Todos Santos sits high up in the majestic Chuchamatanes Mountains of the Guatemalan department of Huehuetenango. Here one feels as if they are on top of the world. In Spanish, Todos Santos means “all saints.” As so, it is only fitting that the Municipal fair would fall on All Saints Day on November 1st. The height of the yearly fair is the town’s famous drunken horse race. This event is known as Sqech Koya in the local Mam language, or The Rooster Game. It’s a tradition that has been held yearly for centuries.
Extravagant parties mark the days prior to the race. The race leader provides music, alcohol, and food to members of the group, family members, and friends. Each party can cost the group leader between 40,000 to 50,000 quetzales, or nearly $6800 dollars – this also includes the price of renting the horse. During these parties, the racers drink and dance with their wives and the other racers in their group.
The sounds of marimba and joyous celebration drifted across the small town’s streets the day before the race. The participants walked from their homes decked out in ribbons and hats that looked liked a roosters’ crest. Their families came along with them, carrying food and gifts for the families of the group captains.
The race is dangerous. In the past racers have died on the course. But contrary to popular myth, if a rider dies, it isn’t a sign that there will be a good harvest. The dancing, drinking, and celebration act as a final family reunion ahead of the race.
Sqech Koya is much more than just a race of drunken men on horses. The race is steeped in history, memory, and meaning.
“This is a tradition of our people,“ says Rafael, an elderly gentleman from Todos Santos that participated in the race nearly 33 times. “But there is reason to this tradition. The Spanish enslaved the Maya of Guatemala, and told them not to touch the horses, that the horses were only for them.” He added that the Maya were threatened with death should they touch the horses.
In response to these laws, nearly 100 years after the arrival Spanish, defiant residents launched a scheme to steal the horses of the Spanish. Before the heist, they consulted with a Aj Q’ij, the Maya Spiritual Guides, who told the men that they needed to sacrifice a rooster before stealing the horses in order to ask the ancestral spirits for permission.
It is unknown what happened to the men who stole the horses. Odds are that they were caught and executed. But, each year, the memory of their act of defiance lives on in the culture of Todos Santos with this race.