A Short History of Los Angeles Carnival

Los Angeles Carnival is part of a worldwide carnival tradition, referred to in some places as Mardi Gras. In this tradition, the community ‘takes over the street’ to indulge and celebrate in preparation for the 40 days of penance and fasting associated with the Christian tradition of lent.

Celebrated worldwide and brought to the Caribbean by European colonists, this practice merged with the traditions of enslaved Africans and evolved into its current form of a costumed ‘dance party’ in the streets. Although mistakenly confused with a parade because of its similarity, a carnival is not a parade. It is more like a controlled chaotic party that travels along the streets, somewhat like a parade. Most often celebrated close to the Lenten time during February/March, Caribbean style carnivals have developed all over the world and occur at various times throughout the year. Some of the largest are the Notting Hill Carnival in London, Caribana in Toronto, Miami Carnival and New York West Indian Day Parade.

Prior to Los Angeles Carnival, the only event that was close to a Caribbean carnival, anywhere in Southern California was the San Francisco Carnival. Although earlier attempts had been made to establish a Caribbean carnival in Los Angeles, none were successful. This might have been partly attributable to the fact that Southern California did not have large concentrations of Caribbean immigrants in any one place, but rather, had pockets of nationals spread out over large geographic areas. It was therefore difficult to reach the community and to establish a central gathering place. The more critical issue that faced Los Angeles Carnival however was the absence of any carnival infrastructure. There were no active carnival designers, no practicing carnival artists, masqueraders, band leaders, suppliers and other elements necessary to create carnival. The Los Angeles Carnival literally started from ground zero.

The initial Los Angeles Carnival was held on Hollywood Boulevard in 1998. It was the culminating event for CARICABELA (Caribbean Cultural and Business Expositions, Los Angeles), an event founded by Marie Kellier to maintain and share Caribbean cultural heritage. With no foundation on which to build a carnival, the organizers sought help from the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department.  With their support and encouragement, the organizers decided to base the carnival inside Barnsdall Park then take it onto Hollywood Boulevard the following year.

However, when Barnsdall was closed due to damage from the Northridge earthquake, a venue change became necessary. In a Chamber meeting in Westchester, where the offices of MARIKEL were located, an invitation was issued to bring the event to Westchester.  The stretch of Manchester Avenue between Sepulveda and Lincoln was selected to incubate the parade, with a culminating festival in Westchester Park.  So with substantial in-kind support from the office of then Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, Los Angeles Carnival was temporarily moved to Westchester  with the intention of of moving it back to Hollywood once the infrastructure was able to support it.

Unable to sustain the rising cost of the growing event through her company, in 2002 Founder and Producer Marie Kellier applied for a grant from the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs to keep building Los Angeles Carnival. She was awarded a grant of $10,000 as an independent producer ‘to produce a festival or parade’ in that Council District. Using those funds, plus additional monies from MARIKEL Productions, and with support from the Caribbean community and Council District 6 (now Council District 11), she continued the arduous task of building an infrastructure that would sustain a Caribbean carnival community in Southern California. In 2003 a change in DCA rules required 501(c)3 status in order to qualify for a grant. Kellier revived a dormant 501(c)3 she had started while at at UCLA, and with that nonprofit partner in place, L.A. Carnival continued to be successfully produced in Westchester.

Between 1999 and 2014 with ongoing support from the Department of Cultural Affairs,  other city departments, and community groups the  carnival infrastructure began to take shape. In spite of numerous early efforts to break up and splinter the carnival by some participating groups, the majority of the Caribbean community remained steadfast and MARIKEL was able to maintain an unbroken record of production of Los Angeles Carnival,so that a strong carnival infrastructure could be solidified. This resulted in the formation and growth of over 20 new Caribbean carnival groups, dozens of first time carnival band leaders and producers, costume designers and ‘mas makers’ who searched out and found suppliers to create costumes and masquerades for carnival. Thousands of masqueraders, revelers and carnival enthusiasts came out to carnival in the streets of Los Angeles, and indeed traveled with Los Angeles Carnival On Tour to international events and on tour over the state. After a long and arduous road,  Los Angeles was finally acknowledged among carnival circles as a legitimate carnival city.

“L.A. Carnival Westchester Live” now re-imagines the traditional Caribbean carnival structure and is transforming it into a contemporary, family friendly placemaking event that focuses on engaging the international LAX/Westchester and adjacent communities, and infusing the area with local and international economic activity, using art and culture as the primary economic driver.