The Power of Guatemalan Catholicism: Antigua at Easter

Easter 2017 is fast approaching, and this took me back to the amazing memories I have from Easter last year, which I wanted to write about. First thing’s first: if you’re thinking about heading to Antigua for Semana Santa (“holy week”, i.e. Easter), go! Secondly, this blog is a teeny bit historical, because I wanted to give a little context to the significance of visiting ‘Antigua Guatemala’ at Easter-time.

Antigua is one of Guatemala’s key tourist attractions. Unsurprising, given it’s quaint cobbled streets, picturesque location next to three imposing volcanoes, all of which can be trekked, and architecturally impressive colonial remains. I was lucky enough to visit the city with a group of friends, over the main Semana Santa weekend.

Personally, I find Antigua’s atmosphere a tad bizarre on a normal day. More than anywhere else in the country, local and traveller culture have collided here, and with street after street of hostels, tour agencies, coffee shops and restaurants, the big winner has been the tourism industry. However, the city really comes alive at Easter, and personally I felt like the Antigua locals reclaimed it as their own. If you don’t mind pushing your way through throngs of people, Semana Santa presents an incredible chance to witness the strength of Guatemalan Catholicism.

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Some of my Semana Santa crew, walking along the cobbled streets of Antigua. Photo credit: Anna Watts

A brief snapshot of history

Antigua Guatemala (the city’s full name) literally translates as “Ancient Guatemala”. The city was constructed by the Spanish and for a time functioned as the Spanish HQ, or “Captaincy General” in Central America until much of it was destroyed in an earthquake in 1773. At this time, Guatemala didn’t exist with the geographical boundaries that it does today, but from the beginning of the Spanish invasion in the early 1500s, until 1609, the ‘Kingdom of Guatemala‘ was used to refer to a wide expanse of land including many of the countries which today make up Central America.

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The original “Kingdom of Guatemala” in 1600. Source: Wikipedia

Today, Antigua is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site. You can read more on the UNESCO webpage.

The colonisation of Central America is a horrific story involving a great deal of bloody violence. On a religious level, for somebody more familiar with European history than Central American,  it could be viewed as an overseas extension of the Spanish Inquisition. The Spanish priest, Friar Diego de Landa, was sent to Central America with the job of converting the local Maya peoples, or tribes, to Catholicism. In doing so, de Landa destroyed almost all evidence of Mayan writing, including hundreds of Mayan scripts. Ironically, he also authored a historically fascinating book which provides one of the few, and most detailed accounts, of Maya civilization and its submission to Spanish rule.

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Painting at Mani. A depiction of Diego de Landa destroying Mayan books in 1562. Source: Keith Walbolt on Flickr

On burning Mayan scripts, de Landa said:

“We found a great number of books and since they contained nothing but superstitions and falsehoods of the devil we burned them, which they took most grievously, and which gave them great pain.”

De Landa’s book also describes some of the gruesome and merciless tactics used by the Spanish colonisers to force the indigenous people to sumbit to them.

“I, Diego de Landa, say that I saw a great tree near the village upon the branches of which a captain had hung many women, with their infant children hung from their feet.”

“Unheard of cruelties were inflicted, cutting off their noses, hands, arms and legs, and the breasts of their women; throwing them into deep water with gourds tied to their feet, thrusting the children with spears…”

Eventually, through brutal violence and also the use of non-violent tactics, such as constructing churches at sacred Mayan sites, Mayan spiritual beliefs gave way, in large part, to Catholicism.

It is important to note that many Maya people today do still practise traditional forms of spirituality. In this short video, Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu, who is a member of the indigneous Quiche Maya community, speaks about her spiritual beliefs.

In addition, in recent decades other branches of Christianity, including evangelical churches, have become popular in Guatemala.

Semana Santa in Antigua today

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Photo credit: Anna Watts

 

Today in Antigua, the displays of religious dedication during Semana Santa are intense to witness, and clearly a deeply significant, powerful experience for those taking part. Street processions take place throughout the day and into the night, involving wooden floats often ornately decorated with flowers, on top of which stand life-sized sculptures of Catholic figures. These effigies of Christ, the Virgin Mary, Jesus’ disciples and saints are carried on the shoulders of people who, (I think!) volunteer to take part. From the impressive solomnety that surrounds this tradition, I imagine that being a bearer may also be a great honour. The floats are of varying sizes, from smaller ones which elevate just one religious figure high above the crowds, to incredibly long floats which take maybe fifty men or women to carry.  I couldn’t help wondering where all of these magnificent items are stored all year round, ready to take pride of place at Easter.

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Women carry a float through the streets

You may spot people carrying small paddles with numbers on. I was told these indicated the ‘changeover’ points, from one team of float bearers to another. If you find yourself at a changeover station, it is fascinating to watch the bearers seamlessly switch over from one group to the next, without disturbing the rhythmic, side-to-side sway of the entire float.

Carpets made using brightly-dyed sawdust line the streets, with beautifully intrictate flower designs. These are prepared by the locals for the processions to walk over.

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Residents construct a ‘flower carpet’ in the street, using coloured sawdust. Hours later, it will be trampled by a procession, and their work will begin again.

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Photo credit: Anna Watts

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Photo credit: Anna Watts

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The floats and their bearers are captivating, as they sway rhythmically along the streets to the beat of the drums

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A crowd moves slowly along the route from the main plaza towards the Cathedral, (the Cathedral dome can just been seen under the archway).

At night time, we witnessed the most intense, almost eerie processions. The bearers (mostly male) were clad in long robes with hoods, in purple and black, carrying truly enormous floats laiden with religious figures. As they swayed along the street, almost trance-like in their rythmic, side-to-side swagger, the beat of drums filling the air and ringing in my ears, the physical strain of the heavy load was evident on their faces. Some  of the float bearers were crying. I imagined that this may have deep religious significance for these individuals, perhaps reminiscent of Christ’s pain as he carried the cross. Even for an onlooker, this makes for a mesmerising experience.

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Purple robes are a common sight. Photo credit: Anna Watts

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Early evening, and the flower carpets from today will be swept away to make space for new ones tomorrow. Along the major routes, a team of sweepers often tailed the processions, cleaning up immediately.

A convivial atmosphere takes hold of Antigua during Semana Santa, with so many people on the streets, and fantastic amount of delicious street food, (even for vegans!) Whilst few tourists visit Guatemala without spending time in Antigua, Semana Santa makes for a spectacularly memorable experience.

For some incredible images of other Easter celebrations across Guatemala, including Maya indigenous celebrations, check out Anna Watts on instagram!

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