A blend of Caribbean rhythms and colorful troupes mark the beginning of the Palo de Mayo festival in Nicaragua; a ceremony that pays tribute to Mayaya, the African goddess of fertility. Considered the greatest expression of culture and tradition of the Nicaraguan Caribbean, the celebration launches on the first of May with a presentation of an adorned tree decorated with colored ribbons and around which dances are performed. The feast welcomes the rainy season and new life.
Initially, it was held in Corn Island, then in Pearl Lagoon and currently it is celebrated in Bluefields, attracting spectators from all over the surrounding area and from all over the country. Prior to the carnival, the inhabitants of the neighborhoods gather to prepare their colorful costumes and practice the dances that they will perform accompanied by their troupes, which compete with each other.
Throughout the month of May and mainly on weekends, different cultural events are held at night, where dances such as punta, zumba, guanara and gulye are performed in Afro-Caribbean dance style.
In the holiday period, gastronomy fairs are also held where those who attend enjoy exquisite Caribbean foods such as: El Rondon, coconut bread, gallo pinto with coconut, and patí among others.
This festival has managed to survive across time and generations in Nicaragua as it continues to be highly anticipated year after year.
The Palo de Mayo tradition has transcended from one continent to another, but its purpose has not changed: The people gather to give thanks to the earth, celebrate fertility and welcome the harvest.
The concept of the Palo de Mayo or May Pole, originated in Egypt, but this custom came to the Caribbean coast from Europe, specifically from England during the time of the English occupation in this territory of the Americas, tells VisitaNicaragua.com.
In England, May Day was a folk dance performed around a tall pole decorated with greenery and flowers as well as ribbons that were woven by dancers. These dances were founded in ancient dances that used living trees as part of spring rites to invite fertility. Similar ribbon dances were found throughout Europe, and India and similar rituals were performed in pre-Columbian Latin America that were later integrated into ritual dances of Hispanic origin.
Arrival of the Palo de Mayo in Nicaragua
The practice arrived in Nicaragua when the English occupied the Caribbean Coast. Nicaraguan historians affirm that the celebration, as is know today, was brought from Jamaica, explains VisitaNicaragua.com.
Once reaching the Caribbean coast, the festivities evolved, as it combined with the rhythms of this region and of the Africans who were brought as slaves to the Caribbean. The flora, the climate and the multiple customs of Africans, merged giving another expression to the May Pole celebrations, differentiating it from the European version.
In the Caribbean, this dance gives thanks to Mother Nature for the fruits of the season.
A Dancer’s Perspective
For the dancer, Junith Jacotín Mairena, who has represented Nicaraguan dances in events inside and outside of Nicaragua, the Palo de Mayo festivities represent joy, freedom, and the celebration of a very important cycle, the fertile season:
“At the same time, for me, Palo de Mayo represents the cultural richness that exists in Nicaragua and the ability of Afro-descendants to take a tradition, combine it with their own, and transform it until it is practically new and original,” she tells.
Originally, the dance of the Maypole, would have the ladies dancing around the tree, as men who wanted to join them would have to wait. The ladies would use their hands to gesture to them, “not yet,” details Wingsdancing.
Over the years, the dance has undergone some changes starting with the clothing, since according to some of the oldest residents of Bluefields, the clothing of the May Pole were not the short skirts that are used today, but rather, they were skirts that reached the ankle, or below the knee but not as short as they are today.
The original dance was softer and slower. The inhabitants describe it as a dance that must be felt, enjoyed; in which there is no need to do exaggerated moves and stunts.
The Palo de Mayo is a dance full of energy and joy, as Junith Jacotín explained in her interview with Wingsdancing: “Dancing Palo de Mayo makes me feel alive! I feel that freedom in me.” The dance of Palo de Mayo represents constant renewal. Not only because of its symbology, but also because of the constant evolution that each year brings to the dance.
Another element that has been changing is the role of the man, since in the original May Pole dance, the man does not have as much prominence as they do today, elaborates Wingsdancing.
Palo de Mayo, A Celebration for All
In 1980, the Nicaraguan government declared the Palo de Mayo a festival for all indigenous and ethnic peoples of the Caribbean, as well as throughout Nicaragua. Previously, it was only celebrated in the Creole communities of Bluefields, Laguna de Perlas, Corn Island and Puerto Cabezas.
That same year the popular phrase, “Mayo Ya!” (May Now!) emerged as a phrase that describes excitement and anticipation for a dance that unites all. The phrase is attributed to Caribbean poet, Carlos Rigby, tells Visitanicaragua.com.
Rhythms of May Pole
The original Maypole of the Caribbean, carries mobile rhythms based on rustic instruments, such as coconut ray, donkey jaw, tortoiseshell comb, washing tub, hand drums and maracas, as well as guitar, banjo, accordion, violin. With the passing of time, the music has been adapted to the instruments and musical production of today. The genre is associated with calypso and socca, popular in the English-speaking islands of the Greater Caribbean.
Some of the popular songs that accompany the celebration include, “Canta Simón, canta mi amor;” “Mayaya perdió su llave;” “Se volteó la lancha;” and “Veni, hermano Willy,” among others. Many of the May Pole songs are testimonials that denounced the injustices that occurred in the communities of the South Caribbean at that time.
In early years in the Creole communities, the Palo de Mayo celebrations included dance games and singing songs such as “Brown girl in the ring,” “London Bridge is falling down” and “Down on the carpet.” These same songs were of British origin, but over time they were modified with local lyrics.
Local gastronomy is quite common in this celebration, dishes such as gallo pinto with coconut, soca cake, patty, bon bread, fresh ginger are typically tasted during the party. As for the celebration, it is traditionally held every weekend in a different neighborhood, where the residents of the other neighborhoods gather to celebrate.
Over the years many of the customs have been modified. Palo de Mayo is celebrated practically throughout the Caribbean Coast and in some communities of the Pacific. The Caribbean people dance to the sound of traditional music, thanking nature for the first drops of rain and for the harvest.
Palo de Mayo is one of the main celebrations of the Nicaraguan Caribbean that unites an entire people. Its ancestral heritage lives on every May.
To learn more about this festival and others in Nicaragua:
Dr. Soledad Quartucci is the founder and CEO of Latina Republic, a 501(C)3 California-based nonprofit organization. Latina Republic is committed to improving the diversity and professional development of storytellers in the media industry as representation matters and affects the stories we tell. Latina Republic makes space for and empowers unheard voices and trains the next generation of leaders in the U.S.