My Rouses Everyday, January | February 2018
This year’s theme for the Spanish Town Mardi Gras parade is “Game of Thongs.”
If that choice seems questionable to you, let me remind you, it is well in keeping with this parade’s colorful history and the mantra of its thoroughly pink-flamingoed community: “Bad taste is better than no taste at all.” The parade is best known for its rowdy political commentary and off-color humor (e.g., “FEMAture Evacuation” in 2006). Where the krewes of New Orleans shape and measure the social strata of that city, Spanish Town — the largest Mardi Gras parade in Baton Rouge — bills itself as the “people’s parade,” and its krewes are more inclined to ridicule than respect those who would claim a pedestal. Spanish Town crawls annually along a skyline of shotgun homes and hipster housing, with the state capitol looming above. This year the parade rolls on Saturday, February 10 at noon, beginning on its namesake road and inch-worming across downtown before ending on Lafayette and Main.
It started 38 years ago as a sort of improvised neighborhood art project and grew from there. The community’s richness and vibrancy made the parade’s success inevitable. The Spanish Town district is perhaps the loveliest illustration this side of the French Quarter of how diverse cultures can intersect and then elevate a place and its people. Those who have called the community home over the centuries include Native Americans, Spaniards, Canary Islanders, American soldiers, newly freed African Americans after the Civil War, and students from what was then the new campus of Louisiana State University. It was a safe place for homosexuals at a time when discrimination against them was widespread. The community has weathered such crises as the city’s economic collapse in the 1970s and the AIDS epidemic that began in the 1980s. The events of years both good and bad have made Spanish Town into the city of Baton Rouge’s élan vital: a brushstroke of color that brightens the landscape.
In retrospect, the creation of a parade seems like the perfect and obvious offshoot of this unique neighborhood; a way not only to celebrate the community, but also to share its values — loving and eccentric — with surrounding areas. Why not a Mardi Gras parade, where for two hours a year, valueless throws like beads and doubloons are imbued with mystical allure and sought after desperately by rich and poor alike? This tradition of trinket chasing draws communities closer: We are not merely watching this thing together; we are doing this thing together.
The first year the parade had a theme, it was “Every Man a Mardi Gras King” — and it marked a return of Mardi Gras from over-the-top spectacles with their seven-figure parade costs and aloof, imported celebrities) back to the common parade-goer in the street. The parade remains an essential reminder that the rules of society are simply agreed-upon and arbitrary. For instance, you wear a pink mankini to the office, and something is amiss. You wear it to the Spanish Town parade, and you’re overdressed.
To that end, the parade is not so much risqué or titillating as it is ribald, the parade-goers less gone wild than gone odd. There most likely won’t be any flashing. This isn’t Bourbon Street filled with partying tourists, after all; most of the parade-goers are locals. There will be crowds and krewes alike dressed in their Sunday weirdest: some in feather boas, some in pink tights — some going with both because, hey, the ensemble matches his or her halter and cape. Anything less would somehow be an affront to the Baton Rouge district that inspired the celebration underway. The parade is the apotheosis, the very essence, of Spanish Town’s communal impishness.
Those attending the parade can expect to see floats decorated as though they were dreamed up and improvised the night before. (The Worst Float title is an annual award given to krewes by the parade’s organizer, the Society for the Preservation of Lagniappe in Louisiana, or SPLL. Bribery is also an official part of the judging process, and krewes vie for the Best Bribe award.) You might, on the other hand, see floats decorated lavishly with human anatomy not generally on display in public. There will be more plastic pink flamingos on floats, throws and costumes than there are living flamingos in the wild. The sky will be filled with flying beads, cups, condoms and candy, and those not caught or argued over will be left alongside empty beer bottles, of which there will also be many. (I’d wear closed-toe shoes if I were you.) There will be jokes — some biting, some tasteless — and jokes about the jokes they can’t make (“slap at overly sensitive groups here,” read one float last year). One annual parade highlight is the Krewe of Yazoo, Baton Rouge’s self-described “precision lawn mower drill team,” pushing themed lawn mowers and performing choreographed routines.
Every Mardi Gras parade is at its heart a parade for kids, but note that your child will see floats that wouldn’t pass muster by Macy’s on Thanksgiving Day. Your youngest won’t get the dirtiest of the humor, and your teens will have seen worse on the Internet a few hours earlier — if not from their phones during the actual festivities. You face the prospect of an awkward question or two during the ride home, but the best course of action in that case is to stare forward so hard that your gaze risks shattering the windshield, and say that you’re not sure what that meant, exactly, and that maybe they (and they could have been on a float or in the crowd) were just being silly. Derail follow-ups by suggesting we all go for ice cream at La Divina. When planning your emplacement for the festivities, note that there is a “family friendly” zone along the parade route on Convention Street between 5th and 7th streets.
Expect crowds. Around 100,000 attended the parade in 2017, which occurred in the aftermath of the floods that devastated the city. The defiant theme that year: Come
Hell or High Water, It’s Slippery When Wet. (The parade is more than a morale boost for Baton Rouge; in good years, its organizing group raises donations in the six figures for local charities.) With the city still in recovery, the attendance numbers are likely to be even higher this year. Such services as Airbnb present out-of-towners with a nice opportunity to join in the festivities and enjoy the parade like a local: drunk, but not driving, and with easy access to bathrooms. There are also several hotels along the parade route, or within walking distance of it. The bathroom situation in general isn’t nearly so dire in Downtown Baton Rouge as it is in New Orleans during Mardi Gras.
During the parade, look for more than just beads and garish floats. The streets will be lined also with locals who’ve opened their homes to all during the festivities. Food and drink, in places, are made communal. The breaking of bread is, after all, the first act of solidarity, which is what the Spanish Town community and its parade have always been about — that, and a little light naughtiness. On the precipice of the holy season, there needs to be some slight and winking pushing of boundaries, and there ought to be events that bring together the high and low, rich and poor, if only to sustain the community and remind us that ours is a unique city worth celebrating. The Spanish Town parade achieves this annually, and for that reason, cannot be missed.