Multi-colored petals rain down on a palm frond-bedecked float, a small statue of Jesus on a donkey buried at its center. It’s not yet 7 a.m. in Santiago Atitlán, but for a small group of men and women who represent the cofradía, Palm Sunday is already in full swing.
A majority indigenous town, Santiago Atitlán displays a interesting mixture of religious syncretism during Semana Santa or the Holy Week leading up to Easter, mixing Maya dress, belief, and tradition with Catholicism. The cofradía, an indigenous group of religious community leaders, exemplifies this mixing, melding Maya and Catholic myth and custom. At the gathering, young boys wearing purple robes and elaborate purple-white flowered headdresses deriven from the Spanish tradition contrast older men wearing the traditional handwoven traje of the Tz’utujil Maya. From women’s huipiles to men’s pants, embroidered birds are everywhere, a symbol specific to the Santiago Atitlán community.
Later on in the morning, a larger procession will follow the intimate cofradía procession, claiming separation from the cofradía as a more purely Catholic denomination. However, even in these festivities, Santiago’s syncretism is visibly evident —vibrant, traditional indigenous traje or dress still features prominently in these processions.
As the first, early morning procession begins to gather, members of the cofradía arrive, shaking hands in greeting and pausing to take cell phone photos with the figure of Jesus amidst his palm fronds. Later on in Holy Week, the mood is darker, the air heavy with the sadness of reliving Christ’s death. But on Palm Sunday, the early morning air is jovial, filled with smiles as different members weigh in on the tilt of the statue’s halo while a man perched atop of the palm fronds listens, painstakingly adjusting the metal shape.
After a priest blesses the crowd with sprays of Holy water, men raise the litter that holds the float of Jesus as music emerges from large speakers set up beside the Church. The procession does not travel far, moving only a short distance from the small square beside the church to the town’s main square and then into the church’s larger chamber. However brief, it leaves a tangible trail, marked by the flower petals thrown during the procession.
In addition to the petals, male cofradía leaders hold branches of palm fronds, dotted with small flowers. According to Christian tradition, the people of Jerusalem welcomed Jesus by waving palm fronds and laying them at his feet. Today, Palm Sunday mimics this welcoming to Jerusalem in the gestures of these fronds, held in this procession by the male leaders of the cofradía.
Climbing up the church’s lofty stone steps, the procession ends inside with a mass that will encompass several hours of prayer, hymn, and sermon.
Though without flower petals, the second procession will more than double this distance, traversing a circular route through the town from its outskirts to the main square. The second procession also doubles the cofradía’s energy, including a pickup truck jacked with several giant speakers followed by a crowd of palm-frond-waving, dancing processors.
With the end of the second procession, the separation between cofradía and a more pure Catholic tradition diminishes as families line up along the town square Church steps for a larger, outdoor mass just past ten a.m. Displaced petals and palm fronds are the procession’s only remnants —a mark of the annual journey taken by Jesus and the population of Santiago Atitlán.