Carnaval 2016

A Look Inside
Carnaval’s artistic director, Roberto Hernandez, shows us what makes this year’s Mission District Staple unique

Arturo Hilario/El Observador

There’s a place where one can dance to Samba, eat great food and help save the environment.

Carnaval 2016 is coming to the Bay Area on May 28th and 29th. In its 38th year, the eclectic celebration of Latin America and Caribbean cultures has cemented itself as an experience of fun, excitement and most important, learning.

Roberto Hernandez has been with the Carnaval since its inception in the late 1970’s, often seen throughout San Francisco’s Mission District, and known as the “Monarch of the Mission.” He’s had his hand in the Mission’s upbringing over the past 4 decades, helping cultivate culture, civil rights and bringing crucial information to the people of his neighborhood.

When asked about how he became involved with Carnaval he says it goes back to his childhood. “Well it goes back to being a little boy. So my abuelito taught me how to play guitar and then after I learned how to play the guitar my dad bought me a pair of bongos, because I used to watch ‘I Love Lucy’.”

Ricky Ricardo, Lucy’s husband in the show, was a Cuban-American Bandleader, much like the actor who played him, Desi Arnaz. His portrayal was often seen as a step in the right direction for Latino representation in television, and thus created a lot of fans of both he and his musical stylings. “I loved his Rumba shirts. And I loved that orchestra. I grew up listening to Merengue music and Mambo, Cha Cha Cha, and Mariachi music, I just love Latin Music”, says Hernandez.

In 1978 in a meeting between Mission District residents Hernandez says the plans to create a Carnaval were formed. “I was a young kid and I got so excited and went to all the meetings. Then I knew that was the first time that I could wear a Rumba shirt. And my mom made me the shirt, she was a seamstress and I remember that first year, we paraded around the park once and ended up going around and around. Went around that park 100 times.”

From that point on Hernandez knew that as the Carnaval became a yearly festival he wanted to be a part of it. “The following year we went from Presidio Park to Dolores Park. And the rest is history. That’s all I thought about all year long, Carnaval. The first year was only 500 people, the second year 5,000 people came, then 10,000. Within ten years it was like 100,000 people coming. We had no real solid organization to work on it so I quit my job, ate rice and beans, played music on the weekends and did a bunch of side jobs, then worked full time (on Carnaval), I was obsessed.”

The city of San Francisco was really intrigued with the festival because it was something different and new. “What I love about Carnaval is that you have every Latin American country and Caribbean country represented in the parade. You have from the Panamanians, to the Jamaicans to the Brazilians. It’s just 38 years of just ‘pura cultura’, and danza, and music. There’s 3 generations, I know of a grandmother, her daughter and great granddaughter who are going to come out in the parade this year.”

The parade now sprawls 17 blocks in the Mission, and serves as an introduction to the diverse diaspora of Latin America and the Caribbean. “What you see this year, you’ll never see again. Experience new music that’s written and new costumes that are made, new floats that are designed and created and new choreography for the dancers so everything is fresh and new every year. And it’s like magic.”

Hernandez highlights how yearly events like July 4th and Veteran’s Day are consistent, yet hardly the purveyors of changes, while Carnaval is an ever-evolving and eclectic time of the year. “We create (something) new, fresh, and it’s all based around a theme, this year our theme is “Viva Madre Tierra” (Mother Earth) because we believe that Mother Earth provides so much for us, from our foods to our vegetables, to water, to minerals & oils.”

This year’s musical headliners include Gondwana from Chile, musical pioneer Oscar D’León, whose coming from Venezuela with an 18 piece orchestra, and Oakland based Los Rakas, a Panamanian Rap duo who happen to have been invited to the White House by President Barack Obama on April 30th.

“Those 3 groups are going to be our headliners for Carnaval here. That’s what we do every year, we’ve had from Santana to Los Lonely Boys to Celia Cruz. It’s a time for us to come together and celebrate our cultura and who we are. One of our goals is to break away from that stereotype, Latinos don’t all eat tacos and listen to Mariachi. Even our rice is cooked different in every country.”

Other aspects that help attract the more than 400,000 guests to the event include ‘A Taste of Carnaval’. “We have all kinds of different food that you can come and eat. Try and empanada from Argentina.” Hernandez created an area called ‘Niñolandia’ (Kidland) for the children to be able to come and get on rides.” A library is available so that children can get a free book. Free child medical care such as teeth inspection and blood pressure tests are available. “So we do a mix of fun educational entertainment area. A whole block just for kids.”

A lowrider car show, Dance Pavilion and Drum Pavilion (to teach and learn dance and drumming) are also available attractions at the two day fest. In addition, an Eco Village has been created as “an area where you’re gonna learn about solar energy, how to conserve water, take care of Mother Earth and do your share and your little part in taking responsibility for saving our environment.”

All these facets of Carnaval are Hernandez’s way of emerging others into Latino culture, as well as bring a space of comfort to those already familiar with the culture. “My vision was to really create a festival that was interactive. You get that experience of just dancing on the street with a Samba dancer or a Peruvian dancer. You take a picture with somebody in costume.”

Hernandez always has a reason on why he adds to the event, and why it’s important to conserve the cultural offerings in a space as diverse as the Mission, especially as its future as an eclectic place in San Francisco is uncertain. “I was born here and I never learned about who I was in school. The history books that they have, it was about Columbus, about Europe, they never taught me about the Native Americans, about Aztecs, Incas, Huicholes or the Mayans. They never had music class regarding mariachi, or mambo or any kind of Latino music or dance class.”

This is why knowledge and immersion at Carnaval are as important as the colorful costumes, hopping lowriders, and good food and fun. “I think it’s really important that as Latinos we learn about who we are because once you know who you are then you’re complete. You’ll never be a complete human being if you don’t know who you are. (Latinos) It’s like we’ve been stripped of learning who we are so we as a community have taken on the responsibility to teach our own.”

And finally Hernandez adds a final reason to go to this year’s Carnaval celebrations. “To learn. To learn how to preserve our environment, Madre Tierra.”

For more info on Carnaval 2016 please visit <>

Arts & Culture