Carnival in the Canaries – Pharibe Pope – Spain 2019

“¿Qué significa murga?” This was a question I asked after picking up the local newspaper in our teacher’s lounge. It was a room just big enough to fit one futon and four stools, but at any one time you might find ten to fifteen exuberant teachers sitting shoulder to shoulder, sipping 1-euro cafecitos from the vending machine, and chatting about the news, the school day, and always the weather. Over the past five months, I had found my place in this school community and eventually even earned a spot on the coveted futon.

When I was not teaching science and humanities to my students ages three to twelve, I spent as much time as possible in the teacher’s lounge. My Spanish (and, in hindsight, my cultural humility) improved dramatically. I read the Spanish news sources that littered the table and engaged in Spanish conversations with my co-teachers. I learned to get comfortable with asking for clarification on a given topic or for the definition of a word, and on this particular day in the beginning of January of 2021 the word was “murga.”

“¡Hay la gente de Carnaval!” replied Marisol, my Bilingual Coordinator turned close friend. The entire room had more explanations and stories to add. Everyone wanted to share.

The murgas, my co-teachers explained to me, were Carnival performers. They would practice all year long for their chance to parade in costume, perform musical numbers, and essentially run the boisterous street celebrations preceding Lent. During Carnival, an important festive season celebrated in more than 50 historically Christian countries, troupes of murgas would compete against one another, showcasing jokes and social criticism in the songs they spent all year developing. The particularly impressive troupes of murgas in Tenerife became renowned across the island and maybe even on a few of the other seven Canary Islands as well.

A little over two months after this conversation with my co-teachers, I was evacuated back to the U.S. along with the other Fulbrighters in Spain and across the world. However, it was not before I got to see the murgas perform. Setting my eyes on a troupe of murgas for the first time during Carnival, I was overwhelmed by the spectacle. Their costumes were bright and flamboyant, their voices loud and melodic, and their choreography perfectly rehearsed.

My Fulbright friends who were in the Canary Islands laugh as we reflect on how our “going away party” took form as the largest celebration on the islands. In fact, el Carnival de Santa Cruz de Tenerife is the second largest Carnival in the world (just behind the celebration in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil). Seeing the murgas perform was the best way to bid farewell to the island community I was not yet ready to leave. I feel grateful to have been invited in by my co-teachers, students, and newfound friends to share in all of the language, the music, and the traditions that made the Canary Islands so special.

Pharibe Pope – Fulbright to Spain 2019

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