“I think,” suggested the hotel proprietor as he scratched his chin, “you should go out about 3:30 a.m.”
“Three thirty?” we repeated, incredulous.
“Yes, no later.”
I was slightly skeptical that this drastic hour of the morning was necessary to properly see the street “carpets” before the famous La Merced procession started at 6:00 a.m. on Good Friday. But as a general rule, you should always trust the locals. So, 3:30 it was. And I pass the advice on to you. If you go to bed at all, get back on the streets by that typically lonely hour of the night, for, on this occasion, the city of Antigua, Guatemala, is intensely alive; the entire grid of the old town’s cobblestone streets hums with the process of transforming into a spectacular canvas as everyday citizens rise to create a city of art.
My husband and I arrived in Antigua the day before Good Friday for the Semana Santa Easter celebration. We happened to be traveling through Guatemala at Easter time, and I’d read Antigua was a particularly good place to experience this Good Friday festival. So I routed our itinerary through this city to catch it, but I had no idea what to expect of the celebration. (In truth, this is my favorite way to travel … void of expectation.)
Shortly after arriving, we climbed a hill for an overlook of the city. As we came back down toward the center of town, we were surprised to find people huddled in the middle of one of the cobblestone streets with piles of colored sand beside them and a sort of scaffolding just above the street surface, sprinkling the sand into stencils, forming beautiful, brightly colored patterns. “How very cool,” we said to one another.
We watched them for a while and moved on. When we rounded the corner and saw another group of people in the street with another scaffold and sand, it was one of those moments of prickled excitement when suddenly you grasp what you are in for. That night, just as the proprietor said, the Antiguans would come out in droves to work together to fill their old city center with these sand “carpets.”
As we continued to walk around, we ran into what would be the first of numerous brass bands marching slowly through the streets. The music, almost a dirge, sounded as if it wasn’t quite up to speed on a record player, or the musicians had all been given the same mild sedative. Yet, for that, I found it catchy. Years later, I can still replay it in my head.
We came across a series of wooden, painted scenes on small rolling carts, one scene per cart. Parked one behind the other, it was essentially a train of the 12 Stations of the Cross. Even though I’m not a Catholic, the scenes touched me purely on their artistic merit. They were carved and painted a long, long time ago, but the artists captured such realistic and human expressions on the faces. The one that sticks with me most is Jesus tied to the cross, and the cross is just starting to be lifted up off the ground, still mostly horizontal, the even more excruciating pain of the verticality only seconds away. I was completely drawn in to imagining, to seeing, the purity of raw fear, knowing one’s fate is inescapable. While children romped past my knees and cotton candy vendors walked by me with their pink spools of sugar, I tried to imagine psyching myself up for that kind of torture.
We settled in for a brief night’s rest and got up at the suggested hour. Three-thirty a.m. was definitely the time to be up and about; the city was full of people. Not just the city inhabitants-turned-temporary-artisans, but also throngs of visitors watching the creations emerge throughout the night. Bright street lights powered by generators lit the cobbled canvases. The pride the Antiguans take in this celebration was humbling, spending their own money to buy sand and stencils, or fruit and plants, and to rent lights, all to exist for such a brief period of time. What the carpets lack in temporal space, they gain in human consciousness. That is to say, though the world outside sees them only briefly, they live long inside the memories of thousands of witnesses.
The carpets were made from various things. For a sand creation, a thick layer of sawdust was put down and carefully graded over the rough cobblestones until the top surface was perfectly smooth and flat so the stencils could be laid out. Others were built primarily from plants. A layer of long pine needles was laid down first, and then designs were fashioned from fresh flowers and seeds, fruits and vegetables. The carpets varied in size, generally about eight or nine feet across and anywhere from 20 to 60 feet long.
While it was still dark, men dressed as Roman soldiers came down the streets to herald the beginning of the La Merced procession, keeping to the sides of the carpets and holding long spears before them. At 2 a.m., three prisoners (petty offenders) of the Antigua jail had been set free, and soldiers now pushed them roughly down the street, their wrists bound up to a beam lying across their shoulders, heads bowed low, looking far more ashamed than relieved to be set free.
At 6:00 a.m., we squeezed into the park beside La Merced, a cheerful yellow cathedral whose white ornamentation looks like lace, to watch the floats emerge from within. These “floats” are carved from solid wood—a long, rectangular platform with a scene on top. Many of the floats used today were made in the 1700s. From La Merced came a float of Jesus dressed in red, carrying on his left shoulder the cross of his destiny. I could see that small pads were spaced along the bottom of the platform for the men to rest it on their shoulders. It requires 80 purple-clad men to carry this float, 40 on each side. And one man, dressed in white, walked at the front of the float, his arms completely stretched out as though he himself were a cross, to hold two large pegs at the length of his arms. With these he guided the float out of the church and down the middle of the streets.
We moved out of the park to a less-crowded side street to watch the procession go by. In the dawn light, a fleet of men dressed from head to toe in light purple filed down the street edges holding banners of words or portraits. And we were washed with incense. Tens of men walked by carrying silver incense burners that they swung back and forth at the end of a long chain. Thick clouds billowed up, so at times I couldn’t see the people just on the other side of the street. This all happened in virtual silence, and the whole while a river of men dressed in darker purple with white head-cloths passed by along the gutters. These were the reserve float-carriers: every few blocks the men must trade out from beneath the heavy float.
The float continually swayed to the sides, as though all 80 men were staggering beneath it, or as if it got caught on a wave in the ocean. After about a block, it would even start to sway backwards. Moving backward, and side to side, and then, with no verbal commands, it would suddenly surge forward, and the procession moved on. It hadn’t fully occurred to me until then that the parade would walk over and trample the carpets. As I stood and watched the man in white step onto one of these sand carpets, I drew in my breath, almost aghast. All that work, all through the night, decimated as 80 more men shuffled through the masterpieces. Everyone else had been so careful to walk along the sides. It was only this float that trod on the path of such delicate beauty, which was sacrificed in an instant to its momentum.
Behind this float walked a man with a timpani drum and a brass band. Alternately, the drum pounded out a solemn marching beat—pom, pom, pom—and the brass band played its dirgeful tune. A smaller float of the Virgin Mary followed in the same fashion, carried by 40 women dressed in black, and the guiding woman in white. Five small floats of angelic women, carried by only a few people each, came behind, accompanied by another river of reserve women and another brass band.
Hardly had the procession passed before the Antiguans came out with their brooms to sweep away the debris of the carpets. The procession continued through the streets for eight hours, at last coming back to La Merced at 2 p.m., where the floats were backed into the church. But other processions had started up during the day originating from other churches within the city, with equally massive and impressive floats, and the last one would not end until midnight. We gathered in the city square to see the floats lit up at night with electric lights strung all over them, while Mass was performed over loud-speakers. I didn’t understand any of it, being in Spanish, but that took nothing away from the experience of standing in the crowd of humble believers and awed tourists in the warm Antiguan night, ethereal lights hovering above the crowd.
That day, I had lost myself in the throngs of people and followed the processions for blocks. Despite my fascination and abiding admiration of the carpets in the streets and the fleetingness of their existence, the thing that stood out most to me, the thing that captivated me was the floats—the number of people it took to stagger and carry them, the swaying, the surging, almost as if the floats were alive on their own. The only people who touch the beautiful carpets, who can erase the product of so many hours of devotion with the soles of their feet, are the float-bearers. In American parades, the floats are all motor-driven or pulled behind a vehicle; they roll on inanimate rubber wheels. So much more sensory is this Semana Santa celebration, the observers carrying what they are celebrating right on their shoulders, feeling it physically.
All those purple men know the weight of Easter.