This story is part of The 47: Historias along a bus route, a collaboration between WHYY’s PlanPhilly, Emma Restrepo and Jane M. Von Bergen.
Una mezcla – a mixture.
That’s what the annual Carnaval de Puebla is for Mexican restaurateur David Piña who, with cousins and friends, introduced this colorful parade of costumed marchers and musicians to his new home city of Philadelphia nearly 14 years ago.
It’s the same mezcla experienced by many immigrants – a longing for the customs of home and the joy that comes in reliving them here. Pride comes with presenting a heartfelt gift of something new and beautiful to new neighbors.
“Al principio pues era el disfrutar porque por primera vez estábamos haciendo un evento de esa magnitud en Filadelfia, en un país ajeno al nuestro”, dijo Piña recordando a su padre, Pedro Piña, recientemente fallecido y quien fuera un carnavalero en San Mateo Ozolco-México. “It was a success. Many people liked it. They were happy for the first time they were witnessing such an event.”
But mixed with the pride was a shadow. How would the Carnaval be received?
“Pero imagínate, un país que no es el nuestro como que ese entusiasmo, pero a la vez teníamos ese miedo. Si no les gusta, nos echan a la policía. Teníamos ese miedito”, dijo.
Not likely now.
Until COVID-19 diminished last year’s Carnaval, the springtime event had established itself so firmly in the city’s rich tapestry of ethnic celebrations that Visit Philadelphia, the city’s tourism office, promoted the parade and fiesta to out-of-towners.
This year, because of the pandemic, Piña can add sorrow to the mix, along with the hope, that virtual events will keep the tradition alive.
“Un poquito triste la situación que estamos pasando. Estamos poniendo de nuestra parte y seguiremos poniendo de nuestra parte y seguiremos avanzando, y esperemos que haya carnaval de Puebla por mucho tiempo”, dijo.
Based on the events of May 5, 1862, the Carnaval de Puebla is essentially a military reenactment, with colorful costumes and music, of the battle in which a small, but mighty Mexican army defeated French colonizers and restored the country’s independence.
“El carnaval trae historia, todo está basado en la batalla de Puebla”, explicó. “Hasta donde tengo entendido inicia cuatro años después de la batalla de Puebla y van adoptando personajes de los que participaron, y ahí van formando los trajes”.
The participants march in battalions – each with its distinctive costume. The Indio Serranos and the Zacapoaxtlas are on the Mexican side, with the Serranos’ costumes adorned with images of the beloved Virgin of Guadalupe. The Zuavos, Turcos and the Zapadores fight for the French.
El desfile del Carnaval, que la ruta 47 de Septa cruza en Washington Avenue, lleva los distintos personajes llenos de colores en donde por supuesto no falta la Virgen de Guadalupe bordada en algunos de los trajes.
Without any significant financial support from outside the community, Piña, his cousins, and friends formed the Organización San Mateo and through it, grew the Carnaval year by year.
Each costume runs hundreds of dollars. In a community where money can be scarce, Carnaval members contribute $1,500 each to fund the Carnaval. In 2019, the Carnaval cost more than $60,000, including city permits and money to bring in Mexican bands to play for the event. The city’s Mexican consulate helps with some logistics.
In Mexico, the Carnaval began in 1868 in Huejotzingo, a town in the state of Puebla, where it is celebrated for four days just before the pre-Easter season of Lent – and includes the usual mix of food, fun, and alcohol.
En Huejotzingo, el Carnaval dura cuatro días, sábado, domingo, lunes y martes. “Es entre finales de febrero, principios de marzo”, explicó Piña.
In Philadelphia, the weather is colder, so the Carnaval is typically held in late April, closer to May 5. This year, it will be virtual, as organizers share audio, video, and photos from previous years and host a live concert featuring two Carnaval bands via Facebook Live on April 25. Piña cautions celebrants to avoid any behavior that could attract unwanted attention from immigration officials or the media.
When the Carnaval happens in person, Piña cautions celebrants to avoid any behavior that could attract unwanted attention from immigration officials or the media.
“Lamentablemente siempre tenemos a la prensa que anda viendo los puntos malos; siempre tenemos la prensa contraria”, dijo Piña. “La prensa de nuestro lado toma las fotos de los adultos, las mujeres, los niños gozando, pero la otra prensa busca lo malo”.
Too often, he said, the press focuses on the bad points, overlooking the joy of an event that draws 300 to 350 participants and 8,000 spectators.
“Being a carnival-maker is not being a clown,” Piña said. “It’s not a synonym for entertaining other people.”
“Para ser carnavalero tienes que tener ese conocimiento y respetar lo que portas”.
And what Piña carries is tradition and community. “Traer la cultura de nosotros es un orgullo”.
Celebration is part of Piña’s nature. In the fall, he organizes festivities for El Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, at his restaurant, Tamalex, in South Philadelphia.
In Mexico, Piña was, he said, a rebel. Wanting more than his parents could provide, Piña dropped out of school at age 14 and left his home in San Mateo Ozolco, a small village in the state of Puebla. He moved to Mexico City. There, he eventually found a job in a restaurant kitchen – working for eight or nine hours a day, earning two dollars a week as an underage, under-the-table worker.
By 17, Piña was running the kitchen and the restaurant became a favorite of the city’s celebrities – artists, fighters, the famous people. The work was hard, but his leadership in the kitchen made him proud.
`Me van a llamar ‘chef’”, dijo.
Persuaded by his cousins, Piña decided to come to Philadelphia in March 1998 at the age of 19. He quickly landed a job in a pizzeria in New Jersey, working there for nine years. Seven of those years, he was in charge.
“Los mexicanos siempre queremos hacernos los héroes de toda cocina”, dijo. “Porque llegamos y trabajamos realmente duro. Queremos mostrar la capacidad que tenemos. Nosotros estamos hechos de madera buena”.
Working hard was nothing new for Piña. “My parents would wake me up at 5:30 or 6 a.m. and we would go to the country to feed the little animals we had. We were coming back at 8 because at 8:30 we had to go to school. At 6 p.m., I would feed the animals again and do schoolwork.”
“A nosotros nos enseñaron a trabajar desde pequeños”.
Piña’s bountiful energy has helped him provide for his five children and build a community in addition to a business. The bright murals on Tamalex’s walls can be seen from the 47, as the bus moves north on Seventh Street.
Tamalex also functions as a community center. In the pandemic, his employees packed boxes of food for those in need. He and his partner, Alejandro “Alex” Mondragón, make it a practice to employ women, many of them single immigrant mothers. It’s the partners’ way of contributing to the economic welfare of their neighborhood.
As much as Piña has contributed, his ambitions for his restaurant, for the Carnaval, and indeed, for the community, have no limits.
“Yo sigo luchando por ese sueño. Lo estoy logrando con suerte y trabajo, pero seguimos con esa visión de avanzar, de seguir superándonos”, dijo Piña. “Hay gente que le llama ambición, yo le llamo los sueños que todos tenemos”.
Celebrate this year’s Carnaval de Puebla on April 25 online with the two of the best bands of the carnavaleros genre from Puebla.
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