No one celebrates Easter the way Antigua, Guatemalans celebrate Semana Santa, Holy Week, with rituals that date back to old Spain. Magnificent, ephemeral festival art comes to life and is lovingly trampled. Along the streets, people cluster in groups around artists creating beautiful but fleeting works of art in the form of carpets on the cobblestone streets. Some are made of painted sawdust sprinkled through stencils fashioned by local craftsmen, or artistically composed from the tiny grains of wood. Others are made from fresh and dried flowers, many with elaborate images or Mayan patterns. Some are more striking for their simplicity: one consisted mostly of fresh white lilies with long stems, another a mat of pine needles with small bouquets at intervals around the border.
My last year in Guatemala, the Women of Burrito, as they called themselves, invited a group of fellow teachers and friends to spend the night at their places in Antigua on Callejito del Burrito. We would make our own alfombra, or traditional carpet, for Semana Santa in the wee hours before the procession of a nearby church, Jesus de la Caida San Bartoleme, would pass, at about eight a.m., on its way to snake through the city streets.
I arrived in the afternoon, two bouquets of flowers in hand, in time to meet friends returning from town with overflowing armfuls of blossoms. We scattered to find water buckets, baskets of chips, and wine bottles. Taking stock of our ingredients, there seemed to be a preponderance of yellow, so someone suggested we create a sun at the center. Michael and Anita, art teachers, organized ideas for a carpet design, using the sun as a focal point. We each drew a variation before heading out to dinner and Michael, selecting elements from our drawings, merged them into a workable design. Walking back to Burrito late at night after dinner out, we observed many locals already hard at work at carpet construction. Sawdust carpets could be laid the night before; floral creations would be fresher in the morning.
At five a.m., we rose, downed some coffee and pastries, and carried the flower buckets, along with other essential tools, out to the street. After hosing down the cobblestones, the first layer was a bed of soft green pine needles. Then the yellow sun emerged, circled by sunflowers, each design growing slowly like a blossom opening. Some of us cut flowers or pulled petals. Even the greens could be used, some as outlined rays emanating from the sun, others as a soft background of rose petals. A long brown pod was cut open and the wheat-like seeds inside were used as a border. The neighbors next door, three Guatemalan women, were building their own alfombra at the same time. We admired each other’s progress, and appreciated their suggestions. As the sky grew light, as if building to a crescendo, we finished our mission. We sprayed the carpet with water again to keep it moist and fresh-looking, giving it life for just a few more hours.
The streets were getting crowded as spectators meandered along the route to admire the endless variety of carpets, each one unique. We had some time to wander, too, viewing the carpets, until the streets became impassable. It was hard finding space to walk in some places, and everyone was careful not to step on the carpets until the first procession float had passed by.
Spectators gathered in anticipation.
When the first float approached, we assumed our positions to watch the procession, excitedly awaiting the ceremonial destruction of our morning labor. Purple-gowned guards formed a barrier along the edges of the road, keeping spectators back. A series of marchers came slowly by—a cadre of Roman soldiers; men gowned and hooded in red, hoods reminiscent of those used by white supremacist groups in the States but designed from costumes of ancient Spain that had no such connotation. Incense bearers dispersed heavy smoke among the marchers, the thick atmosphere adding to the mystique of the day.
A float carrying the nearby church’s distinctive kneeling Jesus, carried by men in purple, was the first to step over the carpet. Only then, after Jesus had passed, did the bystanders join the procession, all treading over the magnificent carpets, the parade expanding, swelling like waves spreading out from a motorboat. A brass marching band or two blared by, golden horns glinting in the sun, followed by carts of additional statues. Then an elegantly adorned Madonna floated into view, flanked by women dressed as shepherds or draped in black lace. Followers, pilgrims, worshippers, they all picked up flowers and made their own bouquets as they walked.
Before long, the crushed petals and strewn sawdust were swept up by municipal workers and shoveled into trash trucks. It looked as though the procession had never happened!
This post is an excerpt from my book, Go Wherever You Want (working title).
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Email me at: Ruth@RuthRosenfeld.com