Special Edition: Semana Santa

A lot has developed here since my last post, and I realize that I have dropped off the radar for a couple months, but everything is okay and going extremely well. I will include a more detailed update in my upcoming chapter that I have both promised to and discussed with several of you and am in the process of writing, but at the moment, my thoughts and notes for that post are scattered across several pages. I still have some unscrambling to do in order to make that chapter coherent and readable, but in the meantime, I thought I’d share a shorter “special edition” post covering the cultural traditions and festivities of the Easter holiday and Holy Week here in Guatemala. Although this is a belated post considering Easter was a month ago, the festivities are still noteworthy because not only are they such a beautiful part of this culture but they are also like nothing I have ever seen or experienced before. (The information that follows is based off my own experience, observations, and interrogations of various people regarding the events of the week so it may not be term-paper resource worthy.)

Semana Santa, or Holy Week, is the most celebrated holiday in Guatemala. Pretty much everyone gets the Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday off of work during the week before Easter Sunday; the entire country seems to shut down. We PCVs were allowed Thursday and Friday as vacation days so I was going to leave site on Thursay, but my plans were changed and I was forced out early once I was informed that there would be NO public transportation on Thursday and Friday—pretty much everywhere in the country! The transportation would pick up slowly on Saturday and be back in full force again on Sunday. So if you don’t own a car in this country, unless you headed to your destination on Wednesday, you would have been stuck wherever you were basically until Sunday.

Most of us headed out of site toward the popular Semana Santa destinations in Guatemala including Antigua, Panajachel, and the beach. In fact, throngs of Guatemalans and tourists alike swarm the beaches during this week. It’s like Easter Week has an automatic association with “beach time.” I decided to avoid most of the crowds and head to my host family’s home in Alotenango since I hadn’t seen them since January. They live close enough to Antigua that I could participate and observe the Semana Santa goings-on there as well.

Although Holy Week in Guatemala is most intensely celebrated by Catholics, there are some traditions that are practiced by the entirety of the country. I won’t go into too much detail regarding the religious history and tendencies of Guatemalans right now, but basically the Ladino population—or Guatemalans with European ancestry—practices Catholicism whereas the indigenous, more rural-living population adheres to Protestant beliefs (mostly Evangelical) or traditional Maya rituals and customs. Semana Santa traditions, however, exhibit a fluid blend of both Spanish and Maya culture and religion.

The most common shared traditions are regarding special Semana Santa foods, namely bread and fish. (Does Jesus’s loaves and fishes miracle ring a bell, anyone?) In any household with an oven, families and friends come together at the beginning of the week, starting on Palm Sunday, to crack eggs, mix batter, add sugar, and bake loaf after loaf of bread—mostly sweet breads at that—through the week up until Good Friday. Everyone in the country eats endless amounts of bread during Holy Week. I was visiting one home in the community I work in and was amazed at the level of dedication at which the women made their loaves—and the joy they shared in the fellowship together. I swear all the bread in that house that was dumped into large baskets or spread across tables and benches to cool could have filled an entire small room—or half a room, at least! I was told that the bread baking and eating custom is representative of the bread Jesus broke at the Last Supper.

The other traditional food that is eaten during Semana Santa is fish, and Good Friday is usually the day to eat it during a big lunch with the family. Many Guatemalans buy pescado seco, or dry fish, from the market or maybe a grocery store (if they live in an urban area). The fish is usually cooked by covering it in a light [egg] batter, then frying it. In some households, the tradition is to serve the fish accompanied by pacaya, (a special edible plant that I’m pretty sure is native to Guatemala or at least Central America) with rice on the side and maybe a thin, tomato-based sauce on top. I enjoyed a very traditional belated Good Friday meal a few days after Easter with a family I like to visit. When I inquired about the type of fish we were eating, they told me tiburón. It took me a second to register the translation, and the shocked look on my face was quite visible as I realized I was eating shark, which I had never eaten before and was very surprised to find in the middle of Guatemala. It was definitely tasty (although rather salty)!

The two most important things associated with Semana Santa are processions and alfombras, or carpets. As far as festivities are concerned, everything begins on Holy Thursday. The processions that take place are essentially a reenactment of Jesus’s last days on Earth and loosely resemble the Stations of the Cross including Jesus’s Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection. The processions are organized and carried out by the Catholic Church, but thousands of people come from near and far to line the streets and witness Jesus passing by in the days leading up to Easter.

Jesus is moved through the streets in the form of a large, detailed float carried by men who rotate in teams. (These “processional carriers” are part of the brotherhood of each particular sculpture/float of the various churches.) The carrying teams are chosen very carefully, depending on each person’s height to ensure that the float—which can weigh up to 7,000 pounds—is even. They have an intricate system of how they advance, slowly rocking from side to side in a forward direction, pausing every now and then to move backward a couple steps before proceeding in the forward direction once again. (It’s like 3 lengths forward, 1 length back.) The floats are either preceded or followed by a marching band playing the ominous pre-tragedy or funeral tune—bum-da-dumm…ba-da-dum-da-dum-doo-dumm—over and over again. Each procession leaves from its church and moves through the designated routes in town, crossing over the alfombras laid down by the residents, before returning to the church anywhere between 6 and 9 hours later; the float carriers are the first ones in the procession who are allowed to step on each carpet as they pass.

On Holy Thursday, the theme of the procession is Jesus carrying the cross through the streets of Jerusalem. I watched this one from the roof of my host family’s house in Alotenango with my host sister, Helen, who explained a lot of the customs to me. The floats support various figures who share a part in Jesus’s story, including Jesus himself, saints, angels, apostles, Mary, and even the grim reaper, and can be extremely dramatic. The processions come complete with Roman soldiers decked out in their red and gold costumes. On Holy Thursday, all the float carriers line the routes wearing purple robes (which happens to be the official color of Semana Santa, as deemed by both Guatemalans and the Catholic Church). Also, in both the Holy Thursday and Good Friday processions, there is always a smaller float of Jesus’s mother, Mary, that follows closely behind and is carried by women in skirts with white veils over their heads.

The Roman soldiers leading the Holy Thursday procession in Alotenango.

Holy Thursday float with Jesus carrying cross, preceded by the grim reaper, through Aotenango.

Close-up of a very sad Virgin Mary on the float behind her Son on Holy Thursday.

Good Friday is the most important day of Holy Week in Guatemala. Shops are closed, public transportation is non-existent, and people generally don’t do any work—women don’t even make tortillas that day! Good Friday processions begin at 3 or 4 in the morning and continue throughout the day. I think I was awakened three different times in the middle of that night by that loud somber tune played by trumpeters and drummers announcing the arrival of Jesus in the streets; by the third time, the tune was so engraved in my mind that I wasn’t sure if I was humming along with it or just dreaming. The themes of the processions are Jesus’s crucifixion during the day, and then Jesus being taken down from the cross and laid to rest in the nighttime hours; the float carriers wear black robes on this day.

Good Friday nighttime procession of Jesus being laid to rest; the thick incense being burned all around the float has a haunting effect as the procession passes by.

This is the float of the Virgin Mary that followed Jesus’s float (after His death) on Good Friday.

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to participate in the carpet-laying tradition while I was in Alotenango. When I first started hearing people talk of the famous alfombras that are made during Semana Santa, I pictured woven rugs all over the streets and couldn’t figure out what people were going to do with the special rugs when the week was over. I was pleased to learn that the carpets laid on the streets are meant for “one-time use” only—being essentially destroyed once a procession crosses over them— and represent the “carpets” of palm fronds that were laid down for Jesus on the streets in Jerusalem to prevent him from burning his feet as he walked through town. Now, in Guatemala, the people make alfombras as a way to honor Christ as he passes [via float] on the streets through their towns.

This is what the streets look like with fully-prepared carpets just before the procession passes over them (destroying them) on Holy Thursday in Alotenango.

Here I am, helping some friends in Alotenango create their alfombra for the Good Friday procession.

Here is our finished carpet, complete with pine needles, flowers, lettuce, radishes, bell peppers, and mangoes!

People use all sorts of materials to make their alfombras. The objective is to display opulence and thus lay down the nicest things possible as a sacrifice for the Lord. The carpets tend to be detailed and colorful, made up of anything from pine needles, flowers, and roses to fruits and vegetables to [specially-dyed just for Semana Santa] sawdust and even candles. Each family has its own design and method for their alfombras, and it is rare to see any two carpets exactly alike. I think this is such a beautiful custom because, in addition to remembering and honoring Christ’s journey and sacrifice, it is an event during which families unite and everyone participates in the carpet-making together.

Young and old alike work together to create this ornate carpet that includes roses, among many other types of flowers and petals.

This family is creating a carpet with intricate patterns and rigid lines using the traditional brightly-colored sawdust.

This carpet—which has watermelons, cantaloupes, pineapples, and mangoes—exudes a candlelit glow in the dark night.

As I walked through town on Friday evening to view all the other alfombras, I was completely amazed and impressed at the level of creativity exhibited in this little community. It isn’t just in Alotenango, though—creativity and resourcefulness are part of the beating pulse of this country. The art that people are able to create with their hands here is something that many “westernized” cultures have fallen out of touch with (at least somewhat). But here in Guatemala, where “the many” live on very limited financial means, it seems a necessary skill to be able to think outside the box and be creative in order to have beautiful or nice things without having to spend too much money. Plus, there is a certain sense of personal pride one feels when he or she can say, “I made it” instead of “I bought it.”

This ornate carpet is based on pine needles, pineapple, a few candles, and an abundance of flower petals!

A very creative carpet of fruit!

On Saturday, I headed to Antigua to meet up with a couple other PCVs and observe the festivities there. My friend Kathy’s parents were visiting for the week, so we had fun hanging out with them during the afternoon and taking them around to various markets so they could do their last-minute shopping before flying home the next day. Antigua was still jam-packed with people, of course, and the streets were filled with vendors selling such things as that which one might find at a carnival—light-up toys, cotton candy, popcorn, street food, and various other snacks and goodies. In the evening, there were two more processions, each starting at a different major church in Antigua and following a different route through town—until late in the night. By this point in the week, some of us onlookers were getting a little bored with standing around waiting for processions to pass and checking out alfombras (after all, it IS the same thing for 3 non-stop days), so we made our evening a little more exciting by zig-zagging through the streets of Antigua chasing down the routes of the processions, trying to beat them and find a good viewing spot before they passed.

Frank, me, and Kathy, out to lunch in Antigua on the Saturday before Easter.

Saturday is a very special day during Semana Santa because it is entirely devoted to the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. The floats that pass through the streets do not carry Jesus, but Mary, full of grace, alone in her grieving, yet hopeful, state. Interestingly enough, of all the processions I witnessed, it was during the Saturday processions where I noticed people in the crowds exhibiting the greatest degree of reverence. I was also told that at 10 PM on Saturday night, the Body of Christ is removed from the tabernacle and a black flag is hoisted over the church building as a representation that Catholic Church does not exist from the time Jesus’s body is removed until His Resurrection on Easter morning. An all-night vigil for Mary then ensues until the dawn.

A sorrowful Mary, dressed in black, passes in front of the cathedral in Antigua. She is no longer following the footsteps of her Son; instead she makes this journey alone.

The Saturday night procession from the other church displays their float of a reflective Mary alone with the angels.

Now Sunday arrives! Woo-hoo! The BIG day of Christ’s Resurrection! In the United States, this day, Easter Sunday, has the most significance and is the most celebrated of all the days of Holy Week. It is usually a day that families spend together, (maybe the Easter bunny comes to hide eggs and deliver Easter baskets full of jelly beans, robin eggs, malt balls, and peeps), and Christians thank God for sending His only Son to die on the cross in order to pay for our sins and give us everlasting life. Hallelujah! Christ has risen! Right? Well, in Guatemala, the culmination of three full days of mourning and processions leads all the way up to about twenty minutes of celebration on Sunday morning, and then Semana Santa is over. Resurrection Sunday isn’t really all that important in Guatemala. There are no special meals or parades or anything like what is characteristic of any previous day during the week. The attitude feels something like this: “Sweet. Jesus rose from the dead, just like we expected and were waiting for all week. Awesome. All right—everyone back to reality now.” And that is Semana Santa in Guatemala for you!

After enjoying an Easter breakfast with a couple other PCVs at a restaurant with a rooftop terrace overlooking Antigua, here I am with Derc, an RPCV who COS’d in March (but decided to stay in Guatemala for a while).

This was my first Easter out of the country and away from my family, and it was definitely weird, especially since Easter last year was on April 24th, the day before I left to join the Peace Corps. Easter this year made me realize that I was coming up on my 1-year anniversary with Peace Corps and reflect a little bit on all the wonderful things that have happened in the last year. I’m in such a better place—mentally, emotionally, and spiritually—now than I was last year. I am so grateful for the time I have been given to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer here in Guatemala! As of April 27th, my PCV friends from my training group and I (there are 45 out of 52 of us still here) were proud to say that we have been living abroad for a whole year now. There has been a lot of change and growth among each and every one of us as we have learned to exist as a part of four different worlds. In my next chapter, I will explore where and how we fit into those “four worlds.”

Love,

Alexandra

EXTRA! EXTRA!

Please say a little prayer for the families of two Guatemalan PC staff members who both recently passed away. Katarina Isabel Xiloj, who had an operation for a brain tumor in January, was a Language and Cultural Facilitator who taught both Spanish and K’iche’; she died in February. Sergio Mack, who had a stroke in March and went into a coma then passed on, was the Associate Peace Corps Director in charge of the Healthy Schools program in Guatemala. *There is a scholarship fund that has been set up through the organization “Friends of Guatemala” for Katarina’s 5-year-old son, Fernando Colop Xiloj. Please contact me for details if you have interest in donating to the fund.*

Congratulations to my college friend Agustina (and the man of her dreams, Chris) on your upcoming wedding (in one week)! I really wish I could be there!

Congratulations to my two cousins, Robert & Sheldon, for completing Air Force basic training and graduating at the tops of their classes. Also a BIG congratulations to my cousin, Robert, on his marriage proposal to his girlfriend, Anita. (She said YES!)

Thank you to Norm, Elease, and Mom for the recent care packages! Mucho appreciation here!!! (With all the goodies I have been sent, I think I am set for the rest of my service with Kleenex, wet wipes, soaps, deodorant, toothbrushes, razors, cotton balls, lotions, hand sanitizer, and the like. One can never have enough peanut butter or chocolate, though!)

When Daylight Savings happened in March and everyone who participates in Daylight Savings “sprung forward” an hour, Guatemalan time didn’t change so now my time is only one hour ahead of (later than) California time (PST). Yippee!

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6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jim McFadden
    May 06, 2012 @ 11:53:34

    Dear Alexandra,

    Thank you for your remarkably detailed, colorful, and reverential account of
    “Santa Semana” in Guatemala. The carpet of flowers, vegetables, fruit for one-time
    use reminded me of Tibetan mandalas in which the monks will “destroy” it after
    they have so mindfully created it.

    Take care and Happy Easter!

    Peace and good will,
    Deacon Jim McFadden

    Reply

  2. Christina
    May 08, 2012 @ 07:37:53

    Hi Alex,

    I’ve been dying to read a blog post from you so I’m so glad I finally got to indulge! My favorite part was the gorgeous hand made carpets–so creative and so beautiful, but it must hurt to be the first person to walk over all that fruit!

    Congratulations on your one year anniversary with Guatemala! I’m so proud and honored to know you. I can’t wait to read your next post 🙂

    Love always,
    Christina

    Reply

  3. Kiki Broderick
    May 14, 2012 @ 04:02:13

    Dear Alexandra, I loved seeing the pictures of Semana Santa, and your comments really helped me to get the whole impact of the procession. You are a terrific photographer. My daughter Michele is a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala. I have visited Antigua with her several times, and hope to return one day during Semana Santa. You have my hopes and prayers that you will be safe and successful during your time in Central America.
    Kiki Broderick

    Reply

    • Alexandra
      May 15, 2012 @ 21:16:47

      Thank you for the comment, Kiki! It turns out that I know Michelle! We’ve crossed paths a handful of times during the last year without officially meeting, but we’ve seen a lot of each other recently and have hit it off. I am lucky to be surrounded with such motivated and passionate people like her among the PCV population. 🙂

      Reply

      • Kiki Broderick
        Jun 09, 2012 @ 05:39:37

        All you volunteers are so amazing. I’m so glad that you are there to support each other. My best to you, and stay safe Alexandra!

  4. Boyd and Julie Robinson
    Mar 24, 2013 @ 14:05:07

    Julie and I are here in Antigua as Camino Global Missionaries studying spanish. I am PCV – Belize 72-73. Gives us a shout …45431804

    Reply

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Common Peace Corps Acronyms

PC = Peace Corps (sounds like "peese kor")
PCT = Peace Corps Trainee
PCV = Peace Corps Volunteer
PST = Pre-Service Training
ET = Early Termination
COS = Close of Service
NGO = Non-Governmental Organization
HH = Healthy Homes, the PC program I am in.
YD = Youth Development, the other program in my training group.

Disclaimer

Anything that is written or views expressed on this blog are mine personally and do not represent the Peace Corps or the United States government.
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