The Rooster Game


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.

Sqech Koya, or the Rooster Games, falls on All Saints day in Todos Santos, the same time as the municipal fair. In this picture, two groups of young men overlook the fair grounds in the center of town. Photo: Jeff Abbott/Comvite

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.

A young girl looks skyward as the men watch the arrival of the horses to Todos Santos below. Photo: Jeff Abbott/Comvite

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.

Participants of one of the groups begin to walk from the family’s home to the house of the group Captain. Photo: Jeff Abbott/Comvite

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.

Group Captain, William Mendoza, welcomes the participants to his house for the beginning of the festivities prior to the race. Photo: Jeff Abbott/Comvite

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.

Group Captain, William Mendoza, shares a shot with two participants in the races. Photo: Jeff Abbott/Comvite

Participants in Sqech Koya dance the night before the race. Photo: Jeff Abbott/Comvite

One of the participants walks through a covered area of the house of group Captain William Mendoza. Photo: Jeff Abbott/Comvite

A participant dances with his niece prior to the race. Photo: Jeff Abbott/Comvite

Two participants race down the track in Todos Santos. Photo: Jeff Abbott/Comvite

A participant flies down the track in the Sqech Koya race on November 1. Photo: Jeff Abbott/Comvite

The race can be dangerous. One participant walks down the track after a fall. Photo: Jeff Abbott/Comvite

Participants pass spectators that have gathered on the top of houses along the track. Photo: Jeff Abbott/Comvite

Sqech Koya means the Rooster Games in Maya Mam. Here one group Captain carries a rooster down the track to symbolize the sacrifice of the roosters prior to the original theft of the Spanish horses. Photo: Jeff Abbott/Comvite

A participant walks down the track following a fall from one of the horses. Photo: Jeff Abbott/Comvite

All Saints day is pushed forward one day in Todos Santos for the race. Here a woman lights candles at the grave of a loved one in commemoration of All Saints Day. Photo: Jeff Abbott/Comvite

The festivities of Sqech Koya continue before and after the race. Here members of one group carry a Marimba through the Todos Santos Cemetery. Photo: Jeff Abbott/Comvite

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