Last week, I attended the carnival kick-off in the beautiful southern city of Jacmel, whose crumbling grandeur is reminiscent of Havana. This was once the wealthiest coffee port in the world: its French owners built stately homes in the eighteenth century with fortunes made from their slaves’ backs. When those slaves rose up to seize their freedom, they birthed, in one swoop, both Haiti and the torrid history by which its people — saddled by debt and shunned for half a century by the only other sovereign state in the hemisphere, the United States — became its poorest.
In the revolution’s wake, Jacmel’s overclass fled for New Orleans. But the town became a mecca for art: for painting, for handicrafts in cast iron and wood, and for the rara bands who during Lent bang out polyrhythmic poems on guiro gourds and banbou horns. But what Jacmel is best known for, especially at carnival time, are the magnificent masks and creatures local artisans craft in papier-mâché. Their creations — dragons, pigs, politicians, cars — embody much more than whimsy. Each one carries symbolic weight that resonates with Haiti’s past. When a troupe of dark-colored pigs shuffles past, they represent cochon créole, the hearty black beasts who were killed off en masse by U.S. aid workers after a swine-flu outbreak in the early 1980s. This is a folk history whose annals every Haitian peasant, literate or not, knows deeply. via | Harper’s Magazine