Artesia Carnival Group Adapts to Keep the Tradition Alive

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This week, performers all over the world are preparing for boisterous carnivals that precede the solemn Christian season of Lent. Music and dancing will overtake the streets in Rio de Janeiro, New Orleans, and even Artesia in Southeast L.A. County. KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez tells us about a Portuguese-American group that's staged performances in Artesia for a quarter century.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: Just as their parents and grandparents did, a few dozen people rehearse at Artesia's Portuguese Hall for the carnival celebrations.

[Song: "La Marcha de Zacatecas"]

This is one of the show's signature songs, but it's not Portuguese. It's "La Marcha de Zacatecas," a 19th-century composition many Mexicans regard as their second national anthem.

Why are these Portuguese-Americans appropriating a Mexican song? Robert Ormonde says it's a natural fit.

Robert Ormonde: Mariachi music is really not that far off from what Portuguese carnival sounding music. It's very folklore, very popular, very simple.

Guzman-Lopez: For their performances, he says, they'll be dressed as mariachis. Ormonde's parents founded the group 25 years ago to maintain the traditions of their hometowns on Portugal's Azores Islands. They named it O Velho Carnaval, or "Old Carnival." Until about ten years ago, 31-year-old Ormonde says, it would've been almost sacrilege to suggest doing away with the old songs.

Ormonde: You know, slowly I start to change my ideas, and my mind about carnival, and if we want the youth here in America to keep up this tradition, we're going to have to speak to them now.

Guzman-Lopez: Artesia's carnival shows, Ormonde realized, were old school even by old country standards. Globalization's opened Portugal and the Azores to cultures from around the world. That's led carnival organizers in Portugal to inject their celebrations with new music, costumes, and skits.

Several years ago, O Velho Carnaval's organizers began doing the same. The group's staged performances with Victorian and Rat Pack themes. This yearm O Velho Carnaval is spoofing one of the most popular television variety shows in the Western Hemisphere.

Don Francisco: Sabado Gigante!

Guzman-Lopez: Yes, Sabado Gigante, whose emcee, Don Francisco, is the Spanish-speaking equivalent to Ed Sullivan, Bob Barker, and Jay Leno. Only bigger. That's another natural fit, says Carla Rocha. She grew up watching the show with her immigrant parents.

Carla Rocha: Everybody watched it when they first came here. There wasn't a Portuguese television station, so everybody watched. The Spanish channel was the closest to the Portuguese language.

Guzman-Lopez: The group's organizers are getting good at this cultural cutting and pasting. Here's the carnival's opening Sabado Gigante number with the Mexican song.

[Carnival opening number: "Os imigrantes ca estao..."]

Guzman-Lopez: The lyrics are original. They speak of immigrants keeping their traditions and kids growing up bilingual. About six of the group's 31 members were born and raised in Portugal. For most everyone else, it's a struggle to maintain two languages. Robert Ormonde directs Connie Lourenco in a skit spoofing a Home Depot commercial.

Ormonde: You say it perfectly, then all of a sudden you get to "comprimentos," and you go "compri–" and then you say the same thing on "polimentos." So say, "comprimentos..."

Guzman-Lopez: One of the old timers in the audience shrugs that Portuguese is fading in Artesia. But he says he's not too worried, because even as the language recedes, the traditions are getting stronger every year.