Going Guatemalan

Very little planning,but sure to me lots of fun!

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Story of San Bartolomé Redux

Every Sunday in Lent, there is a grand procession, leading up to Semana Santa, and the highlight of the Easter season, Good Friday. I'm not sure why the Catholics celebrate Jesus' death more than his resurrection, but so it is. The processions are massive, enchanting and extremely popular. Its hard to fathom the amount of planning, organizing and managing that go into these productions. This particular float left the church at 5:00am and didn't return until past midnight.

To start, I walked backwards along the route of the procession. Walking backwards allowed me to see the beautiful alfombras or carpets that are created along the route of the procession. The alfombras are traditionally made of dyed sawdust, although anything can be used. Also popular are pine needles with various leaves and flowers, but I also saw one with vegetables, and another made of all different types of coffee beans. The vegetable carpet was my favorite because the vegetables add some height to the image and make it more interesting to look at. Not that the others aren't beautiful and interesting to look at. The sawdust carpets are generally neon colors, and geometric designs. The pieces require lots of planning, can take up to 12 hours to make, and require several participants in its creation. Deigns vary greatly but are always intricate and beautiful.

The carpets are made by the home or business owner who's property faces that piece of the street. Once a design has been decided upon, a specialist will cut stencils for each part of the design. On the day of, a few hours before the procession is due to pass, the work begins, and sawdust is laid according to the planned design. The colors are packed into the stencils carefully, and the the stencil is delicately lifted to reveal the a piece of the pattern.

The idea is that the floats pass over the alfombras, art as an offering to Jesus. You would hope that they would be preserved all day long, but as soon as the float passes over, the image is marred and seconds after the procession has passes, the city clean-up crew is there to haul the remains away.

As I started to approach the procession, the crowd gets denser and denser. Eventually, I couldn't walk any further, signaled by the beginning of the procession - the "Roman" soldiers. The soldiers attempt to make the atmosphere realistic, however, I find them slightly comical. With the surging crowd waiting to see Jesus pass, carrying his cross, the soldiers' role is to clear people out of the way. However all reality and intimidation is lost when the soldier opens his mouth and a polite request in Spanish comes out of his mouth. To further undermine his authority, his costume consists of a helmet with a broom attached - dyed red and turned upside-down. As another reminder that its only a type of role play, some of them are even carrying babies or holding their girlfriend's hand.

Also passing about this time were hundreds of men in purple robes. A great sea of purple men opens up and consumes the street. These men are the participants in the procession that have paid to carry the Jesus float. Its about a $10-$20 fee and then they have to buy or make the purple robes according to the specifications of the church, in this case San Bartolome. More purple men pass, a few are carrying special images or banners of the church, some church leaders that might be dressed in off-white or red, and then more purple men. The line of characters, participants, image bearers and church clergy probable stretched more than 3 blocks long. The actual float of Jesus is signaled by a cloud of incense. The incense is so thick, it made my eyes water. Some people were coughing and it was difficult the breath.

After so much build up and anticipation, the Jesus float finally arrives appearing majestically through the incense cloud. Jesus is about one and a half times the size of a man, and bears his cross. On this float, there was some other biblical figure, (San Baratolome?) and some angels. The whole thing is ornately decorated with ornate robes on the characters, flowers on the objects, and banners with biblical scripture. The float is carried by over a hundred men. Three men in the front guide the way, pushing on the float with all their weight to slow it down, or pulling on it to speed it up. They wore slightly different costumes and are clearly a few of the organizers of this operation. They call down the line of purple men if an order needs to be given, and direct the float around corners and when new purple men are exchanged to carry it.

The purple men grunt under the wieght of the float. When on a long straight, they lean forward, resting their chin on the back of the man in front of them and shifting the weight a little onto their backs. This enables them to walk a little bit faster, but upon reaching a corner or preparing to change purple men, they must lift the float up directly onto their shoulders, and slowly make thier manouver. Each team of one hundred men carries the float for one block before exchanging with the next team. As difficult as this task may be, it very common for men to be carrying their children on the free shoulder. I for the life of me figure out why.

Behind the Jesus float walks a impromptu marching band. The band is made up of mostly tubas, trumpets, and various percussion instruments. They play a slow dirge to set the tone of the occasion (Jesus heading towards his crucifixion) and keep everyone under the float in step with each other. The whole thing - the image of Jesus suffering under the weight of his cross, the men in purple suffering under the weight of Jesus, everyone taking slow steps, dragging their feet the the tune of the depressing music is moving. Its not quite a funeral procession, but its far from a celebration.

Following a short pause after the Jesus float, the Mary float arrives. This float doesn't receive quite the same buildup that the Jesus float gets, but there is still a string of women that precede it. The Mary float is traditionally carried women dressed in black skirts and headscarves. Its slightly shorter, maybe about 50-60 women carrying the float, but there not necessarily any lighter on its bearers. On this float, Mary was dressed in a beautiful robe and had a crown on her head. However, she is clearly in mourning for Jesus' fate. The Mary float is followed by her own band, and creates her own, but very different sense of suffering.

As soon as the Mary float passes, the crowd disperses, and the clean-up crew sweep up the once beautiful rugs that have now been turned into mulch. You would never know that such a procession had passed.

There will be one more float next week on Palm Sunday before Semana Santa. Dyring Semana Santa, I'm told there will be a procession almost every day, growing in size and popularity. Stay tuned...


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