On San Fermin in Nueva Orleans

by Shaker Anitanola

[Trigger warning for scenes and descriptions of consensual play violence.]

I started to write a note to Liss just because I thought the video was fun and this is what happened. This gulf thing is breaking my heart so I was very glad to have this to think about instead. You know how I love roller girls.

[Description of video: Various scenes of celebration during San Fermin in Nueva Orleans—roller girls dressed in red and black and revelers in white clothes and red kerchiefs, all running down the streets together, laughing and shouting and carrying-on, in a big recreation/deconstruction of the Running of the Bulls, minus the animal cruelty.]

The 4th San Fermin in Nueva Orleans was this past weekend, a festival that began on Friday evening with tapas and centered on the 8am Saturday Running of the Bulls. The "bulls" were actually the Roller Girls of New Orleans joined by Roller Girls from other cities, accompanied by a mechanical bull, a squadron of Elvis impersonators on scooters, and hundreds of runners clad in white with touches of red. The Roller Girls attach horns to their helmets, dress in red and black and arm themselves with foam or plastic bats. The object of the game is to run with the "bulls" and to avoid getting swatted (or to get swatted, your choice).

This stampede is actually fairly organized and contained on designated streets in the Quarter. The rolling Elvis squad signaled the end of the run when it's time for a drink, music and dancing in the street until brunch and a siesta beckon before the evening's festivities. This year, the weekend was singularly graced by a world cup win for Spain. We owe the lovely French Quarter wrought iron work balconies to Spain as well as the inspiration for this relatively new festival.

I haven't heard much opinion from others in the city about this event and I am not sure what it is going to wind up being. It seems to be catching on, if numbers are anything to go by, although it will not be monumental like Mardi Gras or Jazz Fest nor as focused as Southern Decadence and Essence. Maybe it's more like St. Joseph's Day celebrated by the Italian American community with altars and hospitality but also sets Super Sunday, a night the Mardi Gras Indians parade in their costumes, two completely different but complementary celebrations of the feast day.

We've made a good start on San Fermin and the festival in Pamplona does present an excellent model to mine for an extended celebration. I would not be surprised to see Gigantes soon -- we already have a huge San Fermin figure to carry through the streets as well as a Hemingway competition. We're getting there with the costumes and red scarves, the music and at least one new tapas restaurant added to those already in the city. We are very good at celebrating saints brought to our shores from elsewhere. We're like the Roman Empire in that regard; if there's a celebration attached, we will adopt that Saint with open arms and create a new event. There's also a hint of feminism in our celebration because of the Roller Girls, who are so gloriously subversive, though I am not sure how that works with the Hemingway thing. Perhaps that's what the foam bats are for.

Things I really like about it: the Roller Girls, out and proud of being women at any size, doing something they love, being teammates, playing a difficult sport, dressing however they want, being assertive, even aggressive, having fun. I love the mix of people-- locals, tourists, gays, straights, young, not so young, every size and shape with the only entry requirement a sense of fun.

I love the way New Orleans comes together and stages a big, completely ridiculous party in the middle of the most devastating thing that has happened to us in at least five years, a thing which may turn out to be even worse than Katrina. The reasoning is that either you curl up and die, you completely lose it and start rampaging or you have a festival.

I love the way everyone in New Orleans can put together a costume at the drop of a hat. Oh, to have grown up free enough to costume in any fantasy way one's heart desires. I, like many people, doubtless had any natural ability to costume completely squelched before first grade. Not in New Orleans. Costuming is considered a necessary social skill, like knowing good food and where to find it.

On the other hand, this festival would not appeal to everyone. I saw few people of color in the videos I looked at. I saw only a couple of people who were in wheelchairs. Still, anyone who wanted to could be there. I, myself, don't like being in crowds and would try to find just the right balcony to watch from.

There are any number of reasons a person might not think it at all festive to be chased and struck with even a foam bat by be-horned, rollerskating women in red costumes with torn black fishnet stockings. Some people might object to going to the Quarter on a July Saturday for any reason. Some would have it that running with a pack and getting hit with a bat for fun is just not all that compelling so early in the morning. Some might say this is homage to bullfighting and is therefore objectionable. Others might reply: not at all, it has all the fun and none of the brutality; it's not homage but satire, a protest festival in the tradition of the Zulu parade.

When it is this brutally hot and you can't even go fishing any more, this makes a certain kind of sense.

P.S. A report on Las fiestas de Sanfermin en Nueva Orleans appears on the Pamplona festival site.

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