SANTIAGO DE CUBA, Cuba - The Carnival of Santiago de Cuba has been turning the second largest city on the island into a grand party for many generations.
Ernesto Carbonell is 14, and as a dancer, he already feels like he is apart of the annual celebration, which continues to keep rich Afro-Cuban culture alive. This year he practiced for about three months.
The April and July parties, about a 15-hour drive east of Havana in the 500-year-old city, are a time for street vendors to make some money. But Ernesto is there for the fun, although he takes his dancing practices seriously.
"I want to be a doctor, but I take this as a hobby," he said.
It is no coincidence that The Queen of Bolero Olga Guillot, Emilio Estefan and Emilio Bacardi were born in this city. There was a time when the event was a bon vivant's dream. There was a never ending supply of good rum. Regular dancing was expected. And the lower the social class, the faster the beat.
Some historians say the tradition goes back to a midsummer resting period given to African slaves after the sugar cane harvest. Others say colonialists brought it to the island with the Roman Catholic processions of St. James the Apostle.
"It comes from our ancestors and we have been cultivating it and defending it,: said Zoenilda Nelson, who allows her children to dance in the carnival. "Since they [the children] are born, they are in the carnival, in the conga and in the fun."
Today, the government's images of spontaneous sexy dancers and flashy jesters, aren't attracting tourists. Varadero and Havana remain the epicenters of the industry. Although there are tours, the party is for the locals.
The comparsas, Spanish for dancing troupes, practice almost all year long and perform during a final parade known as the Montompolo or Montón-Polo.
The comparsas have two different styles: There are the ruling class' lavish paseos and the congas, which were for the working class. Choreographer Gabriel Lopez is familiar with both styles. He started dancing when he was a boy.
"It's awesome. It is a santiaguero's entire life," Lopez said. "It comes from our ancestors and we have grown it and defended it."
Leonard Gorgas, 20, said the dancers work for a long time and make a lot of sacrifices. He said he loves his city.
"It's a place where we dance to plenty of Cuban traditional music," Gorgas said.
"We make song, salsa, bolero. And our children, our generation will maintain these roots and this Cubania."
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