Zenia Smith knows her way around a parade. She marched as a flag carrier for Xavier Prep and watched over revelers as a New Orleans Police Department officer. She’s a seasoned Carnival float lieutenant and reigned as goddess of the Mystic Krewe of Nyx in 2017.
So Smith knew something was up last December when she ran out of throws for what she expected to be a small holiday parade in New Orleans East. All she could do was wave at the bundled-up crowds gathered for the first-ever Jingle on the Boulevard parade that chilly afternoon. They smiled and danced just the same.
“I just remember people not even wanting anything,” said Smith, a sergeant in the NOPD. “They were just happy that we were there.”
That’s when it hit her: New Orleans East needed a Carnival parade. Smith happened to be founder and captain of the new, all-female Krewe of Nefertiti, which rolled as a subkrewe of the Krewe of Freret in 2019. The “light bulb went off,” she said.
“I lived four blocks off of St. Charles Avenue growing up. I knew nothing about New Orleans East parades,” said Smith, now a New Orleans East resident herself. “It never dawned on me that it was missing until I got out here.”
Nefertiti will debut in February as the first krewe to roll in New Orleans East in decades, a throwback to a tradition of neighborhood parades that has largely faded from the modern Mardi Gras experience. The inaugural Krewe of Nefertiti Family Day in the East parade, which rolls Feb. 9, will have up to 20 floats and feature marching bands and dance groups from New Orleans East.
The theme, The Birth of Nefertiti, will celebrate the ancient Egyptian queen and female empowerment. Julie Greenburg, a charter member of Nefertiti, will reign as Queen Nefertiti I. Jesseca Dupart, the self-made millionaire who founded Kaleidoscope Hair Products in New Orleans East, will serve as Grand Marshall.
The parade will be first in New Orleans East since the co-ed krewe Minerva, which rolled in the area for 16 years before calling it quits in 1992. The all-female Selena also paraded in the neighborhood from 1977 to 1986.
But don’t call this a Mardi Gras parade. At least not on paper. The city of New Orleans covers the cost of cleanup, blocking streets and putting police on the route for sanctioned Mardi Gras parades. Nefertiti is technically a sponsored parade, which means krewe members and community sponsors will pay those costs.
New Orleans City Councilwoman Cyndi Nguyen, who represents New Orleans East, said Nefertiti’s decision to self-fund the parade was crucial. City officials were concerned about the parade’s cost as well as the strain on NOPD manpower. The route was kept short and the date set in early February to minimize stress on police.
The 3-mile route will run along Lake Forest Boulevard starting at Bullard Avenue and turn left at Read Boulevard before traveling down to Chef Menteur Highway. From there, it will do a U-turn and end back at Joe Brown Park.
Smith said the Krewe of Nefertiti’s decision to pay for its own parade aligns with its service mission. Its 200 members mentor girls and volunteer for local charities like Pink House and The Split Second Foundation.
Smith said she looks forward to seeing the smiles of the children of New Orleans East, especially little girls, on parade day. Krewe members and Nguyen’s office will be knocking on doors in January to make sure neighbors are aware of the plans.
Both Smith and Nguyen hope the parade is the start of a new Carnival tradition not just for New Orleans East, but for the whole city.
“Everybody deserves Mardi Gras,” Smith said. “I want everyone to know that. Mardi Gras is not for a specific area or a specific person. It’s for everyone and everyone should be able to share in it equally.”
Photos courtesy Krewe of Nefertiti