The foam was flying Thursday night as tens-of-thousands crowded into Cuenca’s historic district for Jueves de Compadres y Comadres, the traditional opening of the long Carnival weekend. According to a police estimate, a crowd of about 15,000 crunched into San Francisco Plaza and surrounding streets to listen to music and blast their neighbors with aerosol foam.
Celebrants began gathering in El Centro by mid-day to attend the bandas del pueblos [village bands] competition in Parque Calderon and visit food and crafts fairs set up in parks and plazas. For the second consecutive year, the Hermanos Plasencia of Sígsig took first place in the 12-band contest.
Events continue Friday in Cuenca and surrounding towns, as more vendors set up tents to sell handicrafts, food and, of course, cans of foam. Saturday’s highlight is the 10 a.m. Carnival parade on Simon Bolivar.
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The overflow crowd at San Francisco Plaza was entertained by four bands as more than 100 police patrolled the area, warning revelers about public drunkenness and breaking up fights, one of the old traditions of Carnival. By midnight, police said they had made about 30 arrests, mostly for disorderly conduct.
Observing activities at San Francisco Plaza, one of the event organizers, Fernando Lara, said he is pleased to see foam replace water as the weapon of choice among Carnival combatants. “Until 10 years ago or so, there was more water than foam and some of the water balloons were frozen, which meant people got hurt,” he said. “The only problem with the foam fights is you need to keep it out of your eyes. You still see some water guns, but less and less.”
Another tradition Lara said he doesn’t miss are the fights. “When I was a kid some men put on costumes so they could beat up their enemies and some did it without costumes,” he said. “I remember seeing boys and men walking down the streets of Cuenca with blood running down their faces. Good riddance to that.”
Lara added: “The good thing about Carnival in Ecuador is that it is not as commercialized as it is in places like Brazil, Argentina and Mexico. People here just have fun and everyone can participate.”
Carnival has its roots in Italy and was originally the Catholic celebration preceding the abstintence and penance practiced for 40 days prior to Good Friday. Today, abstintence is a relic of the past as Carnival and –called Madi Gras in some countries– are celebrated world-wide, most intensely in Latin America.
An ancient celebration by Andean indigenous people, including fighting and water throwing, was incorporated into Spanish traditions in the 16th century.
According the Ecuadorian lore, a Quito bishop who was the victim of a water attack, threatened excommunication to perpetrators in the 1920s. The Vatican reportedly told him to chill.
Officially, Carnival is Tuesday, February 21, but, for many celebrants, the party goes on for five or six days.