At 8am on a Tuesday in February, masked and hooded figures gather across the rural counties of Louisiana. It is quiet and calm, but it won’t be for long. The people carry an air of anticipation. Everyone is clad in bright hues, primarily of purple, green, and gold, with fringe running up and down the sides of their costumes. My photographer uniform, dark jeans and a cargo jacket, are intended to make me blend in, but instead broadcasts that I am an outsider. Repeatedly, I am asked, “you ain’ never run Mardi Gras befo, huh?”
I am unprepared for the day’s festivities. I knew there would be costumes, floats, and horses—all things appropriate for a family friendly event. But I didn’t expect the insanely high volume of alcohol. If I was in New Orleans, I would expect drinking to be the main component for a successful Mardi Gras, but I wasn’t expecting the 13-mile parade through Eunice, LA to be composed of several hundred drunken Cajuns.
As I take in the crowd, I noticed a large group of teens, blissfully hugging one another and handing out beer. There are cops on ATVs, but they ride by the underage drinkers with nothing more than a nod hello. Even before the parade begins, almost everyone has a beer in one hand and a Jell-O shot in the other. The parade was supposed to start at 8am, but we don’t start moving until almost 9. I hop on a float and meet Pat, a woman in her late 60s who has an affinity for Malibu Rum. “Hangover tomorra will blow, but it’s wort’ it!” she says to me between gulps.
A song I have never heard comes on the float speakers, and immediately everyone begins to sing along: “I don’t like golf, I don’t like swimmin’. I just like chasin’ them big butt women. We gonna do that butt thing”. I don’t know what “that butt thing” is, but the locals clearly do. One after another, songs I can only describe as a country-jazz-accordion blend with outrageous lyrics, come through the speakers. “You ain’ never heard Zydeco music befo?”
After the first couple of miles, the parade stops. From the middle of the line, we can’t tell why the front has stopped, but we find ourselves next to a four-foot wide ditch filled with muddy rainwater. The young men in the troupe are sufficiently buzzed at this point, and dare each other to jump over the ditch. With a running head start, the first man clears the ditch, with inches to spare. The next one takes the same head start, and falls straight into the mud. The third gets up to full speed, then slows, and deliberately belly flops into the murky sludge. Within the next few minutes, several more jump in, and it becomes difficult to tell who fell short of clearing the ditch, and who jumped in willfully. The crowd peals with laughter as the parade lazily resumes.
We pass by houses in the middle of the country. People on the floats throw beads at families sitting in lawn chairs at the end of their driveways. The Coureur de Mardi Gras, or Mardi Gras runners, walk up to the spectators and ask for alms. When I hop off the float, a masked Coureur comes up to me and kneels at my feet. He rubs my shoes and exclaims in a faux-French accent, “coins, Mademoiselle? May I have some coins?” I regretfully have none to give, but he wishes me a happy Mardi Gras anyway as he looks ahead for more generous prey.
When we stop again, a man walks to the middle of a field, holding a live chicken. He is flocked by twenty costumed teenagers. He throws the chicken up in the air. It goes up and up, and then bolts as soon as it lands. The teens go after that chicken the way young women go after the bouquet at a wedding, simultaneously carrying on the importance of tradition and the thrill of competition. They tackle and scratch one another, and a young woman at the bottom of the dog pile scoops up the chicken. She stands up and runs, chicken in one arm, the other thrust victoriously in the air. Again and again, we stop in grassy fields for the chicken run.
Around noon, I start to see people walking by the floats with fists full of sausage. I am told it is boudin, a sausage made of rice and meat. Immediately I worry I will be offered some boudin full of former chicken-run chickens. But the boudin runs out before I’m offered any. Merci a Dieu.
All my photos are hastily composed. Focusing on a single object seems impossible with all that is happening around me. One of the women on the float offers me a Jell-O shot, and I feel obliged to accept her gesture of hospitality. I accept it again, and again. Before I know it, I am beginning to feel like I belong. The spirit of the day is contagious.
But as the day goes on, I begin to understand that the mellow attitude of the locals holds solemn undertones. Courtney, a woman in her early 20’s who grew up there, tells me she left after high school to work in Monroe, but came back home to get away from some bad people. She doesn’t elaborate, but I can tell she is confiding more than she would if she were sober. She says Eunice isn’t a bad place to be. It is quiet and calm. The only bad part, she says regretfully, is the heroin epidemic, giving the impression that she knows people affected by the drug. As I spend more time with her, she points out a rich family whom everyone envies, young women who got pregnant in high school, and people she can tell are using much more than alcohol to get into the party spirit. As we pass families, Courtney repeatedly jumps off the float to make sure the youngest and the shyest kids get just as many beads as the older and more spirited ones.
The people I met today have hard lives the rest of the year. Their community is poor and isolated. It seems many high school students don’t go on to college, and most of the older women I met had spent their entire lives in Eunice. Their jobs as farmers and factory workers are thankless, and they can never get away from people who know too much about them. Mardi Gras is their day to come together as a community and forget life’s worries. Everyone I spoke to said they have been running Mardi Gras since they were 18, old enough to legally participate. Courtney and her friends even slipped under the radar at 13 and have joined the parade every year since. They take a day and forget their poverty, broken homes, and monotonous jobs. Like many other holidays, the religious origins of Mardi Gras have all but worn away, but the anticipation and tradition remain. Courtney said, “It’s better than Christmas.”