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Argentine Carnival Offers Relief

January 29, 2001

GUALEGUAYCHU, Argentina (AP) _ By day, this town is a sleepy port on Argentina’s eastern river delta. By night, Gualeguaychu is transformed into the country’s biggest carnival, replete with peacock-feathered dancers strutting their stuff for revelers from across the country.

It may not match Rio de Janeiro’s famous revelries or even New Orleans during Mardi Gras, but Gualeguaychu (pronounced Wally Wachoo) puts on a raucous show of color and costume that provides a momentary antidote to Argentina’s 3-year economic downturn.

``This carnival brings joy to many people. It provides a kind of freedom, allowing us to vent the feelings we don’t express because of the difficulties of our daily lives,″ said Ana Peverelli, one of the organizers.

On each Saturday night _ from Jan. 20 to March 3 _ hundreds of dancers, musicians and designers take over Gualeguaychu, 140 miles northeast of Buenos Aires. They parade and party in glitter, feathery boas _ and little else. It’s glitzy, glamorous, sexy and stylish, as parade groups known as ``comparsas″ compete for top honors.

And it gives reason for celebrating in a country with little to celebrate.

``I love it here!″ shouted Gisela Ruggeri, dancing in a slinky gold bikini and sequin boots. All around her, skimpily clad male and female dancers gyrated wildly to music pulsating from loudspeakers.

Though its roots are in 19th century parades, Gualeyguachu’s modern carnival dates to the 1970s when local businessmen revolutionized a once sedate event by borrowing features from Rio’s show.

Out went traditional costumes, music and dance; in came modern choreography, bikinis and lavish floats. By 1997 the carnival had a permanent home _ the 35,000 capacity, 500 yard-long ``Corsodromo″ stadium _ where entrants parade before a five-tiered grandstand.

``Thirty years ago this was a very small, conservative, traditionalist town isolated from the world,″ exclaimed Elena Yacobona, 40, a local businesswomen. ``This carnival is good for the city and good for the people.″

The ``Corsodromo″ completed the carnival’s transformation from a local get-together to a nationally famous event that draws 150,000 visitors _ among them, Mariana Guantar, 20, of Buenos Aires, who commented as male dancers jiggled past her.

``The guys are divine! You seen them? I’m going to stay all night,″ she said.

Organizers estimate the carnival reaps up to $30 million a year, with 90 percent kept within the community.

It provides direct employment to some 7,000 locals, with each of the four ``comparsas,″ or parade groups, employing three times as many people as the city government. Add to this the spinoff employment of thousands more _ from builders to restaurateurs.

``The carnival is very important, not just as a fiesta but because economically it brings in extraordinary income in a very short time,″ said the town mayor, Emilio Martinez Gavrino.

But the carnival is about more than money and jobs.

In 1997, Maria Paradelo, then 19, struck up a conversation with one of the young men in her ``comparsa.″ They’re now thinking of tying the knot. ``He was standing in front of me in his costume covered in feathers and pearls. As soon as he asked me for a cigarette I just fell in love,″ Paradelo recalled.

For many others, the carnival is simply a touch of fantasy to alleviate daily suffering.

``Right here, right now we can forget all our problems,″ said Marta Bibiano as she applauded a passing float featuring a big green Mother Nature figure with a swinging jazz band on board.

Gualeguaychu is looking forward to bigger and better festivities. A college here is offering degrees in carnival production, a novelty since most of the designers and organizers so far got their skills in Brazil. Among the subject will be lighting and the history of the carnival movement. And while Gualeguaychu’s show still may not match Rio’s _ which in four days brings in 311,000 tourists and $1.2 billion _ carnival organizer Jose Marie Peverelli wasn’t strictly joking when he judged the Argentine version could someday equal its bigger rival.

``Our aim is to be as big as Rio. Why not?″

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