The average American celebrates Valentine’s Day with chocolates and cards. In Baton Rouge, however, the holiday coincided with the annual Spanish Town Mardi Gras Parade, calling for a strange hodgepodge of red hearts and pink flamingos, beer and beads, children and dogs.
While the parade has earned a colorful reputation in its 35-year history, krewes didn’t have much trouble incorporating the seemingly innocent “St. Valentine’s Day Masquerade” theme into their usual displays of offbeat humor. Luckily for them, pink is the signature color of Spanish Town.
But some paradegoers say love actually has always been part of this event. It’s one of Baton Rouge’s biggest celebrations, bringing people of all sorts together on narrow sidewalks and front porches of historic homes. Anything from glitter-tossing krewe members to a dance troupe pushing lawnmowers may pass by.
For 24-year-old Lexie Chamberlin, the Spanish Town parade is a tradition. She’s been going since she was 3 years old, and her three young children have been going since they were babies. They always claim a spot between the same two houses on Ninth Street.
Chamberlin lives in Plaquemine, but she said the fun atmosphere of Spanish Town feels like home.
“We always cook and welcome anyone,” she said. “It’s that Southern hospitality.”
Chamberlin acknowledges some floats and throws aren’t appropriate for children. While catching beads and stuffed animals is fun for her 3-year-old son and 6-year-old and 18-month-old daughters, Chamberlin believes they can learn important lessons by attending the Mardi Gras parade.
“I’m very open-minded,” she said. “I love to expose my children to culture.”
All that love isn’t extended to everyone, however. A key element of the Spanish Town parade is its skewering of Louisiana’s political class, which Chamberlin said is a uniquely Louisianian experience.
With a budget crisis looming and a governor positioning himself for a 2016 presidential run, gibes targeting Bobby Jindal were abundant Saturday as the parade rolled through streets in the shadow of the State Capitol.
“Love to you in North B.R., hope you never need E.R.,” read a sign shaped like a conversation heart candy from Jindal on one float. The sign referred to the soon-to-be closed emergency room at Baton Rouge General’s midcity location.
A photo of Vance McAllister, the former “kissing congressman” from northern Louisiana, appeared on another float with a caption explaining that voters had, appropriately, kissed him goodbye.
Meanwhile, all along the parade route, couples kissed and posed for selfies.
Jonathan Combel, who has been to the parade for two years, said that kind of fun makes the parade valuable.
“Baton Rouge is a pretty buttoned-up town,” he said. “It’s rare to see it cut loose like this.”
His wife, Gabrielle Bernier, was at the parade for the first time on Saturday. Bernier, who is originally from Montreal, Canada, said she has attended Mardi Gras parades before but enjoyed seeing the creative costumes at Spanish Town.
Some people, like a unicyclist dressed as Cupid, got a bit carried away with the Valentine’s Day theme, but nothing else got too out of hand. Paradegoer Bunny Smith said Spanish Town makes it possible to enjoy Mardi Gras “without it getting nasty,” as she said often happens at the larger New Orleans celebrations.
“I grew out of going to New Orleans,” said Eric Chambers, 34, of Denham Springs. “Here, you can people watch. It’s low-key. In New Orleans, they had a shooting two days ago” during the Krewe of Muses parade.
By contrast, Spanish Town “has a good family atmosphere,” Smith said, as a father pulled his two children down the street in a red wagon before the floats began rolling.
“This is my favorite parade,” said Smith’s sister, Bobbie Barbieri, who was seated nearby wearing a hat adorned with pink feathers. “The people are friendly; they’re all smiles and there’s no pushing or shoving.”