The Battle of the Flowers: Puerto Colombia

ArticleJosé Antonio VillaránComment

Joselito Carnaval, the most emblematic character within El Carnaval de Barranquilla, died after four days of intense rumba. His body is symbolically mourned and buried every year by the happy widows and friends he left behind. Joselito’s burial is a symbolic farewell to the flesh, yes, but the underlying idea, that there is not just one Joselito, but rather, that his spirit lives on through every single one of us, lingering, waiting to cut loose and revel in the miracle of life, ready to dance and celebrate together as one people. This, I believe, seems to be the essence of El Carnaval de Barranquilla, as expressed through one of its main events, the Battle of the Flowers: a communal celebration of Colombian identity in its myriads of forms and representations, a beautiful convergence of cultures that seems to bestow upon its participants a genuine feeling of belonging, of having a unique sense of identity, of truly surrendering to the experience of joy and celebration as a life perspective.

I’ve never been to Colombia, let alone Puerto Colombia. I thought of my own experiences in el Carnaval de Barranco, in Lima, where I was born and grew up. I also thought of the Mission Street Carnival in San Francisco, where I spend a good chunk of my twenties and most of my college years. Yet it quickly became clear to me that there was something special about El Carnaval de Barranquilla, and more specifically about the Battle of the Flowers (La Batalla de las Flores). Intrigued by this new world, I decided to chase Maria Elvira, host of magical Casa Pradomar in Puerto Colombia, down the rabbit hole. I watched Skype video conversations between her and Chris hours before their comparsa, whose evocative name, “la puntica no ma” (“just the tip”), conditioned my subsequent discoveries about El Carnaval, hit the streets on this year’s Battle of the Flowers. It was invigorating, the whole house seemed so alive, vibrant colors and textures on the walls, people hanging out in every room, talking, sowing, cutting, painting, all finishing up their dazzling costumes, everyone happy and smiling. I got hooked on Joselito, and I wanted more.

I learned that the origins of this beautiful battle date back to the beginning of this century, when Colombia was engaged in the Thousand Days War (1899 to 1902). As an act of solidarity, the mayor decided to suspend El Carnaval, as well as other festivities. However, when the war ended, the mayor authorized the Carnaval to return to the community, and as a way to honor what the Colombian people had just endured, General Heriberto Bengochea made the following statement: “Let’s pay homage to peace, let’s change what we were living, which was a battle of iron and lead, for a battle… but of flowers”. El Carnaval of Barranquilla begins four days prior to Ash Wednesday, reaching its climax on Saturday during the famous Battle of the Flowers, where one can truly witness the joy and colorfulness of the Colombian people clashing wildly, but in a battle of flowers, beauty and peace.

I can only imagine what it might be like, getting ready for the battle in Maria Elvira’s house, finishing up on the costumes and improvising to the last minute. Li, lead singer of amazing Colombian digital cumbia band Bomba Estereo, making some final make-up touches on her boyfriend, Sune and Aslak, the Copenhagen contingent, being boisterous yet lovely while music blasts in the background. Vincent, who had just arrived to Puerto Colombia after three months of nomadic traveling through Brazil filming local music bands, smiles for the camera, Francisco makes an appearance, running around in his underwear, and Catalina “la bella” just takes it all in quietly in a corner. I catch glimpses of the ocean as Maria Elvira’s Mac journeys through Casa Pradomar. It’s crazy, it’s chaotic, it’s beautiful, it’s everyone getting ready for the Battle of the Flowers. There is an overwhelming, yet warm sense of imminence, and one gets the feeling that something truly amazing is about to happen. In Maria Elvira’s own words: “It’s an incredible experience, you’re exposed to so much, that it makes you reach deep into yourself, and that’s when you realize that you’re just a tiny little being in a huge, huge universe. That’s exactly what the Battle of the Flowers does to you.”

Photos by Sebastián Cruz Roldán and Maria Elvira Dieppa.