In their 162-year history, Mardi Gras parades have included white New Orleanians satirizing British royalty, black New Orleanians satirizing those who satirize British royalty, and an all-female group that throws decorated heels instead of beads. This year, add a new group to the countless list that has paraded in the city: Mexican immigrants dressed as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera paintings.
For immigrants, living in the city is both a source of joy and pain — a place with a rich history that’s reminiscent of home, where exclusion and discrimination still linger. But two Saturdays ago, during a crowded carnival parade, about two dozen people took part in the signature celebration of their adopted town. Krewe de Mayahuel, named after the Aztec goddess of agave (source of the alcoholic beverages pulque and tequila), paraded over two miles of the city’s streets, the first Mardi Gras krewe of its kind.
Roberto Carrillo, a 52-year-old native of Mexico City who has lived in New Orleans for 13 years, helped dream up Mayahuel. “At some point, I remember saying, ‘There is no Mexicans represented in the culture of New Orleans,’ ” Carrillo said. “Parading is the soul of New Orleans, you show the world what you think.”
Eventually, Carrillo’s desire to counter negative stereotypes of Mexicans in this city and elsewhere boiled over into creating the krewe. “We don’t celebrate Cinco de Mayo, we don’t drink margaritas, we don’t eat burritos,” he said. “All of that is mis-culture.
“Here we are, we’re going nowhere, you may as well know us,” Carrillo added.
Sandwiched between other marching krewes — as parading groups are called here — including the satirical Krewe du Jieux and a krewe of Brooklyn transplants, Mayahuel featured some creative interpretations of its chosen theme of Mexican artists Kahlo and Rivera. Celestino Bustos and his girlfriend, Anna McGowan of Jackson, Miss., dressed up as the 1939 painting “The Two Fridas.” Bustos donned an ankle-length dress and sported a unibrow and makeup. Another marcher dressed as Kahlo in men’s clothing.
The parade crowds, from teenagers to senior citizens, adored the Fridas and screamed her name as Krewe de Mayahuel rolled by.
Eduardo Courtade, who moved here from the northern Mexico state of Tamaulipas 23 years ago, said he and his wife “didn’t want to be just a Frida or a Diego.” So they built a scene to represent the near-fatal bus accident Kahlo had as a teenager — a cardboard streetcar with a plastic blowup doll attached, red paint oozing from the cardboard pole coming out of her torso.
The immigrants who make up the bulk of the krewe grew up in various parts of Mexico, from Ciudad Juarez to Monterrey to Mexico City. Some have lived in New Orleans for a few years, others for decades. They’re construction workers, doctoral students, engineers and architects. A few say they have not suffered discrimination in this country, while others say they’ve been illegally exploited at work.
A 2009 survey by the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that New Orleans had the highest incidence of wage theft in the region; about 80 percent of Hispanic day laborers reported being denied pay after Hurricane Katrina.
Some of the members of Mayahuel recounted their personal experiences.
“We came a year and a half after Katrina,” Bustos said, and “we got in trouble with a lot of contractors that didn’t pay us. They were just screwing workers. We did have an experience where we worked for about a month and a half, it was about $9,000, and [the contractor] just ran away.”
Rodrigo Aranda, a native of Cuernavaca who moved here to enroll in a doctoral program in economics about five years ago, says he loves the city: Its early history as a Spanish and then French colony and its ties to Caribbean ports give the city a feel that’s familiar to Aranda, and the way families participate in Mardi Gras reminds him of Mexican festivals.
Aranda says his light skin has allowed him to hear ugly words about Mexicans from people who don’t realize where he’s from. But his complexion hasn’t inoculated him from bias. At a music festival, Aranda says he used his visa, which notes “border crossing card” on it, as ID to buy beer. The vendor made a rude remark about crossing the border, and Aranda objected. “And then he got upset about that and started to scream, ‘Migra, migra, they’re coming, migra!’ in front of a multitude,” Aranda recalled.
“When I arrived in New Orleans, I had never experienced such a peculiar fragmentation because I grew up in places that were majority Mexican, Mexican American, and spent most of my life that way,” said Antonio Garza, a native of Texas. “When I arrived here and taught high school, I was called racial slurs more days of the school year than not, by children. Adults did that, too.”
Aranda, Carrillo and others who came together to form Krewe de Mayahuel are hopeful that creolization — a local term referring to the mixing of cultures — will win out. Garza said that “an addition to the Mexicanizing of the parade is something I’ve always wanted to see.”
Mayahuel’s members aren’t the first Latin American immigrants to parade (and the krewe includes members who are Panamanian, Spanish, Mexican American, Korean American and white New Orleans natives). Ten years ago, Garza formed Amigos de los Amigos, a krewe partly made up of Mexican Americans like himself.
“Carnival is such a reflection of what’s happening with society,” said Rebecca Snedeker, executive director of the New Orleans Center for the Gulf South at Tulane University. “With the long, unfolding history of the city, there’s been many groups of immigrants who have moved here and forged a response to carnival this time of year.”
Carnival is also the place, she said, where some of the city’s racist tendencies linger, along with attempts to heal those divisions.
“The history of white supremacy and this fiction that white people are better than other people has had such a grip on our nation and certainly on this city and place. And there are so many people who together are trying to undo that narrative,” Snedeker said.
The Hispanic population in New Orleans grew by 40 percent, to 20,849, between 2000 and 2013, according to U.S. census data, with larger increases in neighboring areas. Most was due to increases in Mexican and Honduran immigrants. While Krewe de Mayahuel joins other efforts to insert Latin American culture into New Orleans, Rosa Gomez-Herrin, a doctoral student in urban studies at the University of New Orleans who grew up in Lima, Peru, says representation on policymaking bodies still eludes this immigrant community. There are no Latinos on the city’s seven-member school board. There is a Latina, Helena Moreno, on the City Council.
As Mayahuel paraded along packed neighborhood streets to the French Quarter, the cultural seemed to overlap with the political. A parader, one of the Fridas, carried a sign in Spanish saying “Migration is natural.” Krewe members wore monarch butterflies, a symbol adopted by immigrant rights activists because the monarch migrates across North America without respect to borders. A rolling canoe like the ones used by the Aztecs was painted with the slogan “Viva Mexico” — which the krewe got the mostly white crowds to chant several times along the route.
Hours later, at the end of the route, Mayahuel’s Fridas and Diegos dropped to the ground in exhaustion and drained the last drops of tequila out of numerous bottles. The route ended near where Mexico’s first indigenous president, Oaxaca native Benito Juárez, is believed to have lived when political infighting led to his exile here in the mid-1800s. It’s an example of how Mexico and New Orleans “are connected on so many levels,” said Bustos. Showing New Orleanians that connection made Mayahuel’s members proud even as they plopped down on the concrete sidewalk to nurse tired feet.
“I have a lot of energy still,” said Maria Rodriguez, a co-founder of Mayahuel. “Just a few shots of tequila, I’m still up and I’m just ready to go on with the party.”