Carnival theme still ‘Fiesta,’ for now

SARANAC LAKE — The Saranac Lake Winter Carnival Committee is sticking with a controversial “Adirondack Fiesta” theme for next year’s event, but it will review the theme again in September.

Members of the group’s Executive Committee held a 90-minute meeting behind closed doors Monday night to revisit the decision made last week, when most of the full Winter Carnival Committee voted to adopt the “Fiesta” theme. The Enterprise wasn’t allowed to sit in on Monday’s meeting, but committee Chairman Jeff Branch called the newspaper afterward.

“The bottom line is, Carnival is about bringing people together and having fun, and if something creates this much controversy, we thought we should at least revisit it,” Branch said. “We had the discussion, and the decision was to wait a little bit, let things calm down and take another look at it in September.”

When the full committee voted last week, “Adirondack Fiesta” received 12 votes. The next closest theme was “Totally ’80s,” which collected five votes. “Candy Carnival” received three, “Under the Big Top” recorded one, and no votes were cast for a “Chinese New Year” theme. The “Fiesta” theme had ranked high in polls conducted in April on the Winter Carnival’s social media and the Enterprise website.

After “Adirondack Fiesta” was announced as the theme, Branch said it blew up on the Carnival’s Facebook page. Some people said it was ill-timed and culturally insensitive.

“This is the worst possible theme in our current political climate, where even our political leaders refer to Mexicans as rapists and criminals,” Kelly Hofschneider posted. “Yes, the majority of people in Saranac Lake are not racist and will not do anything intentionally hurtful, but it only takes a few offenders to make the entire town look bad.”

Other people, like local disc jockey Eric Wilson, supported the “Fiesta” theme and said the critics were overreacting.

“I am going to have a field day of fun with the music for this theme!” Wilson posted. “‘Fiesta’ simply means celebration, and that is it in it’s entirety. Now that the theme is decided let’s get on with planning a great non-political carnival. Stop making it something it isn’t people.”

Branch said the online debate got so ugly that the committee is no longer taking comments on its Facebook page.

“I’ve been attacked and called a racist,” he said. “I haven’t had a good night’s sleep since this all happened. Anything constructive that could be said on Facebook has been said at this time. It’s gotten to the point where it’s a lot of sniping back and forth, which I think contributes to dividing the community. That’s not the face we want to put on (the event).”

People can still weigh in by email at Branch said the comments will be reviewed at the committee’s September meeting.

At last week’s meeting, supporters of the “Adirondack Fiesta” theme said it could be an opportunity to celebrate and educate people about the culture of Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries; however, there wasn’t much discussion of how the theme may be interpreted, such as what kind of floats could be in the parade. Branch said that’s not unusual.

“When we’ve done this in the past, I don’t think we’ve put a lot of thought into (how it would be interpreted),” Branch said. “Who knows? Are people going to wear sombreros and ponchos? I’m sure they are. The bottom line is, you never know what people are going to come up with.”

That’s just what has some people like Gabriella Baldwin worried. She was born and raised in Mexico City but has lived in Saranac Lake for the last four years. Her husband, Tom, works at the Federal Correctional Institution in Ray Brook. She said she’s one of a handful of Hispanic people who live here, and it hasn’t been easy.

“Some people are racist,” she said. “Some people are prejudiced. Some people look at you in a bad way when you’re talking in your own language.”

Baldwin contacted the Enterprise after hearing about the “Fiesta” theme. She had also written to the committee. She said she’s concerned it wouldn’t be carried out in an appropriate way.

“Saranac Lake doesn’t have that diversity here,” she said. “It would be difficult to understand my culture and other people’s cultures if you don’t live there. Here you only see the American version of it.

“They talked of it being like a Cinco de Mayo-type celebration. When they said that, I’m like, ‘You must be kidding me.’ Cinco de Mayo is not a reason for American society to get drunk. The real commemoration is of Cinco de Mayo is a battle of the Mexican army against the invasion of the French forces. It’s about the fact that we survived.

“I think people should open their minds and learn other people’s cultures, but from people that were born and raised there. If we had a Hispanic community here, it would be easier. But I don’t want someone to make fun of something that’s so precious to me.”

Branch said he understands the concerns and stressed that no one on the committee has any “ill intentions,” but he’s also worried about upsetting the many people who’ve pushed for the “Fiesta” theme.

“On the other hand, I don’t think there’s any theme we can put out there that somebody won’t object to,” he said. “You’d think ‘Candy Carnival’ could be something nobody would complain about, but I guarantee somebody would have brought up childhood obesity or that we’re encouraging poor eating habits. Instead of looking at the positive, there’s always somebody who’s going to look at the negative.”

Branch said he hopes the controversy will subside by the time the committee meets in September, but he said putting it off is not an effort to try and make the issue go away.

“We’re just hoping people calm down because the emotions just got out of hand,” he said. “We’re hoping it creates time for people to make rational comments and think about it.”

Next year’s Winter Carnival runs from Feb. 2 to 11.