Friday, April 13, 2012

Guatemala - April 2012

Outside Santo Tomas Church in Chichicastenengo, Guatemala

Revisiting Guatemala 21 Years Later

Posters on the Guatemala City walls are reminder of those who "disappeared" during the civil war

Going back to Guatemala 21 years after my first visit brought back a lot of memories.

In 1991, me, a college student specializing in Central American human rights, went off to study Spanish in language school in Quetzaltenango (Xela), Guatemala's 2nd largest city.  At that time the country was deep in an ongoing civil way that began in 1960 and tore the country apart with opposition guerrilla fighters trying to take down a brutal military regime. Death squads killed "more than 200,000 people died and nearly 50,000 went missing." (  After having visited 6 months before Nicaragua and seeing their post-revolutionary society I had studied so much, I once again realized how much one can learn first hand in travel and headed to this other country that I was also learning so much about.
Ornate churches speckle the streets of Antigua, one of Guatemala's colonial capitols.

Semana Santa in Guatemala

Processions went from early mornings and to at night.
This year I decided to celebrate holy week in a totally different way.  I left Easter bunnies and baskets behind and headed to Guatemala where deep Catholic traditions reign and big festivities commemorate the significant events of the week.      
In Antigua, the well preserved colonial capitol, the week is filled with large religious processions.  Different churches and their congregations carry floats and effigies of Jesus, Mary and other saints through the streets.  1000s participate in each and walk for hours as they wind through all the streets.  Multiple processions happen each day.
The main floats weigh up to 7000 pounds
I had no idea what to expect and frankly am still overwhelmed by the grandeur of it all.  

In some processions, people act out the important scenes and on the first day, we arrived just in time to watch an elaborate reenactment of Jesus getting sentenced to death.  It was a pretty dramatic start and made me relive the other steps along Jesus' route to crucifixion and resurrection in a way I never have before in years of Easters in the US.

Christ has risen!
I woke up on Easter Sunday to the sound of church bells and anxiously waited for the Easter procession where a risen and glowing Christ would be paraded through the crowd as if he was really alive.  That procession did not disappoint.  Jesus was guided by brightly dressed kings and shepherds and a cheering crowd greeted them along the way.  Jesus was followed by a happy marching band that filled the air with joyous music which was a nice change from the somber marching music that accompanied processions on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.
Saw dust carpets like this covered the streets

Alfombras (carpets)
One component of the celebration that is different from anything I have ever seen before was the alfombras or carpets that local people make for the processions to walk on.  These carpets are made of colored saw dust or pine needles and covered with flowers, fruits and vegetables.  The patterns are elaborate and communities plan the designs throughout the year and get together to create the carpets in the 12 hours before a procession passes through. Some of them line full streets.  Many have religious designs.  All are colorful and a feast for the eyes and give tourists a locals a reason to wind through the streets all day every day and see what is being created.  It’s incredible to see the amount of work these temporary gifts to Jesus take to make and then to watch them get walked over in the processions and quickly swept up by the sanitation crew at the end of the procession.  I worked on one and felt proud to see it finished and pained to see it stomped on.

I kept thinking someone should start art festival in New York where people created sawdust carpets like these.  The art work was amazing in Guatemala so I can only imagine the creative ways my favorite New York street artists would design.

At the end of Semana Santa, I left Guatemala with the desire to learn more about these celebrations that exist all over Latin American and Spain.  Maybe my new Easter tradition will be following religious processions, wherever I can find them?

Photos from Guatemala

Thursday, April 12, 2012

One of the religious processions in Antigua during Semana Santa