Cuauhtēmallān, a place of many trees, of monumental stone structures in the midst of cloud forests, the cradle of the Mayan Civilization, one of the most biodiverse corners of the planet. Color of maize, scent of cacao, sound of a feathered serpent in the misty depths of the highlands.
There was a brave and magical prince of stone in the place of many trees: Tecun Uman.
There came from the belly of a great ship a cruel god with shiny armor, like a red sun, to take the land and the souls of the maize men and their lord Tecun Uman.
There they were face to face Tecun Uman with all his warriors and captain Pedro de Alvarado with an army of beasts and weapons of thunder. Tecun Uman and his warriors never surrendered, attacking many times, until the prince fell mortally wounded. When he died, blackness fell upon the land of many trees.
Blackness fell upon the land of many trees for many years illuminated only by fires of burning men and ancient gods.
On September 15, 1821, Guatemala, Cuauhtēmallān, the place of many trees, proclaimed its independence from Spanish Crown.
Now September 15 is a day of jubilation like no other. The entire country celebrates after weeks of preparations.
The celebrations in Rio Dulce spanned for many days starting with a beauty pageant in the school. One girl is chosen to represent every class. Then the kids from the entire school vote secretly to choose the most beautiful one. It is an impossible task as they are all magnificent.
Another activity to celebrate Independence Day on September 15 organized by the school is a dance competition. The kids, after many days of practice, perform a traditional dance wearing trajes (traditional costumes) in front of parents and friends. While in many parts of the world traditional native dress has disappeared, the indigenous women of Guatemala still proudly wear their trajes identifying with their ancestry through them. They are also village-specific, every region has its own traditional dress. In the region of Lago Izabal the women’s traje consist of a long pleated corte (skirt) and a colorful lace huipil (shirt). The fabric for the skirts is very expensive, so is the huipil. We had to borrow them for a day from a K’iche woman so that Maya could participate in the danse.
The indigenous men’s clothing in Guatemala, unlike the indigenous women’s clothing, is disappearing at a fast pace. It is still visible, especially in the smaller towns, but in most places jeans from the north have already replaced the hand-woven textiles that formed pants or shorts identifying each man’s region and heritage. For the traditional school dance the boys showed up wearing traditional men costumes. I think, much more impressive than jeans.
El palo ensebado
Then there was a traditional palo ensebado (greasy pole climbing). This ancient tradition has its origins in Naples, Italy in the 16th century. In Spain and in other European countries similar rituales known as el árbol de mayo and la cucaña were practised in time of religious celebrations as a cult to the gods, where dancing around the post symbolized a prayer for fertility both for the land and for the women. With the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors and the catholic religion in the New World, the ritual was adopted by the local populations. Today, it is a tradition that has lost its religious significance and has become a fun game and a dangerous challenge.
For more about the game, its origins, history, and variations, read (in Spanish) here.
The kids from the school helped to erect a 10 meter high wooden pole greased with butter in the schoolyard. An envelop with 200 quetzals was stuck on top. The kids split in two teams, boys vs. girls, and for about one hour struggled to get to the top. There was much laughter and screaming and an impressive demonstration of teamwork. Finally the girls, after piling up on five levels, won.
The celebration was complete with a roast for the entire village. On the morning of the second to last day of celebrations a gift from the mayor of the neighboring village arrived: a cow. The cow, a young male calf, came in a small pickup truck and was brought to a slaughter place to be sacrificed.
The next day, the entire village was invited for the barbeque. There were tortillas, black beans, salad and roasted beef galore.
There was the entire village lining for a piece of meat as well as many visitors from other villages.
In the evening, there was a dance party which ended with the arrival of the torches at midnight. La marcha de antorchas is the greatest of traditions celebrating Independence Day in Guatemala. Thousands of Guatemaltecos from the entire country participate each year in organized marathons that last over 12 hours. Starting early in the morning people of all ages join on the streets and run for many kilometers carrying lit torches. The participants from El Relleno started at 5 in the morning, ran to the border of Honduras, over 50 kilometers, and returned at midnight. The sight of people running with torches in the night is unforgettable.