Passing of a king of carnival: Carlos Lezama

Carlos Lezama, “the Father of Brooklyn Carnival”, hailed as a shining example

Carlos Lezama: The Father of Brooklyn Carnival. Photograph by Glenda Cadogan

Last January 22, Carlos Lezama, the man known as “the Father of Brooklyn Carnival”, died at King’s County Hospital in his adopted home town of Brooklyn, New York. He was 83.

The West Indian Day Parade, also known as Brooklyn Carnival, happens each Labour Day in New York, and was one of the first major carnivals to be staged outside Carnival’s home in Trinidad. In recent years, almost four million people have streamed down the Parkway in what has become the largest street parade in North America. It has also spawned nearly 40 Trinidad-style carnivals throughout North America, in cities such as Washington DC, Miami, Boston, Toronto and Montreal. Each year, it earns New York over US$200 million worth of revenue, with most of it being generated for the Brooklyn community.

Lezama’s involvement in bringing West Indian Carnival to New York actually began in Harlem, where a fellow Trinidadian, Jessie Waddell, had introduced the Carnival in the 1930s to coincide with the festivities in Trinidad. But in the mid-1960s, Lezama focused his efforts on establishing a Carnival in Brooklyn, with his friend Rufus Goring. In 1967 he was elected president of the fledgling Carnival Association, a position to which he was re-elected countless times until he resigned in 2001 because of failing health. By that time, he had successfully integrated a number of Trinidad Carnival elements like Panorama, Kiddies Carnival, Dimanche Gras, costume competitions, and Calypso Monarch into the New York Carnival.

Along the way, Lezama and the Carnival earned the respect and appreciation of the New York community at large. Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani was a grand marshal three times. Former New York Governors Nelson Rockefeller, Hugh Carey, Mario Cuomo and current Governor George Pataki have all sung the praises of both the parade and Lezama himself. In fact, the Eastern Parkway Parade route was dubbed the “Carlos Lezama Parkway” for the 2001 Carnival.

New York Council member Leroy Comie, who was born in Jamaica, paid a fitting tribute to Lezama, saying: “[He] was a shining example of the impact that immigrants have in our nation… [As] we celebrate his life and achievements, let us use his example to strengthen our resolve and continue to teach our youth the importance of respecting and celebrating one’s culture.”

For more information on the West Indian Day Carnival in Brooklyn, visit: www.wiadca.com