Mardi Gras is serious business in Lousiana. Or rather, it is a crazy, fun-filled, over-the-top, not-really-for-children business... There are parades everywhere (some are NOT child-friendly) and people eat a King cake that is not the traditionnal French galette. It is an (unappealing... to me) braided brioche with a glaze and sprinkles the colors of Mardi Gras, purple, green and gold. Purple Represents Justice. Green Represents Faith. And Gold Represents Power. Oh, and there is a little plastic baby inside every cake instead of a bean...
In French, "Mardi Gras" literally means "Fat Tuesday," so named because it falls on the day before Ash Wednesday, the last day prior to Lent. The origin of "Fat Tuesday" is believed to have come from the ancient Pagan custom of parading a fat ox through the town streets. Such Pagan holidays were filled with excessive eating, drinking and general bawdiness prior to a period of fasting. Louisiana is the only state in which Mardi Gras is a legal holiday.
Strings of beads and toys have been thrown from floats to parade-goers since at least the late 19th century. Until the 1960s, the most common form was multi-colored strings of glass beads made in Czechoslovakia. Of course, now, those have been replaced by cheap plastic strings of beads from China and understandably, most people lost interest in them, leaving them where they landed on the ground. Women would flash their breasts in an attempt to get more beads, hence the tradition of revelers surrounding the Mardi Gras parades...
We went to a child-friendly parade and did not see any revelers. You are supposed to address the men or women in the floats for beads by saying: "Hey Mister/Lady, throw me something!". Also, you are not suppose to grab the beads that fall on the ground and should only wear the ones that you actually catch. If you do not respect this, you are what they call a "bottom feeder", which of course, is not a really nice thing to be...
When we told the seventy-something thight-lips lady at the Jennings info center that we planned to go to New Orleans (and to the French Quarter) for Mardi Gras WITH our girls, she became really alarmist and said to avoid it like the plague, that it was full of drunk-naked-people-peeing-in-the-streets... We knew they were closing the French Quarter from Friday night 6 pm to Wednesday morning to traffic (a period during which most bars are open 24 hours a day), so we decided to go on Friday morning and to see how it was like. There were quite a bit of people dressed to party and most of them had drinks in their hands, but the ambiance was great and totally child-friendly. By 4, it was getting louder and busier and it was clearly time to leave... We could only imagine how it would look like there for the next 4 days...
|:: 4:30 pm on Friday in the French Quarter ::|
|:: Mathilde's bling bling ::|
|:: Waiting for the parade ::|
Across the globe, pre-Lenten festivals continue to take place in many countries with significant Roman Catholic populations. Brazil's weeklong Carnival festivities feature a vibrant amalgam of European, African and native traditions. In Canada, Quebec City hosts the giant Quebec Winter Carnival. In Italy, tourists flock to Venice's Carnevale, which dates back to the 13th century and is famous for its masquerade balls. Known as Karneval, Fastnacht or Fasching, the German celebration includes parades, costume balls and a tradition that empowers women to cut off men's ties. For Denmark's Fastevlan, children dress up and gather candy in a similar manner to Halloween–although the parallel ends when they ritually flog their parents on Easter Sunday morning.
If you want to read more about this very interesting tradition, read this.
|:: The Queen ::|
|:: The Krewe of the Centurions. And that's it for float picture, because taking photos of a Mardi Gras parade *is* an extreme sport! ::|
But there is a dark side to this festival that has been portrayed in a movie called Mardis Gras: Made in China. Here is an excerpt from here:
Mardis Gras: Made in China is a film about commodity chains, weaving back and forth between the desires of revelers in New Orleans for inexpensive plastic beads, the labor of factory workers in China whose lives are almost entirely shaped by the desires of these revelers, and the American distributor who links the two.
The film opens with drunken revelers at Mardi Gras in New Orleans trading frontal nudity for brightly colored plastic beads. Most are just revelers for whom the beads are one part of the experience, but there are also self-professed ‘bead whores’ who seek to see how many beads they can collect in a single night.
Meanwhile, back in the Chinese free trade zone in Tai Keun, Fuzhou, Fujian province, hundreds of workers toil for fourteen hours a day to make those beads. As young as fourteen, they eat in the factory cafeteria and live in factory housing—ten workers sharing five beds in a 20x24 foot room. The compound has attractive lawns and some recreation facilities like a basketball court but is surrounded by a high stone fence topped with barbed wire.
While partygoers in New Orleans spend up to $500 on beads, the factory workers earn, we are told at various times, $2-3 dollars per day, $62-70 per month, averaging about ten cents per hour. Most of the money is sent home to families.
Workers can earn more by exceeding the quotas set by the factory, but most find themselves struggling to meet these quotas. Failure to meet quota results in a ten percent cut in pay—one of many fines levied for infractions of the factory's many regulations (male-female fraternizing, for example, results in a loss of one month's pay).
Mardis Gras: Made in America beautifully illustrates the concept of the commodity chain. If it raises more questions than it answers—about the nature of exploitation, about gender and power, about rituals of consumption—that makes it all the more valuable for teaching and as a jumping off place for coming to our own answers.