NANDAIME, Nicaragua (AP) — Nandaime puts on a big show for two weeks every year to honor its patron saint, Santa Ana, the mother of the Virgin Mary.
Townspeople parade through the streets with a platform holding statues of Santa Ana, with the baby Mary on her lap and husband San Joaquin at her side. People thank her for answered prayers by pinning pendants of body parts, animals and other things on the statue's robe.
Men careen through town with cardboard bulls popping and flashing with fireworks. People gather for block parties, a circus sets up and there's a bull-riding competition. Horsemen guide a bull through town and people adorn its neck with paper flowers as way to give thanks.
The celebration's unusual twist is the "El Cartel" dance, where the boys and men of Nandaime show up wearing women's clothes and makeup. This year, at least one young woman came as a man, complete with tie, hat and painted on beard.
Antonio Morales, a 93-year-old retired carpenter and one of the Carnival's organizers, says the tradition of dressing in the other sex's clothing originated with his grandfather, who sponsored the first "El Cartel" years ago to offer music and dancing as a way to thank Santa Ana for healing his seriously ill wife.
"My grandfather hired some people and one of them offered to dress as a woman in honor of my grandmother," says Don Tono, as Morales is fondly known in the town, which is a little over 40 miles (70 kilometers) from Nicaragua's capital, Managua.
From there, more and more males began dressing up in female attire.
One of the boys who participated in this year's cross-dressing competition was 10-year-old Alexander Larios, who had to do some persuading to get his mother to help him get ready for "El Cartel" on Sunday.
"He spent two days crying because I told him that he couldn't go because I was tired," Karen Cruz said while helping her son with his makeup and blue dress. "In the end that crying convinced me and there he is, the happy kiddo."
Moving the preparations outside their home where the light was better, Cruz had to do some of her own persuasion with a fidgety son.
"You know, you have to look like a girl," she told him. A frowning Alexander shot back, "I'm not girl!"
"I do it because my grandmother Mary asked me to because she cannot get out. She's sick with cancer and cannot dance to Santa Ana," he added, voice quivering and eyes watering. "Also, I do it to keep up the traditions of my town and because I like that I'm going to do it the rest of my life."
"Here, this is normal," his mother said of her dolled-up son. "It's only today and they do it for the fiesta."