Holy Week Processions in Antigua, Guatemala

Antigua, Guatemala, is a stunningly beautiful colonial town with cobbled streets, glorious cathedrals and colorful markets filled with exquisite Mayan textiles. In 2008, I was lucky enough to spend a number of days in Antigua during Lent.

It must be quite an honor to take the center position at the head of the float. That man or woman carries the float with their arms spread wide in a position reminiscent of a crucifixion. ©Laurel Kallenbach

It must be quite an honor to take the center position at the head of the float. That man or woman carries the float with their arms spread wide in a position reminiscent of a crucifixion. ©Laurel Kallenbach

On Sundays throughout Lent, there are 10-hour processions up and down the streets of Antigua. They usually start at 1:00 in the afternoon and last until 11:00 at night.

This small float is probably Mary Magdalene. The sousaphone behind her is another band of musicians. ©Laurel Kallenbach

This small float is probably Mary Magdalene. The sousaphone behind her is another band of musicians. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Hundreds of participants dress in regal robes and carry gigantic floats (andas) as onlookers watch. The floats are filled with sculptures of Jesus dragging the cross, the Virgin Mary looking beatific, and scores of angels playing herald trumpets.

Antigua has one of the most elaborate Holy Week (Semana Santa) celebrations in the Americas, and the city’s hotels are filled to bursting throughout the week.

For Semana Santa, carpets of sawdust paintings fill the streets as the processions walk through; that doesn’t happen on Lenten Sundays, but would be quite a sight. (A small sample of a sawdust carpet was preserved in the cathedral, and it was amazingly intricate and colorful.)

Mary, the Queen of Heaven looks mournfully down upon the spectators while women shoulder the burden of her holiness. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Mary, the Queen of Heaven looks mournfully down upon the spectators while women shoulder the burden of her holiness. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Some of the floats weight as much as 3 tons, so it takes quite a few people to bear them on their shoulders. The float-bearers take shifts to spell each other, but they all keep shuffling slowly through the streets to the dirges played by marching musicians.

I watched the procession four times along various streets. Because the parade moves so slowly, it was easy to watch it pass, then walk six or eight blocks around the route, and catch the whole pageant somewhere else.

The final time I saw the procession pass by was from the window of a restaurant at about 8 p.m. In the dark, the floats were lit and had a different aura than they did by day. Night or day, the procession is quite a spectacle.

Many of the celebrants were boys in their early teens, all wearing robes?either purple (the color of the Passion) or white like shepherds. Some wore pointed hoods that remind Americans of the Ku Klux Klan. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Many of the celebrants were boys in their early teens, all wearing robes?either purple (the color of the Passion) or white like shepherds. Some wore pointed hoods that remind Americans of the Ku Klux Klan. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The parade begins with blocks of processing boys and men in robes, hoods and cassocks. That’s followed by altar boys swinging the incense burners. The streets of Antigua fill with the smoky aroma, turning the entire city into a cathedral-like setting.

Then comes the massive float with Jesus carrying the cross over his shoulder. This is followed by musicians.

Next, the Virgin Mary float arrives, borne by women in somber gray and black dresses with lace on their heads. Although the Virgin Mary float is smaller, it’s impressive to see women in heels and skirts carrying what is still a massive burden.

All the locals take these processions very seriously—even mournfully. Bystanders in their jeans and flip-flops (or Mayan clothes if they’re visiting from a small village) gaze meaningfully at the floats. The participants are all very proud and solemn about their jobs.

However, there’s also an air of festivity: hawkers sell cotton candy, toys and sodas. As you’re in the large crowds, you’re shoulder-to-shoulder with other bystanders on the sidewalks trying to glimpse the floats and take photos.

Cotton candy and balloons added to the celebration of the Holy Week procession. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Cotton candy and balloons added to the celebration of the Holy Week procession. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Pickpockets make a healthy living on procession days. Although I felt nothing, for some reason I looked down at my fannypack and noticed the zipper was open—not the way I left it. I checked, and the only thing missed was the granola bar that I had tucked in at the last moment on top.

A friend of mine was not so fortunate. Her wallet disappeared from her purse, but fortunately her passport was safely back in the hotel safe.

Watching the processions made me truly feel like I had sampled a bit of the local culture of Guatemala, a fervently Catholic—and Mayan—country.

Women wearing heels carry the Virgin Mary float through Antigua's bumpy, cobblestone streets. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Women wearing heels carry the Virgin Mary float through Antigua’s bumpy, cobblestone streets. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Laurel Kallenbach, writer and editor

Read more about my travels in Guatemala:

Originally published in April 2009

Banner carriers in the Holy Week procession, Antigua, Guatemala ©Laurel Kallenbach

Banner carriers in the Holy Week procession, Antigua, Guatemala ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Vibrant Women of Guatemala

I visited Guatemala in 2008 for a writing and yoga retreat, held at a yoga center on stunningly gorgeous Lake Atitlán, which is surrounded by volcanoes. A Nahuatl word, Atitlán means “the place where the rainbow gets its colors,” and the Maya believe Lago de Atitlán is the umbilicus of the Universe—the birthplace of the soul.

I soon discovered that the soul of Guatemala lies in the strength and creativity of the women whom I met and photographed.

This woman, wearing a traditional Mayan hat, met our water taxi at the dock of the town of Santiago Atitlán. Widowed during the Guatemalan Civil War, she supports herself by selling her beadwork to tourists. © Laurel Kallenbach

This woman, wearing a traditional Mayan hat, met our water taxi at the dock of the town of Santiago Atitlán. Widowed during the Guatemalan Civil War, she supports herself by selling her beadwork to tourists. © Laurel Kallenbach

Years after taking these photos, I’m still awestruck by the colorful clothing and warm, wise faces of these women, many of whom speak the traditional Tz’utujil language.

Many of the women I met live in Santiago Atitlán, a thriving town that’s accessible by water taxi from other parts of the lake. The majority of the residents are indigenous Mayans. In pre-Columbian times, this was the capital of the Tz’utujil people, a Mayan sub-culture.

Our group visited the parish church in Santiago ©Laurel Kallenbach.JPG

Our group visited the Church of Santiago Apostol, a Catholic church in Santiago Atitlán, where these three girls giggled at meeting us American women. ©Laurel Kallenbach

While visiting, I got a chance to meet and photograph a few of Guatemala’s indigenous women artists who make the most amazing textiles on the planet. Most of them support their families by creating beautiful weavings in the ancient Maya tradition.

It’s courteous to pay a small amount of money to photograph a women wearing an ornately embroidered huipil blouse. And I loved taking a picture of women whose handiwork I bought. Doing so helps me remember each individual face that goes along with the scarves, tablecloths, and purses I purchased. That year for Christmas, many friends and family members got a beautiful, handmade souvenir from my trip to Guatemala—along with the accompanying snapshot of its respective creator.

Tour guide Dolores Ratzan Pablo wears a "huipil" embroidered with Guatemalan birds. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Tour guide Dolores Ratzan Pablo wears a traditional head-covering and “huipil” embroidered by her mother with Guatemalan birds. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Handcrafting textiles isn’t the only way indigenous Guatemalan women support themselves and their families. On our trip to visit Santiago Atitlán, our group hired tour guide Dolores Ratzan Pablo, who speaks Spanish, Tz’utujil, and English.

Dolores lived for several years in America after she and her then-husband, shaman Martín Prechtel, fled the pueblo during the violent Guatemalan civil war to live in the United States. Dolores shared her insights into the culture of Santiago Atitlán, including the unique fusion of Catholicism and ancient Maya religion. She took us to the Church of Santiago Apostol, the shrine of the Mayan “trickster” deity, Maximón (who drinks liquor and smokes cigars), and to the  workshop of her mother (pictured below), who creates fantastic works of textile art.

The mother of Dolores Ratzan Pablo wove this red table runner that I bought. © Laurel Kallenbach

The mother of Dolores Ratzan Pablo wove this red table runner that I bought. She had her own humble shop in Santiago Atitlán where she displayed all her textile art and demonstrated the backstrap loom. © Laurel Kallenbach

Many of the women in Santiago Atitlán were affected by brutal, government-backed violence during Guatemala’s civil war, which lasted from 1960–1996. Indigenous people in the highlands of Guatemala were especially at risk. In 1981, Roman Catholic priest Stanley Rother (from the United States), was assassinated by right-wing death squads. In 1990, the Guatemalan Army opened fire on a crowd of unarmed civilians.

These Mayan women came to Villa Sumaya, the yoga retreat center on Lake Atitlán to sell their artwork. © Laurel Kallenbach

These Mayan women came to Villa Sumaya, the yoga retreat center on Lake Atitlán to sell their artwork. © Laurel Kallenbach

Though many women sell their textiles at the town mercado (market), some take their work to places where tourists come. The women above got permission to bring some of their best work to Villa Sumaya, a retreat and wellness center located in Santa Cruz la Laguna on the shores of Lake Atitlán. I have one of their brilliant-blue woven cloths on my dining-room table.

Women carrying their wares on the streets of Antigua ©Laurel Kallenbach

Women carrying their wares on the streets of Antigua ©Laurel Kallenbach

After leaving Lake Atitlán, I spent a couple of days in the colonial town of Antigua, where visitors can find bright, indigenous clothing, popular over centuries, alongside fancy modern hotels. As you can see from the picture above, some spots in the old Spanish part of town still have cobblestone roads. Boutiques often sell traditional Maya handicrafts, but there are also textile cooperatives where women can display their art in a large space.

Weaver woman in Antigua ©Laurel Kallenbach

Woman weaving on a traditional Guatemalan backstop loom in Antigua ©Laurel Kallenbach

At Trama Textiles Cooperative in Antigua, I watched this woman weaving on a traditional  backstrap loom (see above). The loom is light and portable so that she can work in a tiny, single-room house. The loom, often made with sticks and rope, is easy rolled up when not in use.

Trama Textiles Co-op consists of about 400 women, forming 17 groups of weavers from five different regions in the western part of the Guatemalan highlands. It’s an association of women that promotes artisan development in backstrap loom weaving as a way of providing women with a livelihood in a country with a high rate of crime and violence against women and children.

These women are carrying a float during a Holy Week procession in Antigua, Guatemala. ©Laurel Kallenbach

These women are bearing a religious float of Mary, Queen of Heaven, during a Holy Week procession in Antigua, Guatemala. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I happened to be in Antigua for Semana Santa (Holy Week) in 2008, so I got to see the grand procession in the streets of this Spanish-colonial town (founded in 1542), which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Though men are typically float-bearers, the floats of female saints and the Virgin Mary are the domain of the women. What strength and faith!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read more about my journeys in Guatemala:

Market beneath the ruins of El Carmen Church in Antigua ©Laurel Kallenbach

This open-air market in Antigua is at the feet of the ruins of El Carmen Church, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The church was built and destroyed by earthquakes several times over the centuries. ©Laurel Kallenbach

 

 

Portals of the World: Antigua, Guatemala

Over the years, I’ve noticed that I love taking photos of doorways, windows, and arches. Besides being interesting architecturally, they symbolize a journey from one place to another. They delineate inside from outside; they mark an end and a beginning—a movement through time and space, from one stage of life to another. This year, I want to share some travel photos of these portals into other worlds.

Arch of Santa Catalina, Antigua, Guatemala ©Laurel Kallenbach

Arch of Santa Catalina, Antigua, Guatemala ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Arch of Santa Catalina is an icon of the old Spanish colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala, which I visited in 2008. I loved the town, with it’s colorfully painted stucco houses and its cobblestone streets. I loved the Mayan women selling their intricate, handwoven textiles. And I especially loved this arch, which welcomes people into the heart of the city with views of the mountains and (from some angles) the Pacaya Volcano.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and photographer

Read more about my travels in Guatemala:

The 2012 Mayan Calendar: Out with the Old, In with the New

A Mayan shaman on Lake Atitlán performing a ceremony for protection of travelers. © Laurel Kallenbach

December 21, 2012, marks the end of one Mayan calendar and the beginning of a new era. To celebrate, I wanted to share a few of my images from my 2008 trip to Guatemala, where I spent a week on Lake Atitlán, one of the spiritual centers of the Mayan world.

The Mayans call this deep lake, surrounded by mountains and the Atitlán volcano, “the umbilicus of the world.” It’s a source, a place of birth for them.

On the first morning after I arrived at Villa Sumaya,  a yoga retreat center on the shores of Lake Atitlán, a Mayan shaman came to perform a protection ceremony for all us gringos. After offering sugar, cinnamon, chocolate and taper candles to the gods, he entreated them to cleanse our spirits and keep us safe throughout our Guatemala journeys.

We could feel the love from the chocolate-sated deities every morning as we drank Mayan hot chocolate with breakfast. Rich cream, dark cacao, ginger, and a touch of chile: amazing and spirit-lifting.

These Mayan women brought their weaving to Villa Sumaya for our group to look at. I bought a gorgeous tablecloth. © Laurel Kallenbach

As I look ahead, to the new era, I’ll remember Guatemala’s colorfully clad Mayan women. These skilled seamstresses wove exotic birds, such as the quetzal, into their clothing designs. May that color and vibrancy lead us all into the next Mayan calendar.

On this Winter Solstice 2012, we all get a fresh start. My hope is that the new era will be characterized by peace, creativity, the end of materialism and global warming, and a renewed understanding of the wisdom of indigenous peoples worldwide.

Laurel Kallenbach, writer, traveler, editor

Read more about my travels in Guatemala:

Lake Atitlán, in Guatemala, is one of the spiritual centers of the Mayan world. © Laurel Kallenbach