In Antigua, Guatemala, Easter Sunday’s (Domingo de Resurrección) modest procession celebrating the resurrection of Christ (Procesión de Resurrección) contrasts starkly with the solemnity of the Lent (Cuaresma) and Holy Week (Semana Santa) processions.
Suddenly the blanket of sadness lifts and there is a festive air. Smiling folk in colorful costumes play lively music and dance over candy-strewn alfombras that children pounce on like booty from a battered piñata. Shreds of colored paper scattered from rooftops float in the breeze like confetti and firecrackers echo throughout the city.
World famous for its Lent (Cuaresma) and Holy Week (Semana Santa) celebrations, Antigua and surrounding pueblos in the central highlands of Guatemala buzz with people, emotion and activities at this time of year more than any other. Families, friends, neighbors and communities spend hours together creating elaborate ceremonial carpets called alfombras along the route of religious processions.
Some make simple alfombras of pine needles strewn with flowers. Others create intricate, time-consuming works of art using stencils and sawdust (called aserrín) stained the varying hues of an artist’s palette. For these, they level a surface of sand or plain sawdust over the uneven cobblestones before sifting a fine layer of dyed sawdust to paint a colored background.
Placing their choice of cardboard or wooden stencils cut into various images and patterns on the blank canvas they carefully sift contrasting hues of sawdust to create the effect they want. Laying on platforms of sturdy planks of wood placed on blocks spanning the width of the alfombra, they avoid damaging their art.
After months of planning and hours of work and painstaking concentration, masterpieces carpet the cobbles in the path of processions only to be trampled moments later into an impressionistic mishmash between gray stones.
Here’s a photo tour of the elaborate process of alfombra-making! Click here to see all my Holy Week posts from previous years. For this year’s Semana Santa photos and all things Antigueño, check out Antigua Daily Photo.
My post Holy Week Alfombra Detail: Part 1 was just a taster of the thousands of alfombras created during Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Antigua, Guatemala. As so many intricate details grabbed my attention, I had to break them down into separate posts.
Semana Santa (Holy Week) has come and gone again in Antigua, Guatemala along with thousands of ceremonial carpets known as alfombras, laid and destroyed in the path of processions.
This post is dedicated to details of these pieces of art made of dyed sawdust, pine needles, flowers, fruit and vegetables where biblical and Mayan themes, crosses and hearts predominate.
For more of my alfombra posts check out Holy Week in Antigua: Alfombras and Just Kids: The Art of Alfombras. For all my Semana Santa posts including processions and velaciones (Holy Vigils) click here. Also, Holy Week Alfombra Detail: Part 2 is now posted.
Guatemalan kids love to express their creative side helping their parents in the art of making elaborate, vivid alfombras (carpets) of gaudily dyed aserrín (sawdust), pine needles, flowers and fruit during Semana Santa (Holy Week).
Engrossed in their handiwork, mostly oblivious to onlookers, they play with color and form. Laying flowers and petals on carpets of soft, scented pine needles or sifting, spooning and massaging with fingertips psychedelic sawdust into carved out shapes in wooden stencils: this is the ultimate art class for kids!
Here are just a few images captured in Antigua at this time.
Mothers dress up their young daughters in formal black and white, often covering their heads in lace shawls, and either carry or lead them while they take part in processions.
Like the boys, the girls too have their own procesiones infantiles, mini child processions where they carry their own andas (floats) helped by adults and chaperoned by their parents.
Here are a few photos of some girls in Antigua.
Guatemalan catholic families initiate their kids into Semana Santa (Holy Week) at an early age.
Parents dress up their male children, some still babies, in the purple robes of the cucurucho, (the color purple symbolizing Christ’s suffering) and fathers carry them in their arms or lead them by the hand in the processions.
Some days young boys carry their own andas (floats), the main load taken by men, in mini child processions called procesiones infantiles while parents walk along beside them.
Following are some shots I took of the boy cucuruchos in Antigua.
Incense fragranced smog chokes the air while dozens of robed, head-dressed men known as cucuruchos, shoulder an anda (float) bearing a figure of Christ.
Processions ceremoniously leave churches and tortuously navigate their way step by step along the topsy-turvy cobble stoned streets between crumbling ruins and colonial houses, trampling in their path intricate carpets (alfombras) of garishly stained sawdust and flowers.
After each block, new recruits subtly weave their way into the procession relieving the tiring cucuruchos from their burden. Organized by a brotherhood or hermandad, locals pay the church to participate, considering it a great honor and a way of displaying devotion to their faith.
At the tail end musicians blow solemnly on brass horns accompanied by the pounding of giant drums as they shuffle over the mishmash of impressionistic color splashed cobbles.
Streets jostle with locals, expats and international visitors waiting patiently for a view of the passing procession then mingling with the trailing hawkers crying out their wares.
Finally, locals salvage broken stems of flowers before the advancing tren de limpieza (cleaning train) of bulldozers, trucks and an army of men wielding brooms and shovels who clear up the aftermath of trampled sawdust and trash.
Processions vary but each one includes an anda bearing Christ carried by purple-robed men although the hermandad wear white robes and everyone changes to somber black after the crucifixion. A smaller float with women dressed in black and white, bearing a statue of the Virgin Mary follows.
The revered Franciscan monk Saint Hermano Pedro, also known as the Saint Francis of the Americas, imported the Semana Santa (Holy Week) tradition to Antigua when he arrived from Spain about 1650. He reputedly made the earliest alfombra in Guatemala and led the first procession.
These are just a few of the images I took of the processions during this period. More will follow in my next post.
Velaciones or holy vigils adorn churches around Antigua, Guatemala and surrounding villages at least every Friday throughout Cuaresma (Lent) and about two days before processions during Semana Santa (Holy Week).
A brotherhood, known as a hermandad, organizes their church’s velación, displaying their religious processional image near the altar against a giant biblical backdrop. At its feet lies a vibrant handmade alfombra (carpet) of sawdust, hemmed by a huerto (garden), an eye-catching display of flowers, fruit, vegetables, candles and specially shaped loaves of bread, brought to the church as offerings the day before.
Sacred music plays while the faithful or the inquisitive flood into the church to pray and admire these temporary works of religious art. A festival atmosphere fills the evening air outside as hordes of visitors hang around in groups gossiping and jostling for the best bites around smoky grills and seasonal food and drink stands.
A religious fervor of Holy Vigils (velaciones), masses (misas) and processions (procesiones) sweeps over the Catholic community throughout Lent or Cuaresma from Ash Wednesday (miércoles de Ceniza), forty days before Palm Sunday.
Holy Week, or Semana Santa in Spanish, is the last week of Lent starting on Palm Sunday and ending the day before Easter Sunday. During this time, in Antigua, Guatemala, the passion and solemnity intensifies among the faithful with almost daily processions that bring the normal daily life of the city to a standstill.
Here, part of the tradition involves the laborious laying of ceremonial carpets or alfombras in the path of processions. The devout dedicate hours to create intricate alfombras, patiently sifting dyed sawdust through wooden and cardboard templates, slowly covering the grey cobblestones with multi-colored, elaborate patterns.
Others design simpler carpets of pine needles, seasonal flowers and fruits, the aroma mingling with incense and saturating the air. Hours to make yet in minutes solemn processions slowly trample these works of art to obliteration.
My third Semana Santa in Antigua didn’t disappoint. Every day, my camera in hand, I pounded the uneven streets capturing moments of the passion. This post shows a tiny reflection of the most elaborate alfombras over those three years.
My next few posts will cover more of Semana Santa.
A tradition brought over to Guatemala by the Spanish Hermano Pedro is the nacimiento or nativity scene. El Día de la Virgen de La Concepción, on the 8th of December, is officially the beginning of the Christmas season and nacimientos start appearing in churches, homes, offices, restaurants, hotels and even in the streets.
Guatemalans take great pride in their nacimientos and many of them are brilliant works of art using vividly tinted sawdust (aserrín), pine needles, chamomile fruits (manzanillas) and incense to create color and aroma.
The following photos of nacimientos were all taken in the town of Antigua.
La Merced church
It is customary for the manger to remain empty until the figure of baby Jesus appears at midnight on the 24th accompanied by prayers and carols.
Nativity scenes are a worldwide custom but here it is not uncommon to see a touch of local flavor in the form of traditionally dressed Mayan figures and typical Guatemalan volcanic landscapes.
Every 12th of December in Guatemala on the Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe children throughout the country dress up in colorful, traditional indigenous costumes and carry an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe in local processions. Usually marimba and hordes of traditional food stalls go with the festivities.
Originating in Mexico after the Spanish conquest, when the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to an indigenous peasant, the custom continues throughout the Americas.
In Antigua the celebrations take place in front of the beautiful baroque church of La Merced. Rustic mini-scenes backed by painted images of the Virgin are set up in front of the church and parents pose their children for photographers. Tiny replicas of adults, the boys have mustaches painted on their faces and the girls little baskets tied to their heads. Each scene has a variety of typical Guatemalan everyday items for the children to use as props including miniature marimba, tortillas on a comal, model horses and a strange collection of live chickens and toy tigers.
Colorful images of the Virgin.
Children dressed up in traditional indigenous costumes.
Smoke and deafening explosions filled the air for maybe an hour as men ran through a minefield of granadas (translated to grenades) lighting the fireworks and firecrackers tied to them and bombas blasted noisily into the air from inside a heavy, metal tube placed vertically on the ground. Spectators clamped their hands to their ears, flinched, cowered and emitted screams and cheers as rogue fireworks shot off in random directions.
Every 7th of December a parade or convite slowly makes its way through the streets of the former capital Ciudad Vieja just outside Antigua in Guatemala. The following day they celebrate the town’s virgin patron’s day, Día de la Virgen de La Concepción, and after mass in the cathedral everyone crowds into the plaza outside for the noisy display of granadas.
Nowadays, Guatemalans celebrate all Catholic festivals with fireworks, firecrackers and bombas and due to a myriad of religious festivals throughout the year, it’s a rare day when there’s silence in the streets.
On this day, when the sounds subside and the smoke clears but with ringing ears and the sharp scent of gunpowder still in the nostrils, colorful folkloric dances begin. These mainly originated in the Iberian Peninsula and were probably brought over to Guatemala during colonial times picking up their own flavor in local towns and are a mix of theatrical dances and presentations.
The Dance of the 24 Devils, the Dance of the Seven Vices and Seven Virtues and the Dance of the Moors and Christians are three of the most popular.
Every year on the 7th of December a parade of floats makes its way through the streets of the former capital of Guatemala, Ciudad Vieja just outside Antigua. It’s customary to hold a convite the day before a procession and this one ushers in el Día de la Virgen de La Concepción.
There was a strange and colorful mix of religious and cultural themes including angels, indians, Spaniards, cowboys, devils, men dressed up as women and cartoon characters. It was a truly Guatemalan experience.
No festival in Guatemala is complete without the sound of marimba.
Another band member.
A float waiting for the parade to begin.
A hungry dwarf.
Little angels sitting on the float.
And another angel.
The pirates are coming.
And here they are.
A cowboy handing out flyers for the next days folk dance schedule.
A Spaniard’s horse.
A Spaniard and his horse.
A cowboy on horseback.
An indian wearing a feathered headdress.
A friendly indian going the right way.
A bunch of cowboys.
The bull in action.
Mary and some angels.
A peasant with his bottle of Guatemalan rum.
Who is this?
Reindeer and a Christmas theme.
Not sure who this is.
All together handing out flyers.
And another beauty with her drunken beau and his bottle of Gallo beer.
What a happy face.
Really going for it.
The first of the Abuelitas Parranderas or Partying Grandmothers.
Two more beauties.
Waiting in line.
They go in two by two.
The partying begins.
Really going for it. These women were awesome dancers.
Showing the footwork.
That was hard work. So elegant.
And who are these?
Bags of labor, love and elbow grease went into the creation of the giant barriletes in Santiago Sacatepequez, Guatemala during the months leading up to and on All Saints Day or El Dia de Todos Los Santos on the first of November. Here are a few photos of the workers on the day.
Santiago Sacatepequez Cemetery
Carrying a folded barrilete to the cemetery.
Waiting for flight.
Boys with a barrilete line.
Man and machete.
Holding the lines and waiting.
Raising a giant barrilete.
Checking out the work.
Holding the lines. Close-up.
On a tomb top preparing to fly a barrilete.
More elbow grease.
Working together to raise a giant barrilete.
In Guatemala, All Saints Day or El Dia de Todos Los Santos on the first of November, is a festive day to visit, celebrate and honor the dead. People arrive early at cemeteries to clean family tombs then repaint and decorate them with flowers. They picnic by the graves, fly their handmade barriletes and in Santiago Sacatepequez, watch and cheer or join in the raising of the giants.
Also, check out my posts Giant Kite Festival – Soaring with the Spirits and Giant Kite Festival – Labor, Love and Elbow Grease.
Santiago Sacatepequez Cemetery
People climb to the top of family tombs for a view of the cemetery and to fly their barriletes. This is the one day of the year when clambering over, sitting and standing on the graves and tombstones doesn’t offend.
Perched on a grave flying a barrilete.
A huge ball of string to fly a barrilete.
Families sitting on tombs eating ice cream with rows of newly dug graves behind them.
Flying barriletes from the tomb tops.
Trash amidst the trampled graves.
Ice cream seller.
Raising a giant barrilete among the graves.
Heavily armed police patrol the cemetery.
The first of November in Guatemala is El Dia de Todos Los Santos or All Saints Day and is the official festival of kites. They believe that the barriletes soar up to the spirits of deceased relatives and deliver messages from the living and that the sound of the wind blowing against the airborne kites keeps the evil spirits away allowing the deceased to rest in peace.
Also, check out my posts Giant Kite Festival – Labor, Love and Elbow Grease and Giant Kite Festival – Life Amidst the Graves.
Santiago Sacatepequez is one of the places where it’s celebrated on a truly grand scale and thousands flood into the cemetery on this day to watch the exhibition unfold.
Giant barrilete bearing the name Santiago Sacatepequez.
Here, the barriletes are a super race of kites, like something from a fantasy land. They are brightly colored, oversized, circular giants of elaborate tissue paper mosaics on a bamboo framework, bound together with rope and wire and up to 20 meters across.
Rear view of the barriletes showing bamboo framework.
Groups compete to produce the most incredible works of art and judges assess them on size, color, creativity and originality. These jumbo kites usually depict religious, cultural, social, political or ecological themes.
Another with ecological theme.
Close-up of a barrilete with a folkloric theme based on Guatemalan legends. El Cadejo is a mythical dog that is said to protect drunkards and wanderers at night.
Barriletes are expensive to produce and the workmanship is painstaking and time-consuming, taking months to dream up and create.
A smaller barrilete.
Trying to resurrect a fallen giant using ropes and bamboo poles.
This one didn’t make it.
Raising another giant.
Close-up of bamboo framework.
Team working together to raise a jumbo barrilete using ropes.
Everyone running to avoid the falling barrilete. One crashed down on stone graves trapping people under it but everyone rushed to frantically raise it and help those beneath. Miraculously no-one was hurt.
Crashed and destroyed, dashing the hopes of the team.
Another being raised.
The top of a barrilete before it’s raised.
A team takes a break on the bamboo framework. Thousands of people swamp the cemetery, perching on family tombs to fly kites or get a good view of the spectacle. This is the one day of the year when people climb, sit or stand on graves without causing offense.
Working together. Most of the teams are made up of young men.
The triumphant and the fallen.
Trying to fly a smaller barrilete from the roof of a family tomb.
Looking through the wreckage at a family sitting on a grave.
Completely broken. Barrilete and team.
Only once a year, on El Día de Todos Los Santos or All Saints Day on first of November, Guatemalans prepare a traditional dish called fiambre. Originally, families took the favorite dishes of deceased relatives to the cemetery and ate them together with other families. Eventually they mixed all the ingredients of the various dishes together into one to create fiambre. Served chilled this psychedelic salad consists of a huge number of ingredients that vary greatly from family to family.
The recipe passes down through the generations and consists of a strange mix of different cold cuts and sausages, varied cheeses, hard-boiled egg, smoked fish, and an array of vegetables.
The contrasts of flavors and textures don’t agree with everyone’s taste buds but the beauty of it is that you can add or leave out any ingredient.