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Chichicastenango Celebrates

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S: Chichicastenango Celebrates: An annotated photo collage Max Kintner Copyright 2012: All Rights Reserved

BC: All Photos, Text, and Design by Max Kintner All right reserved. Copyright August 2012 PO Box 404, Waterford NY 12188 copyright@chichimax. net

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

1: Santo Tomás Chichicastenango, known throughout Guatemala as “Chichi,” is a busy village high in the mountains west of Guatemala City. It's not a large town, with no two points in the 35 or so square blocks that comprise the central pueblo more than a 10 minute walk apart. Despite its small size, however, the little town is home to perhaps 25,000 people, who call themselves Chichicastecos or “Maxeños,” which in the native K'iche' Maya language means "people of St. Thomas." All but about 2 percent of town residents are Indigenous Maya. But whether their genetic heritage is Maya or “Ladino,” all Chichicastecos participate self-consciously or by force of custom in the continuously evolving traditions and culture of the town. For Chichicastecos, dress and language are the most conspicuous markers of culture. A great majority of Maxeños speak K’iche’ Maya at home, though not always in the street, and most women continue to wear the typical Maya huipil blouse and knee-length | Of Nettles, Cliffs, and Culture: Welcome to Chichicastenango! | Max Kintner Copyright 2012 All Rights Reserved. Reproducing, copying, storing of images or content without written consent from the author is prohibited For information contact Max Kintner at P.O. Box 404, Waterford, NY 12188 (

2: corte skirt of hand-loomed black and white striped fabric. While virtually no men other than a handful of waiters in tourist restaurants routinely wear the traditional indigenous dress of Maxeño men, the colorful traditional costume continues to be worn by members of Chichicasteco brotherhoods and confraternities who preside over and conserve centuries-old Folk Catholic traditions. | Other than dress and language, perhaps the most obvious display of the rich and mixed culture of Chichicastenango is seen in its public and private celebrations. Most large public celebrations, such as the observances of Holy Week and fiestas for various saints, are religious in origin, reflecting a syncretic mix of Maya and Catholic tradition. The largest of these are extravagant affairs, with many “processions” and concerts and over-the-top fireworks displays. Independence Day, on the other hand, reflects an ongoing attempt by late nineteenth and twentieth century political leaders to “modernize” the majority Maya population by infusing it with a civil religion of nationalism. While it is not evident that many Maya ever fully embraced the notion of being “Guatemalan,” the attempt did create another great tradition of a procession of children that is maintained throughout the country private

3: by virtually all public and private schools. To say that all other celebrations remain basically "Catholic" at their core is neither to suggest they are historical artifacts, nor to say that Catholicism defines contemporary Maya identity. Indeed, the local brand of Maya identity remains strong and vital in Protestant as well as Catholic communities, with language and dress and social customs being carried over into religious ceremonies that are arguably as “Maya” and “traditional” as established rituals of Chichicastenango’s folk-Catholic celebrations. 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. Of course the sounds, smells, and tastes of these festivals cannot be shared here. My hope, however, is that this little book will be understood as an invitation to visit and personally explore the very special community of Chichicastenango. Opposite Left: Sunday market as seen from the old arched stone bridge. The twice weekly Chichi market is one of Guatemala's largest tourist markets. It sprawls over many blocks, and is the heartbeat of the town's economic life. Center Left: A rack of wooden tourist-trade quality masks in the market Above Right: The twice-weekly produce market in the Central Market. The market was built back in the 1930s as a school, which moved into a new facility in the 1950s. For the last 20 years or so it has housed most of the vegetable vendors on market days. The market draws many produce vendors from the neighboring Kaqchikel-speaking "department" of Sololá. Right: A booth selling essential candles, incense, and other supplies used in Maya religious ceremonies

4: The word “Chichicastenango” is of Nahuatl origin, a lexicographic gift of Aztecs from Central Mexico who successfully invaded and subjugated this part of the Guatemalan Highlands in the 14th century. It means “Place of the Nettles,” in reference to the large, 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 official current name is appropriate, so is the old Maya name for the town, “Chuwila” (or Chugüila) which translates to “on the edge of the ravine,” because the town is a relatively flat hilltop island surrounded by deep gorges that over the centuries were cut into the powdery volcanic rock by erosion. In other epoques, steep cliffs that drop away hundreds of meters into deep canyons on three sides of the central pueblo offered villagers a measure of protection from invasion by enemy warriors. Now, however, the town’s hilltop location offers only some small measure of protection against rapid development, as vehicles on the only highway to Chichi must negotiate a series of harrowing switchbacks on either side of the town. More than just a town, Chichicastenango is first and foremost a cultural region, marked by a distinct dialect of K’iche’ Maya and its own styles of dress and civil-religious customs. In a political sense, the “municipality” of Chichi is large, composed of 87 hamlets and villages scattered across about 400 square kilometers. These smaller communities, ranging in size from a few hundred to more than 15,000 people, have usually been referred to in the past as “los cantones,” although that term is often replaced nowadays by the more politically correct and in a sense more historically correct “las comunidades.” The “Muni,” as locals refer to the municipal governmental "palace" and administrative structure, functions very similarly to a county in the United States, with the county seat being the pueblo, or town of Chichicastenango. Some 150,000 people reside in the greater municipality. More than 99.5 percent of the residents of Chichi's rural areas and remote villages identify themselves as “Indigenas” (We would say “Indian” in the US, but in Guatemala the word “indio” is an ethnic slur), or descendants of a civilized Maya culture that was flourishing when the Spanish arrived in the New World. Maya culture still flourishes and remains distinct, surviving the attainment of middle-class by some members of the society just as it has survived centuries of dire poverty by a huge lower class. Although styles and fads have changed, recent years have in fact seen festivals that are even more colorful, flamboyant, and well-attended than in many previous years, but which continue to speak to a strong, unique, and highly adaptable Maya culture. | About Chichicastenango

5: Chichicastenango's Fiestas and Catholic Culture While both Chichicastenango and Chugüila are appropriate names for the little town and sprawling municipality, when I think of Chichicastenango I don’t think first or primarily of the dramatic local 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 comprehensible or sensible. With or without conscious rationality, the creation of cultural “significance” 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 exuberance with which Chichicastenango publicly celebrates its life, culture, and long history through a busy calendar of annual feast days and festivals dedicated to the saints. That means that Guatemalan festivals in general have their origins in the Catholic calendar of feasts and saint day celebrations (as noted above, Independence Day is an exception: it is a holiday by and for students, with sponsorship of the state rather than the church and religious organizations). In this respect, Guatemala, like other Latin American countries, is unavoidably "culturally Catholic." By "unavoidably," I mean that Guatemala’s secular traditions are tightly bound up with Catholic traditions, to the point that the staunchest anti-Catholic or non-Christian must in some conscious or unconscious way participate, if only to be regularly inconvenienced by huge crowds or reduction in public services. This is true in all of Latin America, but is particularly significant in Guatemala and a handful of other Latin American countries which may no longer be predominantly Catholic" in a "religious" sense. Since at least the 1950s, Guatemala has undergone a rapid conversion to evangelical Protestantism. Estimates of the percentage of Guatemalans who call themselves Protestants now run between 40 and 50 percent. Because Protestants are more likely than Catholics to attend church, moreover, on any given day of worship there are quite possibly more Protestants than Catholics attending services.

6: Since about 1980, many scholars and social commentators of all stripes have seriously sought to understand not just why such an explosive rate of conversion has taken place, but what it might mean to the economics, politics, and culture of Guatemala. And for those of us who love and study Maya culture in particular, there was always the underlying question (or, for some, the frankly expressed worry) of whether the Maya culture, with so much of its religious cultural expression couched in Catholicism, could survive the ongoing rate of conversion. Worries and interest in the significance of conversion seems to have diminished in recent years for two reasons. The first is that Maya culture has once again endured and adapted to new ways of doing things without losing its distinctive expressions. The second is that both the rapidity and the pitch of missionary fervency among most evangelicals seems to have moderated in recent years. Along the way, the antagonism and sometimes open hostility that characterized Protestant-Catholic relations during the 1970s through the 1990s seems, at least in my experience, to have greatly declined, resulting not merely in a less divisive environment, but sometimes constructive cooperation between churches. That said, it remains true that the large organizations that sponsor most of the religious festivals in Chichicastenango and elsewhere continue to be Catholic brotherhoods and confraternities. And it is also true that a significant number of evangelical Guatemalans are ca | Santo Tomás, Titular Saint of Chichicastenango. Saints Sebastian and Joseph are also highly revered in Chichi. | The "Baston de Plata," or head of a ceremonial staff carried by officers of the Cofradías when serving in an official capacity. | Guatemalan Colonial Artisans made some of the world's best examples of statues made with the "estofado" technique.

8: not comfortable even witnessing, much less participating in, some of the more “exotic” expressions of folk Catholicism such as the Burning of the Devil in December and the Day of the Dead in November. Nevertheless, at least in Chichicastenango, Protestants are as likely as Catholics to get caught up in the spectacle and the humor and mounting festival hysteria, which is to say they continue to self-consciously subscribe to and participate in the Catholic culture of which they are both product and member. Viva La Fiesta!

9: Photos on these and the preceding three pages were taken during the Procession of San Sebastián, one of the three Saints most revered by Chichicastecos. The feast day of Saint Sebastian is January 17

10: 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, as street markets selling candles and religious imagery and trinkets line the street around the plaza, and flower vendors selling baby's breath, lilies, and sprigs of palm fronds and flowers congregate on street corners. By Wednesday lunch, almost all formal businesses have locked their doors, and half the country is on the move, traveling back to spend this most important holiday of the year in their hometowns with family, or to resorts to celebrate. The pace is frenetic by Holy Thursday, with a culmination of ceremonies and partying on Good Friday. Then suddenly, on Saturday, the day before Easter, the highways are silent, with few cars and only an occasional “chicken bus” carrying last minute stragglers to or back home from the party. 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 and little chance of rain. It is a tradition among many people who can afford it to find a place on 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 municipal swimming pools, where they exist, 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 . | Semana Santa

12: and confraternities - and typically consist of carrying one or more "andas," or floats, that have various images of Jesus, the Virgin, and saints associated with Easter mounted on them. Like the processions themselves, the floats can be large or small, requiring as few as four or as many as 40 bearers. The largest andas are usually carried by bearers, often young men, wearing black suits or, more traditionally, dressed as penitentes wearing purple or black satin robes and conical hats called “cucuruchos.” Smaller processions might leave the church or the house of one of the cofrades, members of a cofradia, at any time during the day, depending on local tradition, and may walk very quickly with 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, function in slow motion, taking hours and hours to walk only a few blocks. Large andas are preceded by a small constellation of attendants, including men, women or children swinging incensers from chains, relief teams of anda-bearers, 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. Brass funeral dirge bands accompanying the procession all the while ooze out lugubrious melodies that hang in the air like funereal parodies as the processions rock and sway their way around their route at a top speed of maybe three blocks an hour. 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 procession inches by. Portable generators are 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 processions may take 12 hours to make a route around and

13: town that can normally be done at a slow stroll in less than 30 minutes,plodding over and destroying the beautiful but fragile “alfombras,” rugs of brightly colored sawdust art that crews of artists took the entire day to make. The mood is very festive, but nevertheless has a quiet somberness that is unlike anything else in my experience. In its wake lie 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. | Photos on this and preceding two pages are of the Good Friday Procession. Photo below is the back of a spotlighted large anda after dark, with a funeral dirge band walking behind it.

14: On Holy Thursday, amidst all due fanfare and ceremony, Cofrades - as members of the Cofradias are called - 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 to store it away in some hidden location until the next Holy Thursday.

17: There were, at one time, 14 cofradías in Chichicastenango. Now only a small handful of the confraternities are still active. Those that are active - including ones dedicated to the major town saints of Santo Tomás, and SaintJoseph, Sebastian, and the Holy Rosary, play a vital role as conservators of culture and guardians of folk Catholicism. The cofrades invest considerable labor and money into their costumes and accouterments, and take their responsibilities very seriously. The cofradías are the remnants of a "civil religious hierarchy" that from Colonial times until the mid-twentieth century had considerable influence over not just the parochial but the political lives of the large indigenous Maya majority -- nowadays in excess of 99 percent of the municipality's total population. I have no evidence to back it up, but it appears to me that there seems to be something of a revitalization of interest in the confraternities in recent years, and they clearly have many new young members, and remain an important symbol of the pride Chichicastenango takes in its Maya culture. | Los Cofrades

18: There is nothing particularly morbid about Semana Santa, but 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 giant pods as 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 we have been told it is some sort of palm tree that grows in the coastal lowlands. | The Odor of Carosa

19: St. Christopher is the patron saint of travelers in general and "transportistas" who work in the transportation industry in particular. The celebration actually begins the night before the feast of San Cristobal, as the saint is known in Spanish, with a traditional marimba concert and the burning of 3 "Toritos de Fuego," or "little bulls of fire." A Torito is a fireworks machine built around a dog-house like structure that is put over a dancer's head. The ensuing fireworks show is relatively spectacular by itself, but is all the more exciting because the fireworks frequently -- both by design and malfunction -- often shoot directly into the closely clustered crowd, making it an interactive event that would never be allowed in developed countries. The following morning, dozens of highly decorated trucks, buses, microbuses, and rickshaw-like motorized "tuk tuks," gather in the plaza in front of the church, and pass by the parish priest to be individually blessed with holy water. Following the blessing, the vehicles take a slow-moving loop around and through town, pass under the arched bridge that is one of Chichi's great landmarks, and proceed down the hill for a grand celebration at the public football field. 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. | Feast of St. Christopher

22: The Feast of Santiago Caballero, or St. James of the Knights of Guatemala was the patron saint named by the Spaniards for the first two colonial capital cities of Guatemala - first in Iximché (near current day Tecpán Guatemala) in 1524, and then to what is now Antigua Guatemala in 1527. Although the patron saint of Guatemala was changed to Our Lady of the Assumption after an earthquake destroyed much of Antigua in 1773, Santiago Caballero remains one of the most celebrated saint feast days in Guatemala, with notable festivals in towns like Antigua Guatemala and Santiago Atitlán who claim Santiago as their patron saint. | Feast of Santiago Caballero

23: While Chichicastenango does not have a week-long community-wide festival like Antigua and Santiago Atitlán, it does have what I believe is a unique expression to celebrate Santiago’s feast day on July 25, centered around a small carved wooden horse known only by its Maya name of Tzijolaj. The celebrations begin long before dawn, with bombas and firecrackers to announce the procession of the cofradía that watches over the Tzijolaj. After the procession arrives at the church in the mid-morning, the Dance of the Tzijolaj takes place. A designated Cofrade holds the Tzijolah over one shoulder, while in the other hand he carries a "basket" of fireworks, as he dances to very traditional marimba music on the steps of the church. Before and after the dance there are other festivities, inevitably accompanied by almost continuous fireworks. As late as 2011, the Dance of the Tzijolaj was followed by the Baile de Los Mexicanos (See Next Pages). I was told, however, that the Meicanos were no longer going to dance. If that is true, I am sorry, because I liked the color, the satire, and the humor of this dance, which like the Baile Regional involves men dressed in Mexican "Charro" outfits dancing with other men dressed as women. The Mexicanos did not dance in the Feria Titular in December 2011 as they have in the past, so it would appear that for the moment the event has been discontinued. My hope is that the tradition will be revived at some point in the near future.

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

29: Independence Day is right up there with Semana Santa, the Day of the Dead, and Christmas in terms of being an important Guatemalan Holiday, at least in terms of the way it shuts the country down. It is, in this respect, something of a curious phenomenon in that it is a secular holiday with nationalistic rather than religious significance. In this vein, 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 130 plus 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, most businesses close, and travelers scramble to get where they need to go the day before or after, because intra-urban buses are few and far between.

30: The Day of the Dead begins on November 1, All Saints Day, when families begin decorating the resting place of loved one who have passed, covering the graves or tombs with fresh coats of paint, pine needles,flowers and gifts of food. | The Day of the Dead

31: As darkness falls, Chichicastecos gather as families in the cemetery, lighting candles, reciting prayers, and keeping quiet and somber vigil over the adorned graves while praying to whichever saints, spirits, and souls speak most clearly to them. | "El Día de Los Muertos"

33: It is said the Day of the Dead has its origins in ancestor worship. That may in a sense be true, but it is not the way I comprehend the day. The Day of the Dead, rather, is not about death but 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 2nd. For to do this on the day after the saints have been honored, and on the day when the 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, a unique American Easter with deep cultural roots that truly expresses the divinity of humanity. And whatever its origins, it is for me a marvelous and ultimately meaningful Holy Day.

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

37: 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.

39: Left: In the "Baile Regional," men wear the traditional indigenous costumes of both men and women from various Maya 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 for a special ceremony, consisting of a concert by a big name Latin Rock/Cumbia band (in recent years the Internacionales Conejos), and a final dance with marimba music while a Castillo de Fuego is burned in their honor. | Above: 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.

41: Left and Above: 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. It is commonly agreed that one of the original purposes of this dance was to satirize Spanish Colonial authorities. | Following Pages: Fireworks are an essential element of any celebration: long strings of firecrackers for birthdays, mortar-like bombas that explode 500 feet overhead with a window-rattling, nerve-shattering BOOM for larger celebrations. The last day of the Feria Titular is the most frenetic exhibition of fireworks all year, with nonstop fuse-lighting on the steps of the church, as the little statue of St. James known as the Tzijolaj is pulled to and fro high overhead (last page). Multiple Latin Rock and Marimba bands play simultaneous concerts on closely-set stages surrounding the plaza, while in rare seconds of silence the distant shrieks of ferris wheel riders at the carnival that for two weeks has occupied the campo far down the hill can be heard even in the central pueblo.

47: This Book is Dedicated to the People of Chichicastenango, whose material poverty is so often obscured and offset by cultural richness. We offer to you our thanks for welcoming us into your world and showing us in countless ways that to be happy and satisfied with life is not a condition but a choice. Maltyox Amigos Maxeños, y Ch'ab'ej chik! | Copyright 2012 All Rights Reserved

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  • Title: Chichicastenango Celebrates
  • An annotated photo collage of the most important public celebrations in Chichicastenango, Guatemala
  • Tags: Chichicastenango, fiestas, Maya culture, Day of the Dead, semana santa, Tzijolaj, Santiago Caballero, St. Sebastian, Feria Titular
  • Published: over 5 years ago