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Alfombra: Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala

La alfombra

Creating an alfombra for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

Alfombra sawdust carpet at a procession for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

Horns were bellowing a death march. A loud drum kept the beat. Boom. Boom. Boom. It was an eerie orchestration that had been the soundtrack to Antigua throughout lent. If you weren’t hearing it from a procession you were hearing it from a boombox in someone’s window. The air was thick with smoke from lanterns of copal incense children swung in tune (and often out of tune. And often in any direction they chose). Men shrouded in purple tunics swarmed the avenida.

My heart was racing. My hands, trembling, pink. Tears were welling in my eyes.

One step. One moment.

That was all it took for two days worth of work to be wiped away.

Alfombras, carpets, are a traditional part of Antigua, Guatemala’s Semana Santa — Holy Week. These elaborate designs made of sawdust, fruits, vegetables, and other materials pave the streets throughout the week before Easter (and for all of lent), guiding the paths of the processions that wind through the streets of the town. Some families work all through the night to create masterpieces. And, after the procession passes, there is nothing left but a pile of sawdust (or trampled fruits and grass).

The morning before Palm Sunday, Sabado, my classmates and I congregated in our escuala to dye the sawdust we would use to create the designs on our carpet. Our Alfombra.

Piles of sawdust were poured onto plastic sheets and each one was topped with a colored powder. The first step was to mix it all together. At this point it never looked like our sawdust would ever be anything other than the color of sawdust. After a proper mixing, it maybe had a slight tinge of pink, but nothing at all noticeable.

The next step was to knead. We squeezed the sawdust between our palms. Hard. Harder. The sawdust began to change, a color resembling a faint salmon. Our hands, however, were fuchsia. Still, it looked like our sawdust, our medium, would never be one of the vivid colors we’d witnessed on other’s alfombras.

And then, a man came around with hot buckets of water. He poured them onto our sawdust and, as we worked, the color began to deepen. Finally, it was ready.

The next day, Domingo, Palm Sunday, over breakfast on a rooftop terrace, my amigas and I watched as our teachers created the base. The calle our school is on slopes in the middle, so a lot of sand needed to be poured to create a straight surface. We watched as they created the structure. The inside shapes. The inside designs.

And then, it was our turn. We sat on the outskirts of the carpet, delicately pressing our colored sand, dried overnight, over wooden stencils. Orange here. Purple here. Pink here. White salt there.

For hours we followed the patterns around the perimeter. And watched as the stencils were lifted, our imperfect designs revealer. And then we places branches around the edges. And then, our alfombra was done. Complete. Ready. Listo.

More and more people crowded the street, carefully staying to the side of our carpet, looking on, taking photos, awaiting the oncoming procession.

And then, it turned the corner.

Horns were bellowing a death march. A loud drum kept the beat. Boom. Boom. Boom. The air was thick with smoke from lanterns of copal incense children swung in tune. Men shrouded in purple tunics swarmed the avenida.

My heart was racing. My hands, trembling, pink. Tears were welling in my eyes. 

One step. One moment.

That was all it took for two days worth of work to be wiped away.

A man in white, a man holding up the front of the wooden anda float depicting Jesus carrying a cross, stepped forward. And then all the men carrying the float walked across it. And then all the men in purple. And then the crowd. And then, the carpet was nothing more than a pile of sawdust, ready to be swept away.

Dying sawdust to make an alfombra for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

Dying sawdust to make an alfombra for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

Dying sawdust to make an alfombra for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

Dying sawdust to make an alfombra for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

Dying sawdust to make an alfombra for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

Dying sawdust to make an alfombra for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

Dying sawdust to make an alfombra for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

Dying sawdust to make an alfombra for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

Dying sawdust to make an alfombra for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

Dying sawdust to make an alfombra for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

Dying sawdust to make an alfombra for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

Dying sawdust to make an alfombra for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

Dying sawdust to make an alfombra for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

Dying sawdust to make an alfombra for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

Dying sawdust to make an alfombra for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

Dying sawdust to make an alfombra for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

Dying sawdust to make an alfombra for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

Creating an alfombra sawdust carpet for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

Creating an alfombra sawdust carpet for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

Creating an alfombra sawdust carpet for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

Creating an alfombra sawdust carpet for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

Creating an alfombra sawdust carpet for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

Creating an alfombra sawdust carpet for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

Creating an alfombra sawdust carpet for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

Creating an alfombra sawdust carpet for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

Creating an alfombra sawdust carpet for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

Creating an alfombra sawdust carpet for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

Creating an alfombra sawdust carpet for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

Creating an alfombra sawdust carpet for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

Creating an alfombra sawdust carpet for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

Creating an alfombra sawdust carpet for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

Creating an alfombra sawdust carpet for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

Creating an alfombra sawdust carpet for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

Creating an alfombra sawdust carpet for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

Creating an alfombra sawdust carpet for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

Creating an alfombra sawdust carpet for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

Creating an alfombra sawdust carpet for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

Alfombra sawdust carpet at a procession for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

Alfombra sawdust carpet at a procession for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

Alfombra sawdust carpet at a procession for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

Alfombra sawdust carpet at a procession for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

Alfombra sawdust carpet at a procession for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

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