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Miniature Mardi Gras

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Cooks wore black masks while flipping tortillas Tuesday amid downtown Olvera Street’s historic buildings, Mexican restaurants and cluttered souvenir shops.

A candle shop owner stapled a “Bourbon Street” sign on the store’s wooden door. And a Dixieland band replaced the traditional strolling mariachis on a confetti-littered plaza.

“All the craziness comes out on Mardi Gras,” said Mike Mariscal, a leather goods merchant, while wheeling a sombrero-topped clown in a tutu on a red wagon down the plaza. “Leave all your worries behind and live it up! The street is one big party.”

The good-humored quirks and colorful antics were all part of the annual Mardi Gras celebration, a decades-old tradition at Olvera Street that drew hundreds of visitors--some from as far as England--throughout the day.

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Brazilian music, a costume contest and face-painting were part of the daylong celebration.

Mardi Gras is “Fat Tuesday,” the day before Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the 40 days before Lent, a period of penitence and fasting that concludes Easter Sunday.

The free event was a smaller-scale version of more storied celebrations in New Orleans and Brazil.

“It’s not Rio or New Orleans,” said Frank Catania, spokesman for the Olvera Street Merchants Assn. “It’s a compressed celebration that we’ve brought to this street--the birthplace of Los Angeles--with a unique Mexican flavor.”

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Raul R. Rodriguez, a premier designer for the Tournament of Roses parade, was named Mardi Gras king for the evening parade. After the procession, a devil-faced pinata holding written fears of participants was burned in a ceremony known as the “burning of the mal humor.”

“It’s been a tradition at Olvera Street for more than 50 years,” merchant Alyce Madrid said while tugging on the loops of a crepe paper bow. Madrid was one of many souvenir sellers who decorated her storefront with colorful ribbons, paper masks and balloons. “We have people from different cultures coming from all over to this historic street.”

“To me it’s the last day to party it up before Ash Wednesday,” the event’s producer, Roberto Rodriguez, said while a woman blackened his whiskers with mascara. Rodriguez, dressed as a sultan in puffy, gold-striped pants and curly toed shoes, said the event invites people to learn more about the history of Los Angeles.

“Mardi Gras attracts a wide range of people, some here for the first time,” Rodriguez said. “It’s an opportunity for them to learn more about the birthplace of Los Angeles.”

“It’s really a marvelous charm,” said Sally Summers, who made Olvera Street a stop as part of her two-week vacation from Nottingham, England. “It’s my first time here. It’s exciting to see a lot of cultures come together.”

Jackie Guevara, a teacher’s assistant at Nueva Vista Elementary School in Bell, said she brought her second-grade class to learn more about Mardi Gras.

“We studied Mardi Gras in history class,” Guevara said while waiting in line with her students for face painting. “It’s really a fun way for them to experience what they learned in the classroom.”

But at least one person was not impressed with the festivities.

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“I’ve been to New Orleans and it’s all decadence, booze and women,” Yancy Luciano said while drinking a glass of vodka at a restaurant bar. “We don’t need that hoopla here. It degrades the beautiful history of Olvera Street.”

But Luciano, an Encino law clerk, said he has made a personal contribution to the day.

“This is my last day to drink,” Luciano said. “I’m giving up drinking for Lent. I gotta live it up today.”


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