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Chichicastenango Celebrates I

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S: Chichicastenango Celebrates: An annotated photo collage Max Kintner All rights reserved: 2012

BC: All Photos, Text, and Design by Max Kintner All right reserved. Copyright April 2012 Reproducing, copying, storing of images or content without written consent is prohibited copyright@chichimax. net

FC: Chichicastenango Celebrates | Chichicastenango Celebrates | An Annotated Photo Collage by Max Kintner

1: T | Of Chichicastenango: Nettles, Cliffs, Celebrations, and Cultural Significance | The word “Chichicastenango” is of Nahuatl origin, a lexicographic gift of Aztec invaders who successfully subjugated this part of the Guatemala Highlands in the 14th century. It means “Place of the Nettles,” in reference to the large and viciously spiny nettle plants called “chichicastas” that grow in profusion on the sides of the ravines and gorges that encircle the hilltop on which the entire town, or “pueblo” has been located for perhaps a thousand years. If the name meaning “the place of the nettles is appropriate, so is the old Maya name for the town, “Chugüila,” which translates to “on the edge of the ravine”: sheer cliffs, cut over the centuries by erosion, drop away hundreds of meters deep into the powdery volcanic rock gorges on three sides of the densely populated central pueblo. While both names are appropriate, however, when I think of “Chichicastenango” I don’t think first or primarily of the surrounding topography or of native plants. I think, rather, of the Maya people who live there, and the ways in which they make | their lives sensible and significant – or, for that matter, significant without being entirely sensible. The unconscious creation of cultural “significance” – with or without sensibility – is of course not unique to Chichicastenango and its Maya culture. Every vital culture does the same thing. What is special, however, is the continuity, and the earnest, self-conscious flamboyance with which Chichicastenango publicly celebrates its life, culture, and long history through a cluttered calendar of annual feast days and festivals. The following pages are tribute to some of the more important festivals celebrated in Chichicastenango, where my wife, Mary, and I first began visiting regularly more than 20 years ago, and where we have worked and maintained full or part time residence for more than 10 years. I believe these photos make clear that the fiestas of Chichicastenango are a feast for the eye. What is missing are the sounds, smells, and tastes of this town. My hope, therefore, is that book will also be understood as an invitation to the very special community of Chichicastenango.

2: Women in the Procession at the Feast of Saint Sebastian: January 17

3: Chichicastenango is a municipality and a pueblo in the Guatemalan Highlands. The municipality of “Chichi,” as it is usually referred to, is large, about 400 square kilometers. As a political jurisdiction it functions very similarly to a county in the United States, with the county seat being the pueblo, or town of Chichicastenango. | Scattered across the mountainous reaches of the municipality are another 86 towns, hamlets and villages, which locally are usually called “las comunidades,” or more commonly, “los cantones,” an old Spanish word which can be understood as “precinct,” or just “place” or “home.” Some 150,000 people reside in the greater | Chichicastenango's Festivals and Catholic Culture

4: municipality, while perhaps 30,000 live in the pueblo. More than 98 percent of the residents of Chichi are “Indigenas” (We would say “Indian” in the US, but in Guatemala the word “indio” is an ethnic slur similar to our own “N-word"), or descendants of the Maya civilization that flourished throughout Guatemala prior to the Spanish invasion and political conquest of Guatemala in 1524. Beyond physical stature, complexion, and facial features, however, the ethnicity of the population is also clear in various other ways. The most obvious of these expressions are language and costume. K’iche’ Maya language remains the first language of most “Chichicastecos” and most women and girls continue to wear a distinctively Chichicasteco version of the “corte” (skirt) and “huipil” (blouse) worn by indigenous women throughout Mesoamerica. Other cultural characteristics aren't so obvious to casual observers, but nevertheless are critical to Chichi’s community and ritual life. Religion is one of these critical cultural elements. By “religion” I don't mean if or how often or where people go to church – although those questions are very interesting. What I mean, rather, is something less religious and more secular – what social scientists sometimes refer to as “cultural religion.” This distinction is especially important in countries like Guatemala, where formal organized church life provoked a lot of commentary in the 1980s and 1990s about how religion was “changing” in Guatemala. The focus of the commentary was explosive growth of evangelical sects, which led many social scientists to speculate that the very soul and nature of Mayan-ness was changing.

6: The centerpiece of most Folk Catholic celebrations in Chichiicastenango is the procession, in which statues of the saints are slowly paraded around town. These and previous photos are from the Fest of Saint Sebastian on January 17

7: Scholars suggest that nearly half of Guatemalans now identify themselves as evangelical Christian. And because regular church attendance tends to be higher among evangelical sects than among “traditional” Roman Catholics, it’s likely true that on any given Sunday more evangelical than Catholic Christians attend church. But the rapid growth of evangelical sects now seems to have diminished, and while Maya culture continues to evolve and change as it always has, it remains intact and distinctive. It’s not at all clear what effect protestant conversion has had, and in retrospect the biggest change may well have been to give social scientists a new and interesting demographic category to track and talk and argue about.

8: Semana Santa | Holy Week is a big deal throughout Latin America, and Chichicastenango is no exception. Festivities start in earnest on Passion Sunday, the week before Easter. Street markets selling candles and religious imagery and trinkets spring up, and flower vendors selling baby's breath, lilies, palm fronds, and sprigs of carosa congregate on street corners. By Wednesday lunch, almost all formal businesses have locked their doors, and hundreds of thousands of vacationing family travel back to spend this most important holiday of the year in their hometowns with family, or to resorts to celebrate. And on Saturday, the day before Easter, the highways are silent, with only a occasional “chicken bus” carrying last minute stragglers back home. Part of the appeal is that Easter is typically high “summer” in Guatemala, which is to say the middle of the dry season, with cloudless skies and direct sun making for piercingly bright and hot afternoons. It is a tradition among many people who can afford it to find a place next to the water to party, especially on Good Friday. The towns around Lake Atitlan are packed, the highways between the interior and the Pacific beach towns are jammed with traffic, the beaches are swarmed, and even

10: Although there is almost nothing morbid about Semana Santa, the celebration nevertheless has a certain funereal air. Loudspeakers across the pueblo blare out popular radio stations playing achingly slow, heavy, and sometimes off-key brass-band funeral dirges, restaurants and merchants display flower arrangements that would be in place at a wake, and street vendors sell sprigs of “carosa” from the giant pods shown in these photos. The odor of carosa is sickeningly sweet, but with a turpentine-like edge that smacks of perfumed embalming fluid. Even in the street it makes a strong olfactory presence; in houses and chapels and churches it can be overwhelming. I’ve never actually seen the plant grow, but I assume it is some sort of palm tree.

11: On Holy Thursday, amidst all due fanfare and ceremony, Cofrades carry this huge wooden cross down the worn rock steps of the church and down onto the cobblestone plaza in the late afternoon. They make their way from the church itself to the old Calvario Chapel on the other side of the plaza. After a few minutes there, they carry it on a short loop around town before lugging it back up the steps of the church. I have no idea where the huge cross is stored when it's not Holy Thursday.

12: municipal swimming pools don't have an inch of free space. In larger cities, various Catholic parishes take turns having “procesiones,” or slow walking parades, throughout the week. In Antigua and Guatemala City, the processions are huge. These walking parades are usually sponsored and organized by “hermandades” or “cofradias” – brotherhoods and confraternities – and typically consist of carrying one or more "andas," or floats, that have various images of Jesus and the virgin mounted on them. Like the processions themselves, the floats can be large or small, requiring as few as four or more than 40 bearers. The largest andas are usually carried by bearers, often young men, who wear satin robes and conical dunce hats, who in fact are called “cucuruchus,” or “dunces.” Smaller processions leave at any time during the day, depending on local tradition, and may walk very quickly with a four-anda-bearers and a handful of participants around a designated route to return back at the church within an hour. But the larger processions, and especially the all-important processions on Good Friday, are very large and function in slow motion, taking hours to walk only a few blocks. Accompanied by brass funeral dirge bands that ooze out syrupy, melodramatically minor melodies that hang in the air like aural parodies, the processions rock and sway their way around their route at a top speed of maybe three blocks an hour.

13: Large andas are preceded by a small constellation of attendants, including men, women or children swinging incensers from chains, relief teams of anda-bearers, funeral bands, officials of sponsoring brotherhoods and confraternities, banner-bearers, and men with long forked wooden poles to lift low-hanging power lines out of the way of the tall andas. The processions may take 12 or more hours to make a route around town that can easily be walked in less than 30 minutes, plodding over and destroying “alfombras,” beautiful but fragile “rugs” of brightly colored sawdust art, that crews of artists took the entire day to make. In Chichi, the Good Friday procession leaves the Church at about 5 p.m., and makes a journey of perhaps 25 blocks around town. People throng the streets to watch as the inches by, The generator is cranked up as the sun sets, and the big floats bearing their passion tableaus go rocking down the street, bathed in light, stopping and pausing and starting over and over again, for much of the night. The mood is very festive, but nevertheless has a quiet somberness that is unlike anything else in my experience. It usually takes in excess of eight hours for the procession to complete the loop and arrive back at the church, leaving in its wake mounds of mixed bright colors of sawdust over blocks and blocks of narrow city streets, and a quietness that persists until the community gears up for the next festival.

15: There were, at one time, 14 Cofradías in Chichicastenango. Now only a small handful of the confraternaties are still active. Those that are active - including one for the major town saints of Santo Tomás, and Saints Joseph and Sebastian, as well one dedicated to El Rosario, play a vital role as conservators of culture and guardians of folk Catholicism. The cofrades, as members of the cofradías are called, invest considerable money into their costumes and accouterments, and take their responsibilities very seriously. The cofradías are the remnants of a "civil religious hierarchy" that until the mid-twentieth century had considerable influence over the political lives of the large indigenous majority - nowadays in excess of 98 percent in Chichicatenango's total population. There seems to be something of a revitalization of interest in the confraternities in recent years, and they clearly have a lot of new young members, and remain an important symbol of the pride Chichicastenango takes in its Maya culture.

16: Feast of St. Christopher and St. James (Santiago) | The Feasts of San Cristobal and Santiago both fall on July 25, and are marked by celebrations throughout Guatemala. In Chichicastenango, the celebrations begin long before dawn, with bombas and firecrackers to announce the procession of the cofradía that watches over the small carved wooden statue of St. James on his horse (the Tzijolaj). Various dances and small processions wend their way through the pueblo throughout the day. St. Christopher is the patron saint of travelers, to include truckers and "transportistas" in general, and the procession to celebrate his feast day consists of a slow-moving motorcade of dozens of highly decorated trucks, buses, microbuses, and in recent years even rickshaw-like "Tuk Tuks"that putt around town carrying up to four small passengers. Given that there is only one highway leading into or out of Chichi, the hour and a half parade causes immense traffic jams on either side of town. While the parade is happening on the west and south sides of the central pueblo, in the central pueblo the festivities for Santiago crank up, with a live band playing traditional "marimba pura" music interspersed with corridos and bolero and cumbia tunes that would be right at home in cafés and cantinas along the US border of Mexico.

20: Previous Pages: The Dance of the Mexicans (Baile de los Mexicanos), was celebrated in 2011 on the feast day of Saints Christopher and James. This group has also always danced and paraded in Chichicastenango's patron saint celebration in December. I was told, however, that the group has disbanded and will not dance anymore. To be sure, the group did not participate in the 2011 "Feria Titular." I am sad to see them go, if what I heard is true, because I liked the satire of the dance.

21: The Dance of the Tzijolaj (a little statue of St. James on his horse) happens a few times a year, including the feast of Santiago on July 25. In this dance, which I believe is peculiar to Chichicastenango,the Tzijolaj is held over the shoulder of the dancing cofrade (member of a "cofradia), while in the other hand he carries a "basket" of fireworks. I have no idea what all this means, and not one of the many people I have asked knew either. The "St. James" spoken of here is venerated throughout Guatemala, especially in the various towns named Santiago who claim him as their patron saint. This includes, most famously, Antigua and Santiago Atitlan. Santiago is also the patron saint of Spain.

22: El Día de | Independencia | Cada 15 de septiembre las escuelas de Guatemala celebran con mucho | entusiasmo y energía

25: Independence Day is right up there with Semana Santa, the Day of the Dead, and Christmas in terms of being an important Guatemalan Holiday. It is, in this respect, something of a curious phenomenon in that it is a secular holiday with no special religious significance. Nevertheless, school kids start getting their costumes ready and practicing marching and beating drums and waving banners in the spring to have their routines, such as they are, well-rehearsed before the big parades. In Chichicastenango, kids from a large handful of the 120 or so schools in the municipality march through town on two days, with the primary school kids marching on September 14, and the vastly smaller number of secondary students parading on September 15. As for the rest of the country, it pretty well shuts down on the day itself, and travelers need to count on getting where they need to go the day before or after, because intra-urban buses are far and few between.

26: Day of the Dead begins on November 1, All Saints Day, when families begin decorating the graves of loved ones who have passed with pine needles and flowers and gifts of food

27: As darkness falls, they gather in the cemetery, lighting candles and keeping prayerful vigil over the adorned graves, and praying to whichever spirits speak most clearly to them

29: It is said the Day of the Dead has its origins in ancestor worship. That is not the way I comprehend the day, however. It is, rather, about continuity of life, of birth and passage and rebirth. That is why flowers are so important on this day when the boundaries of time and generations become blurred. Flowers are not simply ornaments, but symbols of the fragility of beautiful life,of degeneration and regeneration and continuation. Likewise, the tradition of flying kites in the cemetery is appropriate on November 2. For to do this on the day after the saints have been honored, and on the day when souls of all humans are remembered, is to demonstrate faith in the resurrection and ascension for all who have passed and all who will pass on to whatever comes after. It is, in my experience, an Easter for the masses, an expression of the divinity of humanity. And whatever its roots and origins, is for me a marvelous and ultimately meaningful Holy Day.

32: The Feast of Santo Tomás and the Feria Titular de Chichicastenango December 8 through December 22

33: The Feast day for St. Thomas the Apostle was established as December 21 in the 9th Century. In 1969 it was changed by the Church to July 3rd, but Chichicastecos were not inclined to move their patron saint's feast on the whim of Church fathers. So still, on December 8th every year, the parade organizations, or "convites," start rolling, and the municipality gears up for almost two weeks of fasting and feasting, of devotion and drunkenness, and working tremendously hard at having fun. It is a time of preparing for Christmas and riding the big ferris wheels, of bombs and candy and watching castles burn, of nonstop street concerts and colorful parades, of orgiastic displays of pyrotechnics, and the annual unfolding of traditions whose origins and meanings can no longer be remembered or explained by those who participate in it, but which still resonate with the cultural pulse of the town and its Mayan people, Whether residents participate in the extravaganza or merely try to tolerate it, the feria plays a major role in defining what and who Chichicastenango is.

34: Los Castillos de Fuego, or Castles of Fire, are large fireworks machines. One fuse at the bottom leads to more than a half-hour of fireworks as the convoluted trail of combustion burns a fiery path up from the bottom. The top level is always a three or four minute extravaganza of noise and color, with the larger machines dropping a furled banner. A dance or concert always accompanies castillos.

36: Previous Page: In the "Baile Regional," men wear the traditional indigenous costumes of both men and women from variousMaya towns. After leaving the church early in the morning, they go from one sponsor's house to another to dance and be feted. After about 10 long hours of dancing, they arrive back at the church, where they dance to music played by one or another big name bands, while a castillo de fuego is burned in their honor | This page: The Baile de los Conquistadores follows the same routine as the Baile Regional, leaving the church early and roving throughout the pueblo to entertain crowds who gather in front of the homes of sponsors. The men who perform in these groups dedicate a lot of money as well as energy to these events. It is commonly agreed that one of the original purposes of this dance was to satirize Spanish Colonial authorities.

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  • By: Max K.
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  • Title: Chichicastenango Celebrates I
  • A photographic synopsis of some of the most important annual celebrations in Chichicastenango, Guatemala
  • Tags: Chichicastenango, guatemala, fiesta, festival, Day of the Dead, celebration, Tzijolaj, dia de los difuntos, muertos, semana santa, Santo Tomas, sebastian, san jose, Procesiones, processions
  • Published: about 6 years ago