One by one the girls walked across the stage to thunderous applause and skipping music tracks. They wore short-shorts or tight hip-hugging jeans as they strutted, giving sultry looks to an enormous audience. Over the next four hours, the seven disappeared and reappeared in swimsuits, traditional Afro-Caribbean outfits and evening dress. They danced and answered judges’ questions about the world and the world they live in – Limón.
And that last facet – the setting of Limón – is what makes the coronation of the Carnival queen so intriguing. In a place that’s burdened by a reputation for violence, racism and drugs, a beauty pageant becomes extraordinary. The pageant represented both the rich tradition of the Limonenses and the strong ties between community members, but also the troubles the impoverished city faces. A night of beauty and passion was also marred by technical difficulties, disorganization and a fight.
Two hours before last Saturday’s pageant started, contestant Camila Carvajal prepared for the most glamorous event of Carnival – Limón’s annual festival celebrating Afro-Caribbean culture – with another Limonense tradition, the patty. She chowed on one of the meat and chili-filled empanadas before heading into Limón’s New Life Gymnasium for the show. The winner of the pageant will lead Saturday’s noon Carnival Parade, the festival’s crowning event. Carvajal made her own proclamation, with the grace of a model, about how she’d help Limón.
“I would like to be queen,” Carvajal, 26, said. “I would like to remove all the children who are living on the streets.”
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Alfred King brought Carnival to Costa Rica in 1949 with lofty ideas. He saw the festival as a way to unite the Afro-Caribbean culture of Costa Rica with the broader Costa Rican culture. The holiday commemorates Christopher Columbus’ landing in Limón in 1502.
At Carnival, vendors sell Caribbean dishes like patty, rice and beans and ginger lemonade, and offer Calypso classes. Pint-sized roller coasters and other rides are set up.
Frank Gómez and his crew at the Carnival headquarters near the Limón port are some of the busiest people in Costa Rica during Carnival week. Gómez, the Carnival committee’s treasurer, is loading boxes of soda cans into a car. He can’t even begin to estimate how many Carnival guests will have arrived by the festival’s end on Oct. 17.
“It’s incalculable,” Gómez said. “It’s not possible to figure out because there are so many. It’s always crowded because there are people from all over Costa Rica who come here.”
However, the crowds are still not what they used to be. In 2007 and 2008, the Carnival was canceled. Costa Rica’s Health Ministry did not grant permits to the festivities because of an outbreak of dengue fever in the country, and heaps of rotting garbage in Limón made it a risky place to hold a crowded celebration.
In 2009, Carnival returned, but without the same pizzazz as before, people say.
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The Selection of the Carnival Queen 2010 began an hour late.
Many of the dance sequences seemed to be stalling for time, and microphones repeatedly cut out. The DJ consistently played the incorrect song. During one agonizing performance, a singing contestant had her microphone cut out repeatedly.
But whenever the contestants posed on stage – whether it was in a bathing suit or to answer questions about Limón – the power of the Limón culture seemed evident. People chanted for their favorite contestants, and the crowd was standing room only. In one poignant moment, contestant Rachel Brown, 20, told the judges why she loves Limón and the entire gymnasium erupted with cheers that continued after her speech had finished.
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Security is abundant at Carnival. But the danger might be, too. “Security at carnival is reinforced, but attendees must assess their own safety,” said Manuel Villegas of Limón’s Tourist Police. “It’s almost always better when there is a large conglomeration of people, to back off because people start to get very mad. To be safe it’s better to retreat a little.”
Shop owners around downtown Limón agree about retreating. The tourism brought on by Carnival is not a boon for them. One shop owner said he “closes everything in the evening. It’s dangerous.”
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At midnight, the crowd is restless. But at last it’s time to name the Queen of the Carnival. Once again the passion picks up. Carvajal wins the Señorita Simpatía, or Miss Congeniality award. She beams a smile on stage but she won’t be going home with the top prize.
Yendry López has tears in her eyes as she’s crowned queen. Her family and friends had been waving signs all night in support of her. One supporter celebrates by tumbling into a pool inside the gym. The 16-year-old Limonense showed off an enthusiastic dance earlier in the night, and for her performance she will lead Saturday’s parade.
The emotion peaks backstage. Suddenly a fight breaks out and security guards need to be called to break things up. Coming out of the raucous, López still dazzles. In Limón, the show must go on.
Nate Perkins contributed to this story.