Friday, February 13, 2015

Rey Momo: Mexican Mardi Gras Crown Gringo King and Queen

Jay Daniel, 2014 Rey Momo Extranjero.

The population of a small fishing village in the Costalegre region of Mexico doubles in winter with the influx of American and Canadian snowbirds. Some come to fish, some come for sun, some come for the culture and others bring their culture with them. Mardi Gras — or Carnival as it is known in Latin America — is one such festival thrown together in a margarita blender and served up in the days before Lent in Barra de Navidad, Jalisco, Mexico. The crowning of the gringo Rey Momo is a highlight for the turistas and an honor for one lucky ex-pat.

New Orleans has it's King of the Mardi Gras and south of the border the King of Carnival is known as Rey Momo. In Brazil, Carnival accounts for 70 pecent of all tourism to the country. But who or what is a Rey Momo and how did it make its way to Barra de Navidad?

For the answer to that we go back to Greek mythology. Momos...or Komos...or Comus was not only the god of poets and writers he personified sarcasm, ridicule and biting irony. The son of Bacchus represented drunken abandonment and men and women during Pre-Lenten festivals in ancient Greece would exchange clothing as part of the celebrations.

In Barra de Navidad, weeks of planning and liaising between the community and organizers culminates in a weekend of Rey Momo activities and the occasional exchange of clothing.

Contestants — in 2015 — are put forward on Friday the 13th, the crowning of Rey Momo and his Queen are on Monday and the winners are paraded through the streets of neighboring communities — including Jaluco, Villa Obregon and San Patricio on Tuesday evening in an hours-long parade.

It was local bar owners who catered to the northern clientele that first initiated the extranjero Rey Momo in the late 1990s. Chynna Chilton, one of the original organizers states that the idea of a separate Rey Momo was, "a contribution to the community and linking whites and browns in a fun way." The owner of the Backstage Bar is also at the helm in putting together the event in 2015. "Rey Momo began in Barra before my time," she says. "But it was only the Mexican one. We introduced the foreign Momo and his Queen."

Jay Daniel, the reigning Rey Momo Extranjero of 2014, states that, "I felt honored and privileged to have been elected King." The long-time resident of Barra de Navidad who made the permanent move to Mexico in 2009 after years of visiting Barra in the winter months adds that, "Carnival was always one of my favorite times of the year in Barra. It may be a silly way of going about it, but what a great way for the Mexicano and Gringo communities to come together and get to know each other better."

One such queen, Dana Hill — Reina Extranjera 2010 — from British Columbia, Canada states that, "The parade is the best part, especially all the little kids running after the floats with big smiles on their faces. I especially like the fact that you can throw candy to them," she adds laughing, "because I think that would be frowned upon in Canada. It's too dangerous!"

Reina Extranjera 2010 Dana Hill (C) among past Rey Momos and organizer Chynna Chilton (2nd from L).

Both Rey and Reina are expected to pass on the torch in the following year to the next king and queen but their duties and responsibilities never truly end. For Jay, the end of his reign is bittersweet as he has been undergoing cancer treatments in his native Wisconsin since the fall.

"One of the things that I was and still am very bummed about," he says, "is the Rey Momo and the whole Carnival thing. I really can not adequately express how much I miss being in Barra. But now I can't be there for any of the fun festivities or to judge the contest or ride in the parade.  A year ago I felt like a king and now I'm feeling like a slave, a slave to this stinkin' disease."

Jay is winning his fight against cancer. Though he may not know it from afar he is in the thoughts and prayers of an entire seaside community in Mexico. A community that crowned him Rey Momo last year for his relentless enthusiasm of his adopted home. They await his eventual return.

Returning to Mexico in conjunction with the Christmas holiday that bears the town name, Dana is looking forward to Carnival weekend. "I am going to be volunteering this year for Chynna as she is really trying to integrate the locals and doing her best as she always does. So, I have put up some posters, will be selling 50/50 tickets and working the beer bar, should be a fun time. Wish you were here!"

Carnival parade through streets of Barra de Navidad, Mexico.