Above: The crowd from El Encuentro, a popular bar and liquor store across the street from the park, began to spill out into the street soon after lunch (Olivia Burton).
BY OLIVIA BURTON
Cabrera’s central park is normally a quiet, shady place where people can relax with their friends, wait for a bus or buy some popcorn or a drink. But on the weekend of July 25, Cabrerans flooded the park for Cabrereños Ausentes, an annual festival in which Cabrerans who have left the small town return for a weekend of reunions and parties.
When clouds gather before a rainstorm in Cabrera, people begin to move faster to find shelter. While people race back to their homes on their motos and gauge the weather from their windows, an anxious excitement buzzes through the town like electricity. That feeling of nervous anticipation was amplified on the Thursday before Cabrereños Ausentes, as early arrivals made the town seem more crowded than usual and workers noisily constructed a large stage in the park. Laundry lines were crowded with clean sheets and towels for incoming guests, and the local bakery prepared thousands of rolls, donuts and cakes in anticipation. Fewer campers than usual came to Camp Esperanza on Friday, as they helped prepare for the festivities.
On Friday night, music and dancing in the park kicked off Cabrera’s annual homecoming celebration. Yolissa, my Zumba teacher, danced onstage to music from a local band, and the crowd from the bar across the street from the car became so large that it spilled out into the road. Families gathered together in a tangle of hugs, kisses and excited shouts. Older couples danced the merengue and salsa in the street to the music of a local band while younger people gathered around a DJ at the opposite end of the park.
Cabrereños Ausentes officially began with a parade on Saturday morning. Returning Cabrerans rode into town on homemade floats made of fishing boats, trailers and pickup trucks decorated with palm leaves, plantains, coconuts, flowers and colorful paper. Accompanying the floats was a mob of friends and family on motorcycles, wheel to wheel, revving their engines, popping wheelies and shouting. The deafening noise of the celebration reverberated throughout town as the parade made its way to the park.
Throughout the day, returning Cabrerans, locals and visitors danced in the streets, drinking rum, El Presidente beer, and Mamajuana, a Dominican drink consisting of rum, sweet red wine, honey, spices and wood chips. Children shared bags of popcorn and basketball-sized globes of cotton candy and families gathered for picnics of rice, beans, empanadas, chicken and juice in the park.
For many returning Cabrerans, the weekend was an opportunity to show off their success in wearing expensive clothes and jewelry. Women wore cocktail dresses and sometimes gowns, while the men wore suits, necklaces and button-down shirts. Young girls ran circles around the trees in frilly, full-skirted dresses with their newly-purchased light-up toys and beads, thrilled by the crowd and the change of pace. Many returning Cabrerans spent their Saturday afternoon walking or riding motorcycles around their hometown, looking for old friends or visiting familiar places.
Cabrereños Ausentes began in the town 43 years ago and was the only festival of its kind in the Dominican Republic until a few years ago, when the nearby larger town of Nagua adopted the idea. As by far the biggest weekend of the year for Cabrera, Cabrereños Ausentes showcases the town’s emphasis on family loyalty, hospitality and hometown pride. It’s an annual homecoming celebration that reminds Cabrerans that no matter why they leave town, or for how long, they are always welcome home.