Mexico Life
Carnaval on Isla Mujeres. Carnival time on Isla Mujeres.

Dazzling costumes of Isla Mujeres’ carnaval

Five-day event brings out beautiful works of art

The late afternoon sun reflects on the tall sparkly headdresses glistening on the sequins, jewels and pearls. The smiles of the women are just as dazzling as they dance along Avenida Rue Medina in time to the pounding salsa beat.

It is carnaval time in Mexico! The dance troupes wear astoundingly beautiful outfits – a new theme every year means new costumes.

Every year we are astounded by the variety of the designs and the creativity. So I asked two of my very bilingual island friends: “How much does the average costume cost? How long to make them? What happens after carnaval?”

Since both the people I asked were men, they had to check with their female family members for the real answers.

According to the ladies, the cost usually runs from 1,500 to 2,500 pesos per costume, depending on the intricacy of the design and materials required. Each dance troupe has a minimum for three costume changes for the five-day event.

The outfits take a few days to weeks to construct, and are handmade by several extremely talented women on Isla Mujeres who work out of their homes. Planning for the next year starts very soon after the current event has finished.

My favorite groups in recent years included petite starfish princesses and little octopi princes, their older counterparts dressed as fanciful mermaids or mermen. Other groups are outfitted as lobsters, clams, sea anemones, seaweed, coral, waves or dolphins.

The colours range from pale green and coral pink to vibrant blues mixed with sunflower yellows and deep purples. One troupe of ladies was dressed in black, blue and silver with wide-brimmed hats that flounced in time to the salsa beat.

I snapped photographs of several groups during the five-day event only to discover that there were many others that I missed entirely. How does that happen?

Well, the parades are never quite organized, invariably starting hours later than advertised, and the participation of the dance troupes appears to be discretionary, not mandatory.

Occasionally a float or decorated truck breaks down, leaving the entire group stranded – unable to join in the fun. It’s an organizers’ nightmare; like trying to line up a group of cats.

With two or sometimes three parades the mix of groups changes daily. Some of the dance troupes are in all three parades, others only appear in one, and other groups never manage to participate in any parade, choosing instead to do impromptu dances in various neighborhood locations on the island.

No matter. As long as everyone had a good time, that’s all that counts.

And when the five-day celebration ends with the beginning of the 40 days of Lent, what happens to the beautiful carnaval costumes? According to my two sources of information, they are basura, garbage. Some are stored for a few months in boxes, others are thrown out.

Occasionally the owner will wear it to another costume party before throwing it away. So that prompted random thoughts about a costume rental company, or a costume museum where one of each design could be displayed for the admiration of others.

Or another middle-of-the-night musing included the creation of a costume hand-me-down system between the larger cities and smaller communities. Mexico City could give their elaborate costumes to Cancún, and Cancún could pass along theirs to Isla Mujeres, for instance.

Then reality set in.

On average there are about 10 dance groups that participate in the Isla Mujeres carnival each year, with a wide variety of costume designs. So for either the museum idea or the costume rental plan that would mean dozens of pieces that would need to be cleaned, preserved and protected from a humid, salty climate. A climate that would rust, tarnish or rot the elaborate outfits in a very short time.

Plus these beautiful works of art are not one-size-fits-all; they are custom-made for the individual owner so a swap or trade system would be difficult to facilitate. I could just imagine the havoc that idea would cause as people of various heights and sizes tried on costumes in an attempt to find one that would fit. It just wouldn’t work.

Ah well, digital photos will have to help keep the creativity of the seamstresses alive. We look forward to next year’s artistic expressions. The colour, the music and the flashing smiles.

The writers are Canadians who have been full-time residents of Isla Mujeres for eight years. You can read their blog here.

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