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Latin Carnaval Atmosphere Fills Streets of Long Beach

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Rio de Janeiro has one. So do New Orleans, Galveston, Miami and San Francisco.

Now, for what event organizers say is the first time ever, Southern California has its own large-scale, Latin-flavored party in the streets.

The first (hoped-to-be) annual Long Beach Carnaval kicked off Friday night with a harbor cruise. But that was just a prelude to today’s street festival, which is free, open to the public and pretty much guaranteed to be wild.

The carnaval will occupy 12 downtown blocks from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. A parade featuring live bands, floats created by local businesses and nonprofit groups, and hundreds of costumed dancers doing the samba will start at 11 a.m. About 100 booths lining the streets will sell crafts and food from Thailand, Peru, Trinidad, England and many other places. Musical entertainment on five stages will be provided by the Neato Banditos, Poncho Sanchez and other performers, as well as the evening’s headliner, Jose Feliciano.

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During the day, samba and salsa music will be heard throughout the streets, and those responsible for putting the event together hope to see plenty of skimpily and eccentrically clad locals and visitors dancing.

About 50,000 people are expected to attend the event, so don’t count on easy parking. However, early birds can take advantage of free parking at several private lots and at the Long Beach Convention Center (see accompanying listing).

“As I told the city council, I hope this thing gets big enough so we paralyze the whole city, so there won’t be an automobile running. Everyone will have to walk or join a samba group,” said Lou Moreno, a real estate broker and restaurant owner who persuaded other members of the Downtown Long Beach Business Associates (DLBA) to sponsor the carnaval.

Moreno was only half-joking. He talks about the business and social possibilities of the carnaval with evangelistic fervor.

Economic Impact

“I really got going on this because of the economic impact” a street festival could have on Long Beach’s somewhat anemic downtown business community, Moreno said. He came up with the idea “two years ago, when it was pretty lonely in the downtown area, before a lot of businesses moved in.” After sponsoring a “Fat Tuesday” (pre-Lent) party at his restaurant, Moreno said: “I started thinking, what would happen if we moved this party up to the streets?”

Out of such speculation came the carnaval (for which the DLBA adopted the Spanish and Portuguese spelling of the word carnival). “South America has a ton of ‘em (carnavals),” said Moreno, a first-generation American whose parents came from Mexico. “Carnavals take place in most of the major nations of the world.” A carnaval is not only a celebration of spring but a celebration of Latino culture and music, he added. “I love that type of music so well. It’s such romantic type music, you can’t help but fall in love with it.”

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Other community-based carnavals are held each February in Los Angeles and San Diego, Moreno said, but they’re much smaller in scale and they’re indoor events.

Several restaurants and bars in Long Beach have been offering free weeknight samba lessons that culminated in competitions for the Carnaval King and Carnaval Queen, who are “reigning” over the festival.

Come in Costume

Also mingling with the crowds will be several costumed characters--”Carmen,” “Mr. Caruso” and “Arriba,” the brilliantly plumed parrot who’s the carnaval mascot. Arriba will mysteriously change height from 5-foot-6 inches to 6 feet during the day, depending on which DLBA volunteer wears the costume.

Special events are planned for children. The Long Beach Children’s Museum will offer carnaval-style face-painting, and several musical acts geared particularly to the younger generation will take place at the small downtown Amphitheatre stage.

While most such street festivals, including New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, take place in February to mark the beginning of Lent, Moreno said the carnaval was scheduled for late May to avoid rain. “The weather’s too cold (in Long Beach) in February,” he said. “With the costumes they’re going to be wearing, three-quarters of our young ladies would come down with pneumonia.” All festival-goers are encouraged to wear costumes, he added. “Wrap yourself in feathers and beads and come on down.”

Everybody Welcome

But those who choose to wear ordinary clothes are also welcome to attend, Moreno said, “especially if they have green in their pockets.”

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The DLBA hopes to break even on this year’s festival and make the carnaval an annual event, Moreno said. Total cost of putting on the carnaval, which is running on volunteer labor, is about $80,000. Some of the money came through donations from large sponsors, such as the Long Beach Redevelopment Agency and the Wrather Corp., and some funds were raised through concessionaires’ booth fees. The rest of the expenses, Moreno said, will be covered through DLBA-run beer, wine and soft drink sales, as well as from a percentage of the profits on souvenir sales.

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