Alfombras or carpets are abundant in the streets of Antigua Guatemala during Cuaresma and Holy Week. Originally, thy were elaborated with flowers and feathers from birds like the quetzal, parrots, guacamayas and hummingbirds, among others, back in the 1500's. The Mayan traditions of using carpets made of flowers and feathers were mixed into traditions from the Canary Islands and Tenerife. Those traditions used colored stones, earth and flowers to create designs and there are mentions of these colorful carpets all the way back to the 7th century. It's thought that the alfombras are a form of welcoming Jesus into the town, much like people did with palm leaves back in His time.
These days, the alfombra is made of a variety of materials. While you won't find many feathers among them nowadays, flowers are still used in abundance. As the times change, so do the materials used to celebrate the Holy Week.
Before a procession comes through, people create elaborate alfombras in the street, often blocking traffic for hours on end, using aserrin (sawdust), fruit and vegetables and flowers. While the alfombra is a tradition brought over from Spain, the Mayans turned it into a real art. These days, their influence can still be seen in the geometric patterns that are favored for the colorful carpets. While most alfombras are long and rectangular, you may find L shaped ones that run around two sides of a block or even round ones, particularly at intersections.
During the final three days of Semana Santa (Viernes Santo, Sabado de Gloria, and Domingo de la Resurreccion), it would seem that no one sleeps. Even at 2 or 3 in the morning, families can be found in the streets, often with jerry-rigged floodlights, working on their alfombras. The space in front of each house is for the people who live there, but it's not uncommon for entire streets to join together to create more elaborate alfombras. In some areas, teams of artists get permission to take over a section of the street to work on. What was once a way to show penance has become more of a competition in some cases ...with neighbors good-naturedly pitted against neighbors to create more intricate designs.
With multiple processions passing over the same streets, multiple alfombras are often made. Clean up is immediate, with a truck coming right behind the procession and a team of men sweeping and scooping up the debris. Despite their best efforts, some colored sawdust tends to remain in the cracks of the cobbled streets until the rainy season comes to wash it all away.
Interestingly enough, no one seems tempted to walk on the beautiful works of art until the procession arrives. It's an unwritten rule and one that is well-heeded . . . no one ruins an alfombra on purpose.
Depending on the type of carpet, they may cost anywhere from 5,000-10,000 quetzales (US$400-1200), representing a huge cost for the group that takes on the responsibility. Not surprisingly, more and more people are joining up to form groups that work on the carpets, since many families can't afford to do one of their own.
Aserrin or sawdust is one of the more common materials and certainly the most famous and is used in alfombras. Sawdust is tinted with brightly colored dyes and sold by the bag in the market. Many people purchase the colors and dye their own sawdust. The natural dyes are sold in the market and are mixed with water, then mixed into buckets of sawdust. The sawdust has to be dried before it can be used, so this process has to be started at least a few days ahead of time. Stencils or templates are used, and can be quite elaborate. Learn to make your own mini-alfombra in the Semana Santa 101 ebook...
Flowers are often used to adorn simpler alfombras or used entirely to create a carpet of sweet smelling blooms. As a base, you will often find palm branches or long pine needles that release a strong scent when crushed underfoot. These are then decorated with flowers.
While blooms like carnations are among the cheapest, you will often find that no expense is spared, particularly in front of larger organizations and businesses. Roses, lilies and other elegant flowers are used to create beautiful patterns in the streets. These are also kept moist to help the flowers stay alive until the procession arrives.
Frequently, food is used in alfombras. A pine needle mat may be studded with oranges, carrots and melons, for example. The larger fruit, such as watermelon (sandia) and cantaloupe (melón), are usually cut into more elegant shapes, such as scalloped bowls or birds. It's believed that if you put forth your best on these days, then you'll be blessed, so high quality vegetables and fruits are used most of the time.
It's not uncommon to see children and even women, dashing under the feet of the cucuruchos to snatch up the fruit as the procession passes. After all, in the wake of the procession, the fruit will be smashed beyond recognition, requiring only cleanup.
Other plants that are used in the alfombras include corozo, a large pod, which upon being opened, yields hundreds of sticky yellow strands. Both the pod and the strands are used in the alfombras.
Aside from flowers and fruit, you'll also find things like candles, papers with prayers or poems and Bible verses written on them and even glitter adorning the alfombras. Often, clay figures are used, as well, particularly in the shape of doves. Candles may be enclosed in clay pots with holes cut in the sides to keep the wind from blowing them out.
Ventas are one of the more exciting things to see and a huge boost to the informal economy, are the salespeople who wait
at the plazas in front of churches. When the procession enters the church, they have a ready and usually hungry and thirsty audience of thousands.
Commonly sold items include cotton candy of all colors, chupetes, or small suckers made from sugar. Empanadas are also very popular for those who are hungry after a long day of walking with the procession. You'll also find pizza, sodas, bottled water, ice creams, churros, and molletes available from walking vendors or stands.
Visit our Semana Santa Store to get your own Guatemala Holy Week Items...
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