Santiago de Cuba City was founded in 1515 by Diego Velázquez.
From the beginning, it was a cosmopolitan city with an outstanding cultural life, since it was, for many years, the capital city of the Island, and even the center of the Spanish power in the Caribbean.
The early existence of the Cabildos Congos (societies that kept alive African languages, traditions and beliefs) was the forerunner of the comparsa conga (groups of people wearing masks and costumes, dancing to the rhythm of the conga and carrying streamers, banners and brightly colored street lamps called farolas). The festive religious atmosphere became a key element in preserving the Santiago traditions.
The Santiago de Cuba Carnival has its origins in a remote time of the Colonial era, around the Cathedral. By the end of the 17th century, a procession was going around the streets to celebrate the City’s Patron Saint, Santiago Apóstol. The Santiago people have always found in the carnivals a way out for their tensions, dispelling their doubts in the sane joy of their walks and congas that are the deepest roots of their popular idiosyncrasy.
Originally held during the Epiphany Days, and called mamarrachos for the use of masks and comic floats, they were later moved to June first, and finally to July, which is the month they currently take place, as an extension of the Fiesta del Fuego (Fire Party), a traditional festival of Afro-Caribbean cultures which is annually held in Santiago de Cuba.
The main feature of the Santiago Carnival is the vital time the comparsero (comparsa player) devotes to achieve a final position that guarantees the prestige of his comparsa and showing it to the community as an element truly representative of the neighborhood. By the early 20th century, comparsas started parading, in a competitive way, representing the different quarters previously authorized by the city hall. They have been preserved, and over time acquired new characteristics according to the historic and social context.
For two centuries, the parades have been organized into Paseos, Congas and Centenarias, in about 17 groups. The carnival dances originated in the 1920s, and they became popular with time. The so called Piquetes Soneros (traditional music pickets) joined them later. A few months before the carnivals, the quarters start choosing the comparsa players or dancers, the music, the dancing groups, the choreographies, and the elemental secret work with the gallo tapao.
During nights, it’s almost impossible to join the Conga Santiaguera, which goes arrollando everywhere (they use this term “arrollar” to refer to the bustling people following the comparsas singing, playing, and dancing the conga). It marks the end of the Santiago Carnivals. A unique experience to enjoy the burning Caribbean summer in this Cuban city.