In the spring of 2012, I studied abroad in Guatemala. As a part of my major, I was required to do a study abroad trip, and before I had taken a single Spanish class, I decided to go to Guatemala. There were only three automatically approved trips, and Guatemala Term was one of the three, so I hadn’t just picked Guatemala out of the blue, though I did end up going with the bare minimum of Spanish needed: one year of college Spanish. With my limited knowledge of the language and a group of 22 people who I didn’t completely meet until arriving, I found myself in Guatemala City on the first of February.
Being in Guatemala during the spring semester meant that we would be there during Semana Santa, or Holy Week. We were told that this week between Palm Sunday and Easter would have a bevy of activity in celebration of the week. In fact, the celebration wouldn’t be limited to that week; celebrations would be happening for months leading up to Easter, with everything starting on Ash Wednesday (OK, not quite months, but pretty close).
The primary ritual (if you will) that happened in the days and weeks leading up to Easter were processions; basically, these are parades that start and end at a different church each weekend. These processions would last for the entire day, weaving their way around the city. These processions are centered around a couple main elements. First are the “andas.” These are giant float like structures with a depiction of Jesus carrying the cross. The difference between a float in the U.S. and these andas, though, is that the andas are carried around the city. This is no small feat; it takes dozens of people to carry these structures, rocking side to side with each step. Each anda is specific to the church, and members of the congregation will pay to carry the andas around the city.
The second main element of the processions are the “alfombras;” literally translated, the carpets. The alfombras are composed of different colored sawdust and other materials in the middle of the street along the route of the procession. Alfombras are typically large enough that the entire group carrying the andas could fit on each alfombra. The alfombras are not haphazardly thrown together; each one is made with painstaking care, with people taking hours to make intricate patterns and designs. (At this point, I must apologize for not having any of my own pictures of the alfombras or the andas to share here. My pictures were all saved on a computer that crashed last year, and apparently none of them made it onto social media.)
Each procession also contains a band that walks and plays for the entire route, different people who will be switching out with the people carrying the andas, and spectators lining the streets. Regarding much of the imagery or tradition behind the different elements of the procession, I’m afraid I either don’t know or don’t remember the purpose of each element, or the definitive “why” behind the processions. I do know, though, that they are a sight to behold.
Processions happen around the entirety of Guatemala during lent, but the most well known happen in Antigua. The processions build in grandeur until Holy Week itself, with most of the activity happening on Thursday night and into Friday. Every weekend leading up to Holy Week allowed for a chance to see the alfombras being made and to see the processions around the city, but the night of Maundy Thursday was a different beast entirely.
Maundy Thursday ended up being the only night on the trip where I was up for the entire night. A group of us from the trip went out on Thursday night, and wandered around the city until about 9 the next morning watching the action. The city was typically shut down by 9 PM each night, but there was possibly more activity that night than there was during the typical day in the city. If memory serves, there were three major processions on Friday that wound through the city, and the entire night was spent building alfombras around the entire city for the processions to cross over. With each alfombra being inherently unique (except for the ones advertising the city newspaper with a QR code), each individual alfombra showed the character of the people who were creating it. Some held intricate designs, some depicted scenes from the biblical account of the events of the passion, and each was being worked on by multiple people. People would be working from the edges or on board that were propped across the alfombra, allowing people to work from a bird’s eye perspective.
Unfortunately, with the amount of time it’s been and my lack of photographic reminders, I don’t remember all of the events surrounding that night. I could Google image search different pictures from a Maundy Thursday night in Antigua (which I would suggest doing), but there is an inherent feeling generated by being around the energy of the city on that night. As far as the next day, though, after watching the beginning of one of the processions, I returned home to sleep for the better part of the day. I don’t remember anything about processions on or after that Friday, if there were any on Saturday (probably not, since that was the full day Jesus was in the tomb), and Easter was spent with the majority of our group and a group from the missions agency we worked with.
I think back to Holy Week in Guatemala every time Holy Week comes back around, though I’ve realized through writing this post that I seem to forget a little bit more every year (and losing the pictures from that week was a big loss). If you ever get the chance to go to Antigua during Holy Week, it is definitely a sight to see, and a very interesting tradition to experience.