Celebrating Independence Day in Guatemala.

Guatemalan boy and girl in traditional dress.

Guatemalan boy and girl in traditional dress.

Guatemala

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. 

La Conquista

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.

The Colony

Blackness fell upon the land of many trees for many years illuminated only by fires of burning men and ancient gods.

Independence

On September 15, 1821, Guatemala, Cuauhtēmallān, the place of many trees, proclaimed its independence from Spanish Crown.

Celebration

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.

Estrella, the queen this year.

Estrella, the queen this year.

 

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. 

 

Noial, Sofia, and Maya in traditional mayan costumes. The skirt is called corte and the top is gupil. Mayan women in Guatemala wear similar clothes.

Noial, Sofia, and Maya in traditional mayan costumes.

 

Maya and Noial

Maya and Noial

 

 

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.

 

Los varones

Los varones

 

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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 boys climbing the pole

The boys climbing the pole

 

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 girl who reached the top won 200 quetzales (about 28 US$) and shared them with the rest of her team.

Miriam reached the top and won 200 quetzales (about 28 US$). She shared them with the rest of her team.

 

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 calf before being slaughtered

The calf before being slaughtered

 

The next day, the entire village was invited for the barbeque. There were tortillas, black beans, salad and roasted beef galore.

 

The roast

The roast

There was the entire village lining for a piece of meat as well as many visitors from other villages.

Mira enjoying the meal in the company of two Mayan women and their children.

Mira enjoying the meal in the company of two Mayan women and their children.

 

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.

 

The torches of Independencia return after a 19-hour marathon.

The torches of Independencia return after a 19-hour marathon.

 

 

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Maya’s New School

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„Good morning students! This is your new classmate, Maya. She will be studying with us in fourth grade. I want you to welcome her in our class and show her respect. Maya comes from another country, from Canada. We all have to help her to feel welcomed in our school and in our country, Guatemala. We are all happy when someone from another country comes to study with us. That means they want to learn about our country, our culture, and language. But we are also lucky to have them among us because we also learn from them, about their country and culture. The foreign students enrich our knowledge about other places in the world. And this is why today we are very fortunate to have Maya with us, we have to appreciate this. Welcome in fourth grade, Maya! Luis-Pedro, bring a chair and a desk for Maya from the other room and put it over there.“

 

Maya's classroom

Maya’s classroom

 

Facing the class, Maya beside him looking at the cement floor, her heart racing with excitement, el profe Estuardo says these words in Spanish, his right hand resting on Maya’s shoulder. She doesn’t understand what he has just said, she doesn’t speak Spanish yet, but I do. I lean at the door of the classroom peeking inside. About twenty kids in uniforms, from eight to fourteen years old, are standing up very still, listening carefully to their teacher. His words bring tears in my eyes. I will never forget this moment. 

 

Maya's first day at school.

Maya’s classmates on her first day at school.

 

Maya starts school two days after we arrive in Rio Dulce. The subscription procedure takes less than a minute consisting in meeting the teacher and asking him if she can start school. Sure she can, no problem, he answers with a smile, and so she is immediately admitted. No paperwork, no photocopies, no fees. The only thing we have to provide is a few cuadernos (notebooks) and a school uniform.

 

Taking measurements for the school uniform. This woman is the only tailor in the village who makes the girl's uniforms.

Taking measurements for the school uniform. This woman is the only tailor in the village who makes the girl’s skirts.

 

The school is a small one-story building under a great ceiba tree: a row of four classrooms with permanently open doors and windows where a total of about sixty local kids between five and fourteen years of age gather every day from 7:40 am to 12:30 pm. There are a bunch of sun-stricken village dogs who also attend the classes on daily bases walking in and out the open doors, undisturbed, occasionally chasing the neighboring chickens who venture in the schoolyard looking for bugs.

 

Kids in front of the school building

Kids in front of the school building

 

The schoolyard is covered with gravel and mud puddles, with palm trees and flowers that never cease blooming in the humid hot air of Rio Dulce. Between classes, kids run around and women from the village come to sell snacks: coquitos (peeled orange halves with salt and pepper), jugo (juice), heladitos (small ice creams).

 

 

Maya playing with the kids in the schoolyard

Maya playing with the kids in the schoolyard

 

In the morning, instead of a school bus, a lancha passes by to pick up Maya and the other boatkids as well as kids who live further down the river.

 

The school lancha (like a school bus) passes every morning in the anchorage to pick up kids

The school lancha (like a school bus) passes every morning in the anchorage to pick up kids

 

Maya is not the only boatkid going to El Relleno school.

 

Cline, 4, s/v Souricat

Coline, 6, s/v Souricat

 

Noial, Lovam, Ilan, and Coline, also go there.

 

Lovam, 5, s/v FriendShip

Lovam, 5, s/v FriendShip

 

Maya loves her new school. Next Monday, she will be doing an oral presentation about Guatemala’s national flower, La Monja Blanca.

 

 

Maya waiting for the school lancha in the morning

Maya waiting for the school lancha in the morning

 

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