve as a buffer to a strange environment and a symbol of cultural identity. Continuities and changes within festivals often mirror similar phenomena in the general community.
Patronal festivals arose in Catholic religious practice as the devotions paid to local martyrs gradually evolved into the cult of the saints in the second century ad. This was related to the distribution of saints’ relics to churches and the processions and popular festivals that grew up around them. Festivals dedicated to the Virgin Mary developed a few hundred years later.
Within Latin American folk religion, patronal festivals assume great importance as one of the few occasions on which a community comes together. Although the saint’s day and its association with a particular town is the motivation for patronal festivals, religion is not always the dominant element. Patronal festivals vary considerably in the attention devoted to religious observations as opposed to activities that promote alegría, or joy. Moreover, many popular devotions or arts associated with patronal festivals reflect a strong Native American or African cultural heritage rather than a Catholic doctrine.
Los Municipios de Cuba en el Exilio
One way in which Miami Cubans have preserved their social organization is through Los Municipios de Cuba en el Exilio (Cuban Municipalities in Exile), the largest network of voluntary sociopolitical associations in the Cuban American community. Mutual aid organizations have a long history both in Cuba and among Cubans in Florida. In Cuba, people of Spanish and African background established separate fraternal orders or clubs that maintained their cultural heritage and provided them with economic assistance. Clubs organized by Cuban immigrants in Key West and Tampa in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries assisted the communities by coordinating social events and providing educational opportunities, financial assistance, and sometimes health care to those who needed them.
Los Municipios de Cuba en el Exilio was created in 1962 by former residents of several different municipios who thought such organizations would provide a good vehicle for get-togethers with others from the same vicinity. By 1963 about twenty municipios were participating, and they created a formal umbrella organization to unite them. By the end of the twentieth century, Los Municipios boasted about 60,000 active families. Although participation and membership levels vary considerably among the separate municipios, most meet at least two or three times a year to celebrate national (p.25) holidays and saints’ days or to hold community picnics. More than twenty possess permanent meeting places.
While it is not unusual for immigrant groups to form voluntary mutual support societies, the breadth of such organizations among the Cubans is remarkable. Of the 126 municipios in prerevolutionary Cuba, 117 organized in Miami. Each elects a president, secretary, and treasurer. In addition, they attempt to duplicate the structure of Cuba’s prerevolutionary government by electing representatives to token provincial and national assemblies. The municipios also contrast with support organizations created by other immigrant groups in that membership is open to all and the separate municipios operate independently but maintain the umbrella organization.
While the municipios assert some political intent, their primary activities are social in nature. For the most part, each arranges events that bring together former neighbors and assists recent immigrants from the municipio. Many also publish newsletters to communicate information about members or to document their history. In addition, the umbrella organization sponsors an annual fair. The event features performances by local Cuban celebrities, rides, and a competition for queen. However, the core consists of stands built and decorated by the municipios, offering their traditional local cuisine. Each municipio provides tables and chairs for festival goers to eat, enjoy a beer or coffee, and chat with old friends.
The Patronal Festival of Vueltas
A few municipios have revived their annual patronal festivals. The Spanish established this tradition early in Cuba’s history. For instance, soon after they founded the central Cuban town of San Juan de los Remedios in 1540, the Spanish instituted patronal festivals in all towns within its jurisdiction. By the eighteenth century, parrandas, or secular festivities that include dancing and music, accompanied the patronal festivals.
The town of San Antonio de las Vueltas, in the province of Las Villas, was originally within the jurisdiction of Remedios. Its patron saint is La Virgen de la Candelaria, whose feast day is February 2. This day celebrates the Purification of the Virgin (called Candlemas Day in English), during which the principal Mass is preceded by the blessing and distribution of candles. Candles are essential elements in many rites and ceremonies of the Catholic church, signifying honor for holy things or people.
In the region surrounding Vueltas, every town was long ago divided into eastern and western sections, or barrios, to compete against each other in (p.26) the parrandas. The residents of Vueltas’s eastern barrio are called hutios, and those in the western barrio ñañacos. Hutias are rat-like rodents that measure eight to twenty-four inches and weigh up to twenty pounds, and many live in the rocky hills behind the eastern section. Since the western barrio included the majority of black inhabitants, they were called ñañacos after the ñañambós or ñañigos who were members of an Afro-Cuban religious society. Each barrio was also represented by a color and another creature. The hutios are identified with the color red and the gavilán, or Florida eagle. The ñañacos are associated with blue and the rooster. Both the gavilán and the rooster are associated with macho qualities. Vuelteños claim that there is no deep meaning to the symbols, but that they are simply results of happenstance.
Allegiance to the hutios or ñañacos was originally determined by residence, but over time there has been significant movement and intermarriage between the two barrios. Today loyalties are determined by a household’s dominant personality, the family member with the greatest interest in the tradition, or merely personal preference. In a typical instance I encountered, the children of a ñañaco father and a hutia mother were a mixture of hutios and ñañacos. However, the issue of allegiance runs very deep in the consciousness of many Vuelteños. For example, the elderly grandmother of a friend of mine was hospitalized just before the 1992 parranda. The woman was semi-conscious and did not recognize any family member except for a daughter. Yet, when a grandson mentioned the upcoming festival and asked her if she was hutia, she exclaimed with fervor, “No!! I’m a ñañaco!!!”
The Festival in Cuba
In order to understand the changes undergone by the patronal festival in Miami, it is necessary to describe how the event was celebrated in Vueltas. Although a small town, Vueltas was famous throughout Cuba for its parranda and the associated fireworks. Each barrio raised money by sponsoring dances or collecting door to door several months in advance. Beginning two or three months before the festival, each side would start preparing their floats and costumes in a large warehouse. Artists designed the artifacts, craftspeople directed the process, and everyone helped. The themes and designs were kept secret from the rival barrio, and there was a great deal of excitement and tension between them. Within the same family, members belonging to different sides sometimes would not eat or talk together for months before the festival. (p.27)
As February 2 approached, farmers from the surrounding countryside streamed into town, as did many friends, relatives, and total strangers from throughout Cuba. Early in the afternoon of February 2, the priest and the townspeople took the statue of the Virgin from the church, carried it in procession around the town, and then replaced it. Afterward, the two barrios flipped a coin to determine which side would be second in the parade. Each side preferred to start second because they believed they would be remembered more clearly and thus more favorably.
The parranda was held outdoors. The focal point was a parade of elaborate carrozas, or floats, that were built over cars or truck beds. The Vuelteños created the carrozas with strips of material soaked in plaster—something like papier-mâché. Themes usually concerned historic events or figures, such as St. George and the Dragon, Cleopatra, or Solomon. In 1964—the last year the festival was celebrated in Cuba—the ñañacos created a float featuring Nero enthroned with Pompeia, a grotto with running water, and people dressed as Roman statues.
In addition to the carrozas, the festival featured several other types of festival arts. There was a competition for the best farolas, large lantern-like ornaments hanging from the top of long poles, which were usually paraded down the street in groups. Festival artists also made muñecones or cabezones, tall figures topped with large papier-mâché heads, which were intended to entertain the children with their fantastic appearance. These are drawn from the Spanish tradition of gigantes that accompanied religious processions such as that of Santiago de Campostela in Galicia. In Vueltas, they created the muñecones in a male and female couple. Fireworks were another important festival art. Some artists constructed tableros: structures made from wood, wire, and paper, onto which hundreds or thousands of fireworks were attached. Over time, each barrio also created traditional songs with which they taunted the other side during the parranda. One such song complains that the hutios came out of their caves to fight, but found the rooster too sick for a confrontation.
The parade usually started between eleven and two at night, and lasted until dawn. Each side prepared two or three carrozas, which they brought out in alternation with the other side—both saving the most spectacular for last. The floats rolled down the main streets and through the central plaza, where they passed the table set aside for the judges. If a float could not hold together until it passed the table, it automatically lost. Roman candles illuminated their path.
Vuelteños evaluated the floats in a unique manner. Although they set up a judges’ table, there were rarely judges because no one dared incur the wrath (p.28) of the other side. As a result, both sides always claimed victory. As Vueltas’s lay historian Esther Torres attested, “No one loses. … It doesn’t matter what they do, they always win!”1
Spectators watched the parade from the sides of the street. After each float, members of the barrio joined those holding the various insignias (flags, rooster, gavilán) in dancing through the streets accompanied by musicians playing conga drums, tambores, a plowshare, and other percussive instruments. This aspect of the parade was called a changüí. During the night Vuelteños also held two racially segregated dances sponsored by separate white and black sociedades (societies). Most townspeople stayed up all night drinking, eating, dancing, and watching the parades.
The next day, members of each barrio again danced through the streets during the entierro, or burial. Each barrio carried aloft a small casket containing some item they had stolen from the other side. This action symbolically demonstrated that they had buried or vanquished the other side. The entierro provided another occasion for general merriment during the day.
Nearby towns developed slightly different traditions. Although Vueltas and Camajuaní built floats, in Remedios they created trabajos de plaza, or large tableaux. In both Remedios and Caibarién, comparsa groups danced through the streets but they did not build floats. Comparsas are groups of conga musicians accompanied by lines of paired male and female dancers performing choreographed dances.
The Festival in Miami
In Miami, Vuelteños organized as a municipio in the early years of exile. As membership gradually grew and the annual reunion became an established event, they revived the patronal festival. As in Cuba, the process of organizing the festival lasts three or four months. Vuelteños hold picnics and other fund-raising events during the preceding months, and also sell advance tickets in order to raise money and plan for the crowd.
Vuelteños have adapted their parranda to fit many new social and physical constraints in Miami. In accord with the American custom of scheduling holiday events on weekends so as not to disrupt the work schedule, the festival now takes place on the Saturday night closest to February 2. Since they cannot close the streets, they hold the event in a large hall, such as that of St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral. Floats will not fit through the doorways, so they have replaced them with comparsas and trabajos de plaza—which were known from the parrandas of nearby towns. In 1992 the ñañacos built (p.29) two trabajos from painted styrofoam. One depicted a view of Havana and the other several enormous tropical fruits.
The hutia and ñañaco comparsa groups both organize and begin rehearsals in mid-January. A woman from each side designs and sews the ruffled, brightly colored costumes. The dance routines usually result from group efforts. In the case of the hutios, Esther Flores and the dancers themselves contributed ideas to create the 1992 routines. The dance steps are based on such Cuban forms as the rumba and conga. The dancers are all young people in their teens and twenties who are highly enthusiastic about participating in the event. Evita, a young Cuban American, explains, “It’s fun. You get to wear the costumes, you get to rehearse. This is really good for the youth, because they get to learn about … how it was in Cuba. And then maybe when Fidel goes down, maybe they can go back to Cuba and make it there and start this tradition again.”2
Among the Vuelteños in Miami are two acknowledged masters at creating the festival arts necessary to the parranda. Ñañaco Isaac Dueñas creates farolas and muñecones. Dueñas participated in the Vueltas festival from the age of nineteen, and learned the arts by assisting master artisans. Although he emigrated to the United States in the 1950s, he continued to return annually to participate in the festival through 1964. Dueñas began to work on the Miami festival in the mid-1980s. For the 1991 parranda he created a set of farolas and a muñecon of a ñañigo or diablito—a traditional Cuban figure depicting a member of an Afro-Cuban religious society that has become one of the standard national symbols for Cuban festive occasions. In 1992, Dueñas created a muñecon depicting a large older black man as well as a new set of farolas.
Among the hutios, Manolín Vega is responsible for creating such festival arts as the farolas. Vega, an older man who participated in Vueltas’s festival for decades, was especially famous for his fireworks. During one well-remembered year, he created a tablero purported to have contained 35,000 fireworks.
As the Miami celebration has become more elaborate with each passing year, some Vuelteños have become newly involved in creating festival arts. For example, for the 1992 parranda, Ramón and Dennis Palomino (the president of the municipio and his son) created an impressively lifelike representation of a giant hutia. With eyes fashioned from red lights and a rubber chicken dangling from its mouth, the hutia resembled a hellish vision from Hieronymous Bosch. During the presentation, a friend of Dennis’s held the hutia over his head as he danced wildly behind the comparsa group. Everyone at the gala was impressed, and the ñañacos were taken totally by (p.30) surprise. The giant hutia now resides in the workroom of the Palominos’s optical shop.
In 1992, over 700 Vuelteños and their friends attended the patronal festival. During the day, the active organizers from each side gathered at the cathedral to decorate the hall and prepare the tableaux. Many wore red or blue clothing to signify allegiance to their barrio. Inside, they covered the tables with alternating red and blue tablecloths. The most fanatic partisans sit only at a table bearing the color of their barrio. During the preparation there was constant ritual teasing culminating in heated but good-natured confrontations between members of the two sides.
The evening commenced with the hutio presentation at approximately ten o’clock. Esther Flores presented a skit she had written consisting of the reminiscences of an exile couple about the festival. She commandeered her parents to play the parts, prerecorded the dialogue, then directed her parents in lip-synching it on the stage. The conversation encompassed the different festival activities, notable events during past festivals, part of a traditional song mocking the ñañacos, and disparaging comments about the appearance of their rooster.
The main spectacle began with the entrance of a young woman dressed as the Virgin Mary. Next, six young women clothed in brightly colored costumes danced to a recorded song praising Cuba’s six prerevolutionary provinces. The comparsa group entered shortly thereafter, accompanied by farolas, flag, gavilán, a man with a golden violin, and the giant hutia. The comparsa performed several choreographed routines. The golden violin was a personal joke directed at Abilio Amargos, a ñañaco who always complained that they did not have nearly the numbers or money as the hutios.
During the hutio presentation, a man emerged in blackface and smoking a cigar. His well-padded figure was clothed in a long gingham skirt and ruffled blouse, and his head was covered with a bandanna. This traditional figure is well known among Cubans as Mama Dolores, the epitome of the nineteenth-century Cuban slave woman. In many Cuban American celebrations, she appears as a sort of clown or trickster figure who often makes bawdy gestures or jokes with the crowd.
The climax of the formal hutio presentation was the 1991 hit, “Nuestro día ya viene llegando,” written and recorded by Miami’s Cuban American salsa star Willy Chirino. This powerful song had become an anthem for the Cuban community. In addition to fine lyrics that succinctly sketch the immigration process and its travails, the song announces that Cuba’s time is near, and ends with a cry for the liberation of all communist states. During the Chirino song, a young woman dressed in the typical nineteenth-century (p.31)
Afterward, hutios in the audience joined with the comparsa group to dance joyously around the hall in the changüí. The song to which they danced was a remake of Los Matamoros 1930s’ hit about going to a festival. The new version by Ricardo Montanel alludes to Miami’s enormous Cuban-based Calle Ocho festival.
Immediately following the hutios, the ñañacos presented their comparsa routines, farolas, the rooster and flag insignias, as well as Isaac Dueñas’s giant muñecon. Their primary routine revolved around a Brazilian theme, with the comparsa group dressed in Brazilian carnival garb and dancing to the song “Brazil.” The finale consisted of the Chirino song, the release of hundreds of balloons, and then a changüí.
About half an hour after the formal presentations, a procession of hutios danced into the hall for the entierro. It was preceded by a man dressed as a priest, and the many mourners covered their faces with black veils or handkerchiefs as they danced around the hall. They carried a small coffin containing a farola they had stolen from the ñañacos. Although the ñañacos also had made a coffin, it broke before their planned entierro. (p.32)
Finally, the Vuelteños settled down to an evening of dining, drinking, and dancing to a local salsa orquesta that played a variety of Cuban contemporary songs and old favorites. Despite the teasing and the joking confrontations of the day, they put all hostilities aside as they reveled late into the night.
Due to the grand scale of the Diaspora precipitated by the Cuban Revolution—with about one million or one-tenth of the population eventually leaving the island and a vast majority of that group finally settling in south Florida—Cuba is an entity that must be studied in at least two locations. In Miami’s Little Havana and other Cuban residential areas, Cuban exiles have created what Benedict Anderson has termed an “imagined community”; that is, a community named for and/or in some ways parallel and comparable to the original home of the residents.3 Yet this offspring of the original proceeds on a somewhat different trajectory.
The municipios represent perhaps the most overt and extensive form of social organization within the formal sphere that has been reestablished by Cubans in Miami. However, in Miami the content of their activities has ceased to be primarily political (the realm of political activity now being (p.33) adapted to American political forms—albeit at times unsuccessfully) and has become increasingly oriented toward maintaining social ties. This is certainly the case with the municipio and the patronal festival of Vueltas.
In Miami, Vueltas’s patronal festival has acquired a level of momentum that portends a long future. One reason for its success is that it fulfills a variety of important functions for Vuelteños. For those born in Cuba, it serves as a reunion with former neighbors, a way to maintain the old social order, a source of entertainment, and a vehicle for preserving traditional arts. Moreover, since the event features terrific music, dancing, and fantastic costumes, it provides an enjoyable and effective medium through which Cuban American youth learn more about their traditional culture.
It is apparent that the patronal festival itself has undergone a number of transformations in Miami. There has been some simplification or streamlining of the festival—part of which is directly related to the reduced number of Vuelteños available to work on the festival. One example of this is the blending of the dance with other events since all must now be held indoors on a single night. Another example is the creation of one rather than two muñecones.
Some changes, such as shifting the festival to Saturday, seem to be a consequence of the gradual Americanization of the Cuban population during the last three decades. Yet other changes may be a result of Americanization combined with additional factors. For example, whites and blacks now attend the same dance and the whole issue of racially separate formal societies has been dropped. This is probably attributable to several forces: American emphasis on at least token integration, a united Cuban approach to maintaining the tradition within the unfamiliar realm of American culture, the small percentage of Cuban blacks who emigrated, and the practical effect of blending the dance and parranda.
Other changes in the festival are more substantial—pushing it farther along a different trajectory than its Cuban parent. One such change is that the festival has become almost entirely secular. Although this trend was already evident in Cuba, in Miami it has escalated to the extent that religious elements have all but disappeared. In fact, when I questioned several Vuelteños as to the significance of la Candelaria, no one knew. In this instance, not only is secularization consistent with American tendencies, but the need to maintain regional unity and identity supersedes the need for religious observance. Another important change, the replacement of the floats by the comparsa tradition known from neighboring communities, reflects a practical move to recreate an aesthetic and social totality for the event by activating a passively held tradition. (p.34)
Despite many changes, some things remain constant. Cuba has a long history of emigration and immigration, of ties with north and south. In Miami, Cubans are merely continuing to create and recreate Cuba outside the geographical boundaries of the island. And Vueltas, like other reestablished municipios, continues to hold its festival—each year adding more traditional arts from the Cuba Vuelteños remember and adapting other forms to reflect the Cuba they have reinvented.
Néstor Díaz de Villegas, “Un portal fuera del tiempo,” El Nuevo Herald, June 4, 1993, 23D.
(1) . Esther Torres, interview with Tina Bucuvalas, Miami, January 29, 1992.
(2) . Evita, interview with Tina Bucuvalas, Miami, February 1, 1992.
(3) . Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (1983; rpt. London and New York: Verso, 1991), 192.