The Carnival also has roots in the Catholic tradition of drinking and eating and dancing too much, of generally letting loose (think Mardi Gras), before the Lenten period of ritual fasting and prayer that precedes Easter. (In Trinidad, Carnival is celebrated on the two days before Ash Wednesday, but in deference to Boston’s chillier weather the local festival is held in August.)
Mitchell says he immigrated to Boston from Trinidad in 1968, at the outset of a large influx of Caribbean people to this area. “The economic situation back home was not very good. People wanted to explore better job opportunities, better education opportunities.” By the early ’70s, he was living in Dorchester and working as senior security coordinator for Boston public-housing developments. And he helped Caribbean immigrants become citizens and buy homes and find work. He helped organize various city fairs and community events. In 1972 he was invited to be a judge at the West Indian Carnival in Brooklyn.
“I decided when I left there in ’72 that I need to see if we can have our own festival here in the Boston area. I noticed that the festival in Brooklyn seemed to have been a social-econo asset there. It gave a lot of social clout and opportunities to the community. And I thought if we did the same thing in Boston, we could benefit likewise.”
He enlisted his pal “Jimmy” Ivy Ponder to help him, and they began planning. Local Caribbean-Americans, he says, “never thought it would happen. When I told them about it, they were doubting me to my face.”
He recruited about 30 young ladies from a downtown dance studio to be in his masquerade band, costuming them in imitation grass skirts, feathered crowns, and spears. They were the centerpiece of the first Boston Carnival parade, from City Hall Plaza to Boston Common, in August 1973. “It was a bunch of girls jumping up to the music of Frank Najim, a DJ; one steel band; and some Caribbean people jumping up to the music just in the clothes they wear on the street.”
It attracted some 300 to 400 people. The next year, it more than doubled in size. And on it grew. By 1977, the event had moved from downtown to Dorchester to be in the heart of the city’s Caribbean-American community. Organizers say it attracts some 500,000 people — perhaps, after First Night and Fourth of July on the Esplanade, the largest public event in the area.
This year’s Carnival boasts four main events. The Kiddies Carnival, a costumed children’s parade, takes place at White Stadium in Franklin Park on August 17. The King and Queen Competition at Reggie Lewis Center, 1350 Tremont Street, starts at 6 pm on August 21. “J’ouvert” (“daybreak”), a sort of opening parade, begins around 5 am August 23 at Blue Hill Avenue and Morton Street. It’s followed by the grand masquerade Carnival parade beginning at midday at Martin Luther King Boulevard and Warren Street and ending at Blue Hill Avenue at Franklin Park. (For a good guide to events, go to Smith’s site,www.bostoncarnivalvillage.com.)