Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

With a new division, Mummers embrace diversity

The 2015 Mummers Parade had ended just hours earlier when Rue Landau read an account in the next day's newspaper and decided enough was enough.

Nakeia Laws is thrilled her drill team will be strutting. "I used to always want to be in it," she says.
Nakeia Laws is thrilled her drill team will be strutting. "I used to always want to be in it," she says.Read moreCLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

The 2015 Mummers Parade had ended just hours earlier when Rue Landau read an account in the next day's newspaper and decided enough was enough.

". . . a Wench Brigade performer standing in front of City Hall in what appeared to be blackface, while other performers were shown toting signs that read, 'Wench Lives Matter,' " the Philadelphia Daily News reported.

"Another, dressed as President Obama, carried an 'Illegal Aliens Allowed' sign."

The controversial displays were exceptions in a sea of thousands of comics, string bands, and feathered fancies strutting proudly in the city's century-old extravaganza. But every year, it seemed to Landau, racist or other swipes at minorities were cropping up along the South Broad Street parade route, making their way to outraged audiences through social media.

About a month later, Landau, executive director of the city's Human Relations Commission, picked up the phone.

"It's about time that we make some change," Landau told the city's overseer of parade logistics, Leo Dignam.

The all-white, nearly all-male, nearly all-European-ethnic parade was no longer a reflection of a city where only 36 percent of the population is white.

On Friday, that change will be at the front of the line when the parade begins at 9 a.m. on the west side of City Hall. Two Hispanic performance groups and one African American drill team will start the 2016 Mummers Parade with their own first-time appearance in the all-new Philadelphia Division.

The three groups will join an LGBT contingent that broke its own barrier four years ago when it joined the parade of peacocking men and (markedly fewer) women in ostentatious, sequined or feathered garb.

"This has been a dream I've had, to march in the Mummers," said David Pino, 38, a South Philadelphia restaurant owner whose San Mateo Carnavaleros will dance in traditional Mardi Gras costumes to music unique to Puebla, Mexico. "We want to show who we are."

They are émigrés, like himself, who have embraced their new country and city with the same gusto and determination as the Irish, Italians, and Polish who helped create and sustain the Mummers, said Pino, who came here from Puebla 18 years ago.

They are people, Pino said, with families with ethnic traditions as cherished as those that underlie the parade formed by European immigrants at the end of the 19th century.

"To be an immigrant is not anything bad," Pino said, describing the message he hopes to convey by marching Friday - and many more years after that.

"We come to work, we come to live, to build a family here. We want to be free in this country," Pino said. "I'm so excited."

At her rowhouse in West Philadelphia's Mill Creek neighborhood, drill team leader Nakeia Laws styled hair for a client in her dining room a few days ago as she searched for her own words to describe her group's role in helping christen the new diversity division.

The 41-year-old Philadelphia native said she and her squad of African American teenagers and children, Second 2 None, were thrilled to have been invited to something she always perceived as a parade of and by others.

"When I used to be younger, I used to think [the Mummers Parade] was something just South Philly put together, down the other side of Broad Street," said Laws, who grew up in public housing on the west side of Broad in South Philly, at Passyunk Homes.

She is the one who choreographs and dreams up every facet of her uniformed troupe's stepping and drumming routines for competitions several times a year. She has long been seduced by the Mummers' high-caliber performances, despite the high-profile parade's shortage of African Americans on the asphalt.

"I used to always want to be in it," Laws said.

The formal integration of the Mummers is significant because it goes far beyond what already has happened, but in very small increments.

Starting this year, the parade no longer will have only a smattering of minorities and women in clubs, brigades, and groups.

Advocates of change say existing clubs did not appear to deliberately exclude new groups from joining. Officials and even pro-integration advocates within the Mummers said they did not view that as one of the obstacles that has kept the parade from evolving organically into a more ethnically and racially diverse celebration.

The problem seemed to stem largely from the cliquish culture of the groups involved, many of which contain generations of members of the same families and friend groups.

Another barrier was the nature of the Mummers organization - an entity with little centralized power for almost its entire life.

The Mummers are an amalgam of autonomous clubs and brigades that have only come under any true centralized control over the last decade, as the Department of Parks and Recreation has sought to trim city costs by drastically shortening the parade route and whacking the 12-hour-long spectacle to a more digestible six hours.

"It's not that easy to join the parade. The website is always broken, there's no one to call, that type of thing," said Danielle Redden, 38, who is cocaptain of the Mummers comic group Vaudevillains, whose members, almost all women, have agitated for greater diversity within the parade.

In March, Landau and Dignam met with Mummers and all members of the Human Relations Commission to discuss how to integrate new groups. That was followed by monthly brainstorming sessions, Dignam said.

"It was a very good conversation," said Dignam. The Mummers were nothing but receptive.

At the same time but separately, Redden's group was pushing forth with its own efforts to agitate for change. They held a forum on how to make the parade diverse and, in short order, met and got to know Carnavaleros at an event hosted by Taller Puertorriqueno in North Philadelphia.

"We would love to have you in the parade," she told members of the Mexican group. Soon after, Redden asked for and had a meeting with Dignam, who explained that he, too, was leading efforts to form an all-new Philadelphia Division for just such a purpose.

To Redden, importing new folk traditions into the parade is essential if it is to combat the attrition of marchers that has come about as generations pass and interest fades.

"In order for it to survive," said Redden, "it has to remain relevant to the people who live in Philadelphia. They also have to care about it and have an affection for it."

Mummers Association president Bob Shannon said old-timers welcomed the change.

"Everybody has really been looking forward to the opportunity for the new division to prosper," Shannon said.

"We would definitely like to make it available to anybody - any walks of life," Shannon said.

The plan is to integrate the new clubs into the existing Comics Division next year, and work to further import others into the parade, while also working to introduce other safeguards against the mounting of offensive skits.

"Just including four different types of groups this year is not true diversity," said Landau. "It's a first step."


Mummers Parade


Starts: 9 a.m. on Jan. 1.

Route: Begins at City Hall with judging at 15th Street and JFK Boulevard, then continues south on Broad Street to its end point at Washington Avenue.

Order of march: Philadelphia Division, followed by Fancies, Wenches, Comics, and String Bands.

Also: The Fancy Brigades will each join the parade after finishing its noon performance at the Convention Center.