The Year Philadelphia Hired Diversity Consultants – Next City

David Piña holding a Carnavalero costume in his South Philadelphia restaurant. 

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The Year Philadelphia Hired Diversity Consultants

Inclusivity is in. Casual racism is out. Have the Mummers gotten the memo?

Story by Gregory Scruggs

Published on Dec 19, 2016

I’m wearing an octopus-shaped hat and clutching a beer when I hear a drumbeat strike up alongside a wailing sax. Ahead of me, a troupe of musicians in bright, feathered costumes with plumage nearly as wide as the narrow street attempts to clear a space and perform a quick number. The crowd surges all around, freely drinking in the open and casually walking up and down to watch the different ensembles in this informal parade. Every house along the way has a front row seat and partiers lean out of windows or cluster on balconies to take in the scene below.

I could be at Mardi Gras in New Orleans or Carnival in cities across Brazil. But instead of a sultry tropical party, it’s freezing cold on New Year’s Day and I’m on Second Street, ground zero of Philadelphia’s Mummers Parade. An annual folk tradition in the City of Brotherly Love for more than a century with roots in old European customs brought to the New World, the Mummers take over the streets every January 1st for a parade down Broad Street, the city’s main drag. It later becomes a street party in South Philadelphia on “2 Street,” as it’s known locally, in a tightly packed neighborhood of rowhomes. Many of them double as club houses for the dozens of “brigades” that will spend the better part of the year stitching costumes, designing elaborate floats, brainstorming skits, choreographing routines and rehearsing over and over for their short spotlight in front of Philly’s City Hall.

The Mummers Parade has all the trappings of a carnival, which is a huge global industry for tourism and entertainment. Rubadiri Victor, a Trinidadian arts activist, estimates that Caribbean-style carnivals alone are worth $15 billion. But the homegrown Mummers Parade is very much a local affair — by Philadelphians, for Philadelphians — with deep roots in several of the city’s largely white, working-class neighborhoods.

Like so many civic institutions, the Mummers come with their share of cultural baggage.

For decades, the group has grappled with a history of racist practices, including performing in blackface. The minstrelsy tradition of entertainers darkening their face and playing caricatures of African-American culture for laughs had its heyday around the start of the 20th century, the same time the Mummers turned from a raucous series of uncoordinated New Year’s celebrations into an organized parade. James Bland, for example, the black author of “Oh Dem Golden Slippers,” an 1879 ditty that serves as the Mummers’ theme song, worked the minstrel circuit.

Members of the Quaker City String Band perform during the 2016 Mummers Parade. (AP Photo/Joseph Kaczmarek)

Increasingly, people deemed these attempts at humor to be racist, however, and under pressure from the NAACP, parade organizers officially banned blackface in 1964. It crops up regularly nonetheless, with social media serving as a new platform for blackface spotters to call out offenders. And institutional memory, it seems, does not run very deep. A 2013 skit glorified the minstrel era and featured cardboard cutouts of a leering Sambo face. When it prompted outrage, the group that put on the skit seemed genuinely surprised; seeing it as a Mummers homage, they professed to have no idea how these images are tied up with Jim Crow-era sensibilities about race relations in the U.S.

More pointedly, a group of “wenches,” a type of male Mummer that dresses up in women’s clothing and usually gets rip-roaring drunk, held up signs in 2105 that read “Wench Lives Matter.” Wenches are known for riling up crowds with their antics, but there was no innocent defense here. “That’s making fun of poor black males getting killed by police,” says Leo Dignam, a former deputy commissioner for Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, who has overseen the parade since 2006. (The city holds the parade permit.)

That same year, Sabrina Vourvoulias, a Philadelphia journalist and former editor at Philadelphia’s bilingual weekly Al Día, tweeted a picture of a Mummers skit featuring a white man wearing a Barack Obama mask and holding a sign that said “Illegal Aliens Allowed.” Her 41 characters read: “This. Is. Why. #Mummers. Need. Diversity.”

Indeed, the city of 1.5 million that will be marking the start of a new year on Broad Street come Jan. 1 is 63 percent people of color and 35 percent white, according to census data. It is an increasingly young and multicultural city and one that voted overwhelmingly against the anti-immigrant rhetoric of Donald Trump.

“One of the biggest challenges for the Mummers: Their parade does not reflect Philly [today],” says Rue Landau, executive director of the city’s Commission on Human Relations.

That includes those very neighborhoods that are the heartland of Mummery. Today, the white ethnic neighborhoods where the tradition was born are crowded with taquerias and pho houses. Many of the Mexican restaurants serve mole poblano, a dish native to the region where an estimated 18,000 of the 25,000 Mexicans in Philly come from, according to the Mexican Cultural Center. A majority of these immigrants come from San Mateo, a small town in Puebla state, which has its own parade ritual.

Like the Mummers tradition, Carnaval de Puebla is an indigenous celebration of place, albeit one that comes with a more nationalistic origin. Carnaval de Puebla is a reenactment of the May 5, 1862, Battle of Puebla — better known as Cinco de Mayo in the U.S. — when the Mexican army fended off invading French forces. Parade participants dress in elaborate costumes fashioned after the various battalions that fought in Puebla and embroidered with patchwork designs of Aztec gods, hand-stitched Virgin Marys and quilt-like scenes of ancient sacrifices. The costumes are made by hand in Mexico and shipped to Philly, where restaurant workers making minimum wage may spend up to $1,000 on a colorfully beaded outfit.

The parade, which attracts Poblanos from across the country, and increasingly from Puebla itself, winds through the neighborhood, marchers dancing as a brass-heavy band belts out banda music and vendors do a brisk business in tacos and tamarind sodas. Homesick immigrants first organized a Philly version of their parade in 2006 and it has been building momentum ever since.

“This is our carnival representing Puebla,” says David Piña, president of San Mateo Carnavalero, as the costumed masqueraders are formally known.

Marchers with San Mateo Carnavalero lead the Mummers parade in 2016. (Credit: Philadelphia Mexican Cultural Center)

Plainspoken Piña is a classic immigrant success story, climbing up the ranks in back-of-the-house restaurant jobs before opening his own establishment, Tamalex, a short walk from the South Philadelphia neighborhood where the Mummers were born.

The Carnaval is a chance for the neighborhood’s busboys, dishwashers and line cooks, the invisible workforce that powers Center City’s booming restaurant scene, to celebrate their culture in broad daylight.

At the start of 2016, nearly a year ago, these two worlds just blocks apart finally converged when San Mateo Carnavalero opened the 2016 Mummers Parade, making its debut on Philadelphia’s biggest civic stage along with a drag queen troupe, an African-American drill team, and a Puerto Rican bomba and plena ensemble.

High hopes were attached to this symbolic gesture toward a post-racial Philadelphia, a first-of-its-kind effort at consciously including groups historically left out of the parade. Jesse Engaard, captain of the Rabble Rousers, a Mummers brigade that tackles socially conscious themes, helped broker the Carnavaleros’ participation. “The Mummers have a history of inclusion,” he argues. Successive waves of immigrants — Irish, Italian, Polish, Ukrainian — landed in Philly and added their own masquerading traditions to the Mummers’ cultural stew, largely rooted in English, German and Scandinavian custom, as these new arrivals mingled as neighbors. To his mind, the Mexican community was just the next logical step in that history.

But just a few hours after the goodwill of the parade’s opening acts, the scene on Broad Street took a turn for the worse. A group of Mummers known as “comics” offended yet again by satirizing Caitlyn Jenner, the transgendered former athlete once known as Bruce Jenner. Side-by-side displays depicted Bruce on a Wheaties box and Caitlyn gracing a Froot Loops box. The spoof prompted condemnation across the board, including from Mayor Jim Kenney, himself a former Mummer, who wrote on Twitter: “It was bad. Hurtful tomany [sic] Philadelphians. Our Trans Citizens do not deserve this type of satire/insult. #Berespectful.” A few days later, he called on Landau and the city’s LGBT director to come up with recommendations to improve future parades.

Elsewhere that day, a family brigade dressed up like Mexicans by painting their faces brown, wearing sombreros, and wrapping their children in taco and burrito costumes. They were panned on social media, where the Philadelphia-based Latino advocacy group Juntos declared, “If this is what the Mummers mean by ‘handing down tradition,’ it needs to stop.”

Like the Sambo moment, the perpetrators claimed they had no idea this might be offensive. They reportedly thought it was a friendly gesture to their Mexican neighbors in South Philly, according to Rich Porco, president of the Murray Comic Club, which sponsored the family’s performance. “They didn’t do nothing to offend anybody,” he told me recently. “It was just little kids doing the Mexican Hat Dance. Comics would never make fun of another culture.”

Antonio Fernandez, who works at a Mexican restaurant on the corner where the family in question reportedly lives, recalls that one of them came into the restaurant three days after the parade to apologize. Fernandez insists no offense was taken. “There’s no problem. If the Carnavaleros could enter, then there’s no problem.” Tom Sammarintano, whose family performed the skit, declined to comment for this story.

The Carnaval is a chance for the neighborhood’s busboys, dishwashers and line cooks, the invisible workforce that powers Center City’s booming restaurant scene, to celebrate their culture in broad daylight.

Such culturally appropriative themes are typical of the Mummers Parade, and the global grab bag approach is not uncommon in carnivals elsewhere. From personal experience, I can recall dozens of costumes that would be considered offensive in the U.S. but are considered part of Carnival’s topsy-turvy satirical tradition on the streets of Trinidad or Brazil.

Nick Spitzer, a Tulane anthropologist who studies American folk traditions, agrees that such temporary suspensions of the normal rules are part and parcel of Carnival traditions. “There are forms of humor and satire that don’t conform to certain contemporary ideas of what is acceptable social behavior,” he says.

He contrasted Philadelphia, which he studied as a student at the University of Pennsylvania, with his current home of New Orleans. The latter is a Carnival town year-round, the former, not so much. In New Orleans, the response to something insensitive would be to satirize it right back — and better. To that end, he sees the inclusion of the Carnavaleros as the real answer to the problem.

“It’s extremely healthy to focus more on introducing more diverse groups and give them a little of their own satire back at them with a wink and a smile,” he says. “I don’t think you win people over browbeating them. Carnival has a lot of license in it.”

He cites the proliferation of parade “krewes,” in Mardi Gras parlance, that cater to different interest groups, like young professional women or the LGBT community, in response to the white, old money crowd that dominates the parade’s most pedigreed clubs. “You can be vocal against something, you can shun something, but it’s always better if you can add something,” he says.

On the first day of 2017, that theory will get tested on Philadelphia’s biggest civic stage. It will be a second try at integrating divergent parts of its cultural patchwork and a loud and very public Rorschach of how a changing city celebrates itself.

MUMMERS 3.0

Danielle Redden, a former community organizer, has a day job as program manager for a historic garden, but spends a good chunk of her free time immersed in Mummery. She captains the Vaudevillains, which is headquartered in a grungy Chinatown collaborative art space, rather than one of the old boys’ clubhouses on Second Street, and brought an infusion of neon spandex, ’90s rave anthems and psychedelic floats to the stodgy parade. Together with Engaard, the Rabble Rousers captain who believes the Mummers have a forgotten history of inclusion, she organized a public discussion last year that helped set the current reform wave in motion. Both white and from the Philadelphia area, the two stumbled onto the Mummers’ race problem.

“The Mummers was a way to feel part of the city and join the party,” Engaard says. Raised in the Philly ’burbs, he moved into the city to attend film school. Redden, who was born in the city, remembers attending the parade as a kid, where some of her uncles were in wench brigades tied to trade unions.

Soon after getting involved with the organization, they decided to try to change the parade from within. They led by example with their respective brigades, which turned traditional Mummer heads when they began winning their division, and tried to share their sensibility at Mummers meetings — old-school affairs that begin with the Pledge of Allegiance.

Progress was slow. Redden says she didn’t sleep for a month after the 2015 “Wench Lives Matter” debacle. Engaard describes it as “dancing on the graves of people who have been killed by police violence.” But that moment prompted them to start a civic conversation on social inclusion in the parade. The two hosted a public meeting, “Mum” Is the Word: Let’s Talk About It in February 2015 at a community art school in South Philly, not far from the Mummer heartland.

The forum was one part in a chain of conversations across government, cultural groups and grassroots activism that would lead the city to make changes in policy that would have been unthinkable in prior years. Over the course of 2016, the Commission on Human Relations hired diversity consultants to train Mummers leadership and the city’s LGBT affairs director met with over 300 Mummers to discuss gay and transgender issues. Actress Jennifer Childs led a workshop on satire. “You punch up, you don’t punch down,” says Dignam. “You make fun of something above you, not below you.”

Members of the Aqua String Band perform during the 2016 Mummers Parade in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Joseph Kaczmarek)

The conversation on LGBT issues resulted in a contingent of Murray Comic Club members marching in the city’s pride parade. “A lot of club members talked about family members who are gay or transgendered,” Redden says. But not all minds were moved. Engaard recalls a sense of apathy and resentment about the workshops. “There was a … feeling they’d been lectured or reprimanded in some way,” he explains.

Most dramatically, the city is reviewing every skit ahead of time to avoid any unwelcome surprises. While that may sound draconian, public intervention in a cultural event like a parade is not unprecedented. Spitzer recalls an African-American city councilwoman who sued white-only Mardi Gras krewes in the 1990s, resulting in a consent decree that they must integrate. The krewes, Momus and Comus, refused to sign and have not paraded since, holding private, indoor balls instead.

Both Engaard and Redden called this year a “turning point” but hardly the end of the road. “So much of this year was about conversation,” Redden says. “There’s definitely a new recognition within traditional Mummer clubs, but it’s still a longer path.” What will happen in just a few days’ time is anyone’s guess, meanwhile, “everyone is a little bit nervous about this year, but I’m feeling hopeful and we’ll see what happens,” she adds.

Vourvoulias, the Latina journalist who made the first Twitter appeal for a more diverse parade, doesn’t hold out too much hope. “I have no idea what to think about ‘cultural sensitivity’ training the Mummers have gone through this year. Maybe it’ll have an impact, maybe not, but I’m not holding my breath,” she writes via email. “There are Mummers who get so angry even at the hint that the groups might need to cultivate cultural sensitivity.” She directed me to a tweet responding to her initial message in 2015, from the captain of a Mummers brigade who used a gender slur.

Piña is looking forward to New Year’s Day and even planning a spin down 2 Street.

After last January’s parade, he got some flak because of the perceived racism against Mexicans from the family dressed in brownface. Even if the family’s neighbors didn’t mind, the images — and the media firestorm that followed — made waves in the broader Mexican community.

“Some people asked us, ‘How can you participate?’ because of that incident,” he explains to me in early December, while taking a break from a busy Saturday afternoon lunch rush in his 10-table restaurant. But the appeal of being on Philly’s main stage remains strong for other Carnavaleros who are planning their route for New Year’s Day.

“We’re already part of Philadelphia,” Piña says. “The Mummers is a Philly tradition, so of course we should participate.”

After leaving Piña to serve his hungry customers, I walk a few blocks to the Mummers Museum, a colorful building at the top of Second Street housing a collection of Mummers paraphernalia — winning costumes from decades past, newspaper clippings, diagrams of parade routes. Inaugurated in 1976, the dusty museum doesn’t look like it has been touched since, but the clock ticking down the minutes until New Year’s Day still works. It isn’t hard to imagine that an updated exhibit might someday include a Carnavalero costume explaining what transpired in 2016.

Along Second Street, nearly every block advertises a Mummers brigade clubhouse — a flag flying in the breeze, an emblem emblazoned on the facade, a cornerstone laid in the brick. A few have people coming in and out, perhaps there to put last-minute touches on costumes or hash out logistics. On a block where a sign proclaims “Ye Olde 2 Street” in cursive script, a cluster of rowhouses is going up — the new construction that has propelled the rebirth of South Philly as with many of the city’s close-in neighborhoods. From atop the wooden frame of the houses, workers call to each other in Spanish, with a distinctly Poblano accent.

This article is part of Next City's Philly in Flux series made possible with the support of the William Penn Foundation.

Gregory Scruggs writes about cities and culture, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean.