Encrusted in the iron fence of his house are three symbols: two Marimondas and an umbrella, or paraguas. “About 40 years ago, a crazy old woman fell in love with me. ‘Mi amor! Give me back my child!’, she would say, as if she had had a baby with me, and I would joke that I wouldn’t do such a thing. One day, she caught me distracted and took out an umbrella pole and started attacking me until people on the street had to come and help”, he recounts, observing that he is so used to the alias now that he introduces himself by saying: “My name is Paraguita, but some people call me Cesar Morales”.
Paraguas, as his close friends call him, is well known in all of Barranquilla for reviving the Marimonda figure. Celebrating it’s bicentenary and the title of American Capital of Culture in 2013, the Caribbean coastal city, which is the 4th most populous in the country, was appointed “Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO in 2003. “Gabriel Gárcia Márquez once said to me: ‘Barranquilla is Macondo when it became a city’”, says Jaime Abello Banfi, a friend of the Nobel prize laureate and director of his Journalism Foundation, adding to the already underlined charm of the location.
The picturesque scenery of Barranquilla sets the stage to the origins of the Marimonda (which translates as ‘monkey’), dated a hundred years back. According to Paraguita, in the anecdote popularly known in the city, he explains, a poor man once dressed up in an upside down jacket and unfashionably oversized tie, with a large nose and ears made of socks, to make fun of the wealthy class.
From Chiqui to Fidel
The first costume Paraguita ever wore, when he was 10, was of the Marimonda, made of his father’s wedding suit, after the suggestion of a friend: “Chiqui [his first nickname, short for chiquito, because of his small height], you are a very perverse and crazy child, you should dress as a Marimonda!”.
“I had a beautiful childhood”, he recalls, in his increasingly familiar embellishing manner. “I was born five days after the opening of the carnival, which my mother went to, and from inside her womb I could feel the drums”, he adds dramatically.
As an only child growing up with no technology, he used to spend his free time in the streets playing with marbles (in his house, a vase full of them serves as centerpiece to a side table) and being mischievous. “But in the house I was a santito”, or a little angel, he says, putting his hands together in prayer motion. Paraguita says he is very religious and likes to speak to God as a friend, but doesn’t believe in the church, which, in his opinion, is corrupt.
Son of immigrants from Antioquia and Valle del Cauca, two western states of Colombia, he studied Accountancy at Universidade del Atlántico, a public university in Barranquilla from which he did not graduate because he was “very revolutionary”.
“The Cuban Revolution was happening and we all wanted to be Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. I was part of a lot of committees in favor of the revolution and it was difficult for the youth – we were chased by the police many times”, he remembers. Eventually, in 1969, when his mother stated that Fidel was in Cuba living like a king while he was here fighting for him, he took an accountancy job at the national company of telecommunications Telecom, where he stayed until 1997 before retiring. He found a leadership role, nonetheless, somewhere else.
Leader of the pack
In the beginning of the 1980’s, the Marimondas were hardly seen anymore in the carnival because, according to Paraguita, they annoyed people too much. As an example, the revelers would use a small tree branch with excrement on the tip to scare away whoever came close to them. One night, during a rum irrigated conversation with friends, he felt a nostalgic urge to rescue it – but a little differently.
Las Marimondas del Barrio Abajo first appeared in 1984, as a group of 50 people dancing to the Columbian musical styles porro and fandango, dressed in cardboard masks (as opposed to the sacks of flour used initially) and the original rolled up socks for eyes and noses in a phallic aspect. Though the members still paraded completely covered so people could not identify who was mocking them, the tree branch habit was abandoned and discipline was imposed.
Paraguita denies that the primary Marimonda spirit has been lost: “The change I made was to remove the vulgarity and lack of respect, but our foolish spirit never changed; on the contrary, it grows like the foam of the beer”, he answers. In that first year, they won the Golden Congo, the maximum prize in Barranquilla’s carnival. “Marimondo was simply a costume. Paragua was the one who made it into a group”, says his neighbor Marbel Grau, who has been in the group for 23 years and known him for more than 40.
“You can’t cross the line to say hi to a friend. You can’t take pictures. You can’t accept alcohol. We are not here to socialize, we are here to perform”, instructs Paraguita to the crowd of people sitting on the floor around his chair – he has a prosthesis in his left leg due to wear on the femur so that he can’t stand for too long. “He is the mentor of the group, its creator, the one who squeezes out the juice of our energy. Without his presence and history, the group would be nothing”, says choreographer Rafael Gutierrez, 29, who has been in the group for 15 years.
With exception to the few seconds in which the stern warning is given, the atmosphere exudes playfulness. “He is Paraguinha”, says one of the kids to his Brazilian interlocutor, using the Portuguese diminutive suffix, and they all burst out in laughter. Even the sweet seller risks a few moves while strolling by the edge of the court where they have been rehearsing since last October.
When the elders are practicing, the youngsters, seated at the stands, cheer in support – a sound that turns into a roar as soon as any of the individuals starts freestyling in energetic moves, something that happens every so often. They all wear purple shirts with the logo of Las Marimondas del Barrio Abajo on the front and “Carnaval de Quilla 2013” at the back, a sort of password in form of clothing that will get you past the gates into the building.
José Leopoldo Hernandez, the eldest of them, at 73, has no intention of stopping quite yet: “I will dance here until I fall apart”, he prophesies. Hernandez has been with the Marimondas for 26 of its 28 years, after meeting Paraguita while they worked together at Telecom. “Paraguita is a very respected and loved man in Barranquilla, I have never heard a single bad comment about him”, he says. Apparently, that opinion is not unanimous.
“El Pavo!” – someone said to José Ignácio Cassiani, the 53 year old musician known Barranquilla as ‘the turkey’, in the beginning of the year 2000 –, “Paraguita is charging COP 100.000 [US$ 57 approximately] to be part of the Marimondas!”. That, and the fact that Paraguita had transferred the group from Barrio Abajo, the traditional neighborhood in the north of the city which lends its name to the group, to the nearby Montecristo, was enough for El Pavo to launch the lawsuit of the Marimondas.
In that same year he founded La Rebelión de las Autenticas Marimondas del Barrio Abajo (‘The Rebellion of the Authentic Marimondas of Barrio Abajo’). “We had to redeem the identity of the neighborhood. Also, Paraguita had said we should be thankful for him taking the name of Barrio Abajo and elevating it. He is very arrogant!”, he explains, making a point: “We want people to have fun. It is not a business”.
While Pavo charges COP 50.000 (US$ 28 approx.) for registration and costume – “Ideally, I should be the one paying the people, and not the contrary”, he announces diplomatically –, Paraguita charges three times more: COP 160.000 (US$ 90 approx.). He explains, however, where the resources – which are thickened annually by the Caridi’s, a Jewish family responsible for 50% of the funds (and whose main benefactor Leon, who died in 2007, sits alongside Paraguita on a painting in his house) – are directed to: rehearsals, refreshments, transportation, food and drink during the parade and the big open party they host in the streets every year.
“Carnival is the most important product in the family economy for a Barranquillero of any social status”, he argues, and it seems to be true: while his antagonist’s comparsa (or carnival group) manages to gather 200 people, his troupe counts, to date, 960 members – all of which, he claims, he knows by name.
Regarding his own family economy, Paraguita confesses: “I am a sin verguenza [‘I am a no shame man’]: I love women”. He then lists his wife Nuri, with whom he has four children, all engineers; and the “extra-matrimonials” Maria, with whom he has two daughters, and Patricia, with whom he has another. “There is no problem between the women, they accept it well”, he says to what, apparently, it is a common practice in Barranquilla.
Paraguita is no santito. He has enemies (although you will have to search for a while in order to find them) and is, no doubt, a showman who knows exactly what he has to do and say in order to promote himself as the persona he wants to be seen as. Despite – or because of – this, he has his place safely secured in Barranquilla’s popular history.
If you ask around, everybody knows who he is, and if you stop by his house in the evening, it is likely that you will find him with at least one visitor – “Everyone stops at his house: it is the base of the carnival. Even the Casa de Carnaval, association that organizes the event, sends tourists and students there”, says his neighbor Marbel Grau.
In the words of José Buelva, 40, a newcomer to the Marimondas who claims the carnival leader lives 365 days a year for the event and without it he would die, “Paraguita is the living cultural heritage of Barranquilla”.