Carolyn E. WareBy January, rural communities on southwest Louisiana’s prairies are busy preparing for their local Mardi Gras runs, or courirs de Mardi Gras. Women begin stitching baggy pants and matching shirts, adding layers of fringe and building tall hats called capuchons from cardboard cones and fabric. Men and women cut and decorate wire screen masks that will blur but not completely hide their features. Mardi Gras Associations meet to plan routes and schedules, assign various tasks to volunteers and train new members. Almost everywhere, the tune known as “La Danse de Mardi Gras” blares from bandstands and radios, its rhythm recalling the sound of horses’ hooves on country roads.
This page: a Basile runner celebrates her triumphant capture of a chicken.
The season is in full swing by the weekend before Mardi Gras. On any given year, as many as 30 different runs – some exclusively for men, women or children – take place between Saturday and Tuesday (one recently revived run takes place 10 days before Mardi Gras, extending the holiday even more). Drivers are likely to find two-lane highways and parish roads blocked by long lines of costumed riders on horseback or farm trailers. The processions, led by unmasked capitaines, snake through the countryside, stopping at bars, stores and homes that have agreed in advance to “receive” them. At each stop, the maskers offer a performance they repeat dozens of times during the day: they sing a traditional chanson de Mardi Gras and dance with each other and onlookers. In return, they beg for gumbo ingredients, coins, dollars bills and anything else they can wheedle from spectators. Hosts typically respond to requests for “a little something” for the gumbo by tossing live chickens in the air, forcing maskers to chase the birds though muddy fields and drainage ditches. Comic play or “cutting up” is also a central feature of most runs; members comment that if you make people laugh, they’ll give you more money. The best clowns can improvise slapstick pranks around whatever they discover in the yard: children’s toys, a disposable diaper, a dead snake or a hunting decoy. The long day usually ends with a parade into a nearby town, a community-wide gumbo supper and a dance that evening.
Facing page: Helena Putnam holds up a chicken she captured duringthe 1993 Basile run – she was voted Best All-Around Woman Mardi Grasthat same year.
Masked begging processions were widespread in medieval Europe, typically clustered around Christmas, New Year and Carnival. Scholars suggest that French and Acadian settlers brought the tradition of “running” Mardi Gras, a descendant of these ancient quests, to Louisiana in the 18th century. Certainly it was well established in both Cajun and Creole communities on Louisiana’s prairies by the 1880s, when local newspapers published accounts of roving bands of Mardi Gras “merrymakers.” Today the number of Creole runs is small, but Cajun runs are thriving after a dip in popularity around the middle of the 20th century. Long-dormant community runs have been revived in rural neighborhoods such as LeJeune Cove, as the country Mardi Gras becomes an important symbol of cultural identity and pride.
Mardi Gras, like any living tradition, is simultaneously conservative and changeable. One change over the last half century has been women’s increasingly public participation. In the past, wives and mothers lent their skills to sewing and cooking for the celebration but were barred from actually donning a disguise and running. (An exception was small family runs, where men, women and children all masked together.) Men argued that Mardi Gras runs, with their drinking and rough horseplay, had “no place for the girls,” in one observer’s words. By excluding women, they claimed to be protecting both the tradition and women themselves.
Mardi Gras cooks Agnes Miller and Eula Young wait to serve gumbo for the Basile Mardi Gras, left. Right, Women and children mask to run Mardi Gras in Pointe Noire, circa 1950s.
Not all women appreciated being protected. Some decided to carve out their own place in the festivities, organizing new “ladies’ runs” (as they are still typically called) with husbands and sons serving as captains. Oral history suggests that a St. Landry Parish ladies’ run existed briefly in the 1920s, but most women’s runs sprouted between the ’40s and ’70s, years of tremendous social change and shifting gender roles. In the region’s push toward Americanization, courirs de Mardi Gras had dwindled in popularity. French Louisiana culture in general and Mardi Gras runs in particular, were stigmatized as basse classe (lower class) and backward. In addition, some runs had earned reputations as dangerous and drunken events and homeowners no longer agreed to receive them. Women maskers, however, were considered better behaved and generally welcomed.
Early ladies’ runs served as bridges, keeping the tradition alive during years of general disinterest. Eventually, most either disappeared or merged with local men’s runs; by the 1970s and ’80s, it was no longer inconceivable for men and women to mask side by side. Today only one separate women’s run remains active, the Saturday ladies’ run in Acadia Parish’s Tee Mamou. At least eight other Cajun Mardi Gras runs now include both men and women and sometimes children.
Suson Launey gets mischievous with captains during the Tee Mamou women’s run
My interest in Cajun women’s Mardi Gras roles began in 1988, when I spent a semester at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette as a visiting folklore graduate student. While working on a grant-funded survey of Mardi Gras traditions in western Acadia Parish, I interviewed a number of captains and members in the Tee Mamou Mardi Gras Association. I was fascinated to learn that the community hosts both a women’s and a men’s run, and returned the next spring to mask and run with the Tee Mamou women (not very well, I’m afraid, but that was a lesson in itself). I have followed their Saturday run as an observer almost every year since then. In 1991, fellow folklorists Carl Lindahl and Barry Ancelet introduced me to the nearby town of Basile, where the local men’s and women’s runs joined forces in the early ’80s. Ever since, my Mardi Gras pilgrimage has included the Basile run on Fat Tuesday.
Women have now been running Mardi Gras in Tee Mamaou and Basile for more than three decades. Most of my observations about present-day women are drawn from these two well-established community runs. Descriptions of earlier women’s runs come mainly from interviews I’ve conducted with women in Pointe Noire and Eunice neighborhoods.
Masking and Roleplaying
The Cajun Mardi Gras, like other traditional festivals, creates a temporary “reversible world” that playfully turns cultural ideals and values upside down. Women use much the same means as men in these symbolic inversions. Both draw on similar conventions of disguise and roleplaying, for instance. On the surface at least, differences between male and female Mardi Gras are less obvious than differences between one community run and another. However, women have subtly reshaped Mardi Gras traditions to reflect their own points of view and aesthetics.
Right, Erika Frugé and Regina Myers, cousins and Mardi Gras partners dance the two-step in burlap costumes they created.
One common reversal in the Cajun Mardi Gras – and in festivals in general – is dressing as a member of the opposite sex, taking pains to be as unconvincing as possible. Males during Mardi Gras sometimes dress as pregnant women and mimic childbirth. Early women’s runs sometimes included male figures such as pirates or wizened old men and women still occasionally dress in men’s clothes in present-day runs. But women seem to find more artistic and comic potential in costuming as exotic female figures such as gypsy fortunetellers, Indian maidens or cantankerous old women. Tee Mamou’s rules require women and men to all wear the same general disguise: a pajama-like Mardi Gras suit, a capuchon and a handmade mask. But within these boundaries, women find creative ways to feminize their disguises, adding pouty satin lips, long eyelashes, earrings, flowers or butterflies to their masks.
Women have also created their own styles of “cutting up.” Some engage in the same roughhousing as male Mardi Gras – trying to ride a wild pony, climbing onto rooftops, wrestling with captains and competing to catch runaway chickens. Shirley Reed once remarked that some of her fellow Tee Mamou women “might be afraid to be chasing [chickens] or to get dirty,” but she and her Mardi Gras partner “are in the mud, the barbed wire fences.” Other women prefer what they call “witty” clowning to daredevilry and physical prowess, drawing laughter though clever and non-threatening clowning such as riding a child’s bike in circles, or staging an impromptu sack race. Virtually all women of Mardi Gras are solicitous of children and careful not to frighten them. Women pulling off their masks and reassuring crying children is a common sight.
Mardi Gras and Meaning
Running Mardi Gras holds different meanings for each participant – and often for the same woman at different points in her life. Berline Boone says, “When you first start running, you really don’t know, you really don’t care what the meaning of Mardi Gras is. The more you mature … the more you realize what it is.” For Boone, Mardi Gras is part of a cultural whole, a traditional way of life that includes the Cajun French language she grew up speaking. She laments that younger generations “don’t even know how to speak French,” making it hard for them to learn and understand the Basile Mardi Gras song.
For many of the women I’ve interviewed, Mardi Gras is most importantly an expression of strong and enduring female relationships. Frozine Thibodeaux ran Mardi Gras with a handful of female neighbors in Pointe Noire, during the late 1940s and early ’50s. Her friends invited her to join them, she says, because “I was always acting silly and I liked to joke ... and stuff.” Running Mardi Gras gave the women, all farmwives and mothers, time away from their husbands and freedom to act “crazy” surrounded by good friends. As they rattled though the countryside in their wagon, they made noise and laughed, played pranks on each other, joked about meeting “pretty men” at the bars they visited and unabashedly had fun together.
In this respect, not much has changed – relationships with family and friends remain central to the Cajun Mardi Gras tradition. Linda Frugé Doucet ran Mardi Gras in Tee Mamou for years, despite ruined knees; she wanted to induct her daughters as soon as they became old enough. In Basile, a group of former junior high classmates, now middle-aged, has run Mardi Gras together for decades (with some breaks for pregnancies and child rearing).
Those who truly love running Mardi Gras find it difficult to be sidelined by age or illness. The late Emmedine Vasseur, in her 70s when she began running Mardi Gras in Tee Mamou, hobbled onto the Mardi Gras truck every year for as long as she could. When she was too feeble to climb on and off, her granddaughters fastened a chair onto the trailer. Eventually, even that became impossible and she cried as the women’s truck passed her house each year. Her granddaughter, Merline Bergeaux, is equally passionate about Mardi Gras. When I met her in 1988, she memorably told me, “Whenever I die, just put my mask and capuchon in with me.” Berline Boone has masked in Basile (where she’s now mayor) for more than 30 years, and she says, “As long as the Good Lord allows me to run Mardi Gras, I will keep running.”
With few exceptions, these Cajun women I know don’t identify much with the women’s movement. They just wanted to run Mardi Gras, they say, not prove a point about gender relations. Linda Douget commented that when she joined the fledgling Tee Mamou women’s run in the early 1970s, “It was just this little handful of women, all kinfolks, trying to have a run ... As far as I’m concerned, it didn’t have anything to do with women’s lib.” Within a generation, women’s runs and coed runs were so well established that younger women could take for granted their opportunities to run Mardi Gras.
I, on the other hand, do see connections between women’s Mardi Gras roles and their everyday lives. Many Cajun women work outside the home and expect their husbands to help with housework. As women loosen their ties to the domestic world, they’re also demanding greater inclusion and a public voice in the country Mardi Gras.
Female Mardi Gras revelers see their public performances as a form of cultural continuity, not change. More than one woman has told me, “It’s our tradition, too,” and they want to keep it alive for their children. Snookie LeJeune says of the Basile run she joined as a teenager that it’s a way to visualize heritage, “Whenever I first ran, it just made such an impression on me … It seems like we’re obligated to keep it going, so the kids can see.”
Carolyn E. Ware is an Associate Professor, Department of English, at Louisiana State University specializing in Louisiana folklore and folk life, Her most recent book is Cajun Women and Mardi Gras: Reading the Rules Backward. 2007. University of Illinois Press.