Tag Archives: south america

Carnival: South America’s Pre-Lent Festival

Main Piece: 

The following is transcribed from a conversation between me (LT) and my informant (JZ). 

JZ: Carnival happens for a reason, but it’s not for me, really. Honestly, no one knows, or no one cares… But it is religious related. I did look it up once, though… It always happens before Ash Wednesday, which starts lent.

LT: So it’s kind of like Mardis Gras? 

JZ: Yes. But it’s for everyone, even people like me, who are Jewish. Everybody just takes time off, and enjoys… There’s a saying… “the year doesn’t start until after Carnival ends,” and it’s true! Like it really doesn’t start. It’s not a joke. Everyone is waiting insanely for Carnival. Everyone travels Friday night, and it goes alllll the way until Wednesday. So everyone travels, and goes to these crazy crazy parties, and sometimes, when you get older, you don’t even need to go to the big festivals, you just go to the parties. And the parties have… temas?

LT: Themes.

JZ: Yes, so they’re all these different parties with different themes… They’re like… the neighborhood parties. 

LT: Block parties? 

JZ: But not really, they’re much much bigger. They’re like parades, and you stop and drink in the street. But you dress up in costumes and then go from party to party… But just so you understand, I’ve been to where Carnival actually happens only once in my entire life. No one cares, just gringos go there. We just party in the streets. It’s the greatest party you’ve ever gone to in your life. 


My informant is my sister-in-law who is from São Paulo, Brazil. She grew up travelling to Rio de Janeiro every year for Carnival, and cannot remember her first one: “It has always been a tradition.” She is Jewish, so she does not partake in the religious aspect of Carnival, and her favorite part is “having fun with friends and family, and even strangers, just drinking and celebrating life.” 


I Facetime by brother and sister-in-law often, and this piece was collected during one of our regular calls. 


To me, Carnival speaks to how Brazilians value enjoying life and celebration. In America, it sounds crazy to take almost a full week off of work to go party and drink. However, in Brazil, it’s not crazy, it’s normal. Generally speaking, it seems as though Americans are often much more serious and plan for the future, whereas Brazilians are more laid-back and live in the moment. I love the way my sister-in-law talked about how people of all backgrounds, from all different places, come together to celebrate Carnival, even the ones who don’t know its original religious significance. Although I’ve never been, I think of Carnival as being a welcoming, lighthearted, and colorful way for people to join together and just have fun. 

For further reading on Carnival’s origin and history:

Brown, Sarah. “How Did Brazil’s Carnival Start?” Culture Trip, The Culture Trip, 4 Jan. 2018. 

Peruvian New Years Tradition: Run the Suitcase Around the Block

AS is a USC game design major who’s family hails from Peru, she enjoys spreadsheets, Dungeons and Dragons, and spreadsheets about Dungeons and Dragons. AS grew up in Texas after her family moved there from Peru.
AS: My family had a lot of traditions for New Years, I’ve heard a lot of people do this one though

AS: We fill like a like a suitcase of some sort and we run it around the block and that’s supposed to represent like good luck in traveling and like safe travels and all that stuff.

AS: So my mom makes me do it every year cuz you yeah gotta have that good luck

MW: Do you have any particular attachment to this?

AS: I mean I would still do it if I didn’t live in South Central LA and that’s dangerous

AS: I guess it’s it’s it’s kind of just like a superstitious thing to me

AS: Or it’s just like it’s a cute tradition that makes New Year’s feel different than what like normal people celebrate even it doesn’t have like a very deep impact I guess it also fills me with nostalgia for things you did as a kid so you feel like you should do it anyways.

The symbolism of running around the block mimics the cyclical nature of the calendar year and separates it from the idea of linear time. The suitcase is also filled, meaning that the carrier takes home with them when they travel and provides a direct connection to home and family life. Likewise, the fact that you run around the block and return to the starting point sort of carries the message that no matter where you go you can always return home, this centers the importance of home even in a tradition that’s all about travel. The desire for safety also reveals anxieties about leaving the home. Travel to new places is scary, a journey into the unknown thus the hope for good luck works in combination with the carrying of the known with you and the promise of a safe return to that known space.

El Mono

Informant: I spent the first five years of my life in Nicaragua, Guatemala and Venezuela, and we were—you know, fortunate enough to have some of the locals provide my mom with household help. Our housekeeper, she sort of functioned as my babysitter, and in order to keep me in line, she’d tell me about “El Mono.” El Mono, in the stories she told me, was this monkey who lived on the rooftops of houses where children lived, and if you misbehaved as a child—so the legend went—El Mono would come into your house in the middle of the night and steal you away. Our housekeeper clearly never shared this with my mother, so she didn’t know about the stories until one night I woke up in screaming about “El Mono” after a horrible nightmare. So, after firing the housekeeper—my mother was distraught over how upset the story made me, so she shared the story with her sister, who then took it upon herself to draw these beautiful pictures for me of “El Mono” every week, which she would mail to me from the US along with letters in Spanish from El Mono to me, telling me what a good girl I was, how proud he was of me, and how much he loved and cared for me. So, needless to say, I never had nightmares about El Mono again. And to this day, I still have my aunt’s drawings and letters.

The informant (my mom) was born in Texas but spent most of her childhood travelling from country to country, specifically in South America and regions of southeast Asia, due to her father’s work as a banker. Her first language was Spanish, and today she is fluent in both Spanish and English.

El Mono’s purpose as a legend seems quite obvious, especially given the context the informant shared with me; parents and guardians can use tales about the monster to scare children into behaving. When I began researching El Mono to see if the creature was widespread in Latin America, I found a very legend that seems more common. “El Cuco,” derived from a Portuguese monster with a pumpkin for a head, is a “dark, shapeless monster” (Bastidas) who kidnaps and consumes children who aren’t obedient. I think it’s safe to say that El Mono is a variation of El Cuco.

Citation: Bastidas, Grace. “Scary Latino Myths: Read This or El Cuco Will Get You.”Latina 26 Oct. 2011: n. pag. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.