Folklore

Pinhole: Jesus and Maximón Dance Together

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Faces peer out of windows, doorways, rooftops and street corners. Feet line up almost every square foot of space available on the edges of Santiago Atitlán’s incense-infused cobbled streets. From great-grandparents to newborn babies, almost everyone has arrived to watch the culmination of a week of Semana Santa traditions and celebration: night-long processions that consume almost all of Good Friday.

For the syncretic Maya-Catholic cofradía tradition prevalent in many indigenous communities of Guatemala like Santiago Atitlán, Good Friday offers the week’s largest demonstration of this unique fusion of cultures. Participants in the cofradía’s Good Friday traditions will symbolically relive Jesus’s crucifixion, removing him from his cross to be placed in a gilded, flower-covered coffin. This casket will rest atop a heavy wooden float, carried by several dozen men in a procession that lasts from evening until dawn, when the mourners will return Jesus to the main church. In a show of Santiago’s syncretism, an effigy of the Maya deity Maximón, also known to the Tz’utijil Maya as the “Rilaj Mam” or “great-grandfather” of Santiago Atitlán, will follow Jesus’s procession. As music alternates between traditional Maya drum and flute and a full instrumental band, Maximón and his entourage and Jesus and his penitents will take turns performing the slow procession movements and dance that define each of their traditions.

Alfombras, patterned designs handmade from colored sawdust and flower petals, provide a carpet the marks the procession’s path. As the processions inch forwards hour by hour into the night, they will leave a recognizable mark of kicked sawdust, incense fumes, and the discarded soda cans of the heavy-lifiting carriers of Jesus’s float. It is a rare night without sleep for the small town, most of whom who will remain awake until Jesus and his Tz’utijil brother Maximón return to their church and chapel as the sun rises on Lake Atitlán.

Inside Santiago’s main church, members of the cofradía use long, padded wooden poles to raise a depiction of Jesus on his cross as participants symbolically relive his crucifixion at the start of Good Friday. Photo: Anna Watts/Comvite

Inside Santiago’s main church, members of the cofradía use long, padded wooden poles to raise a depiction of Jesus on his cross as participants symbolically relive his crucifixion at the start of Good Friday. Photo: Anna Watts/Comvite

 

Men turn towards the church’s doors to carry the large, heavy wooden float bearing Jesus’s flower-adorned coffin out of the main doors to begin the procession through Santiago Atitlán’s streets. Photo: Anna Watts/Comvite

Boys dressed in the traditional traje, or indigenous dress, of Santiago Atitlán swing thuribles of incense to lead the way in Good Friday processions. Photo:Anna Watts/Comvite

Jesus’s float, tilts as it is carried down the many stone steps outside of the church and into the expecting crowd of tourists, visitors, and community members come to watch the procession. Photo: Anna Watts/Comvite

The statue of Jesus rests in his coffin atop the heads of the more than a dozen men who will carry the heavy float through the streets. At around midnight, a new group of men will take over the job, eventually returning the statue to the church around dawn. Photo: Anna Watts/Comvite

Men carrying the float wear the traje típico of Santiago Atitlán, elaborately embroidered with intricate birds in honor of the celebration. Located near two volcanoes and dense forests, Santiago Atitlán is home to many different species of birds, which typically feature prominently in the traditional handwoven and embroidered clothing of both men and women. Photo: Anna Watts/Comvite

A member of the cofradía carries an effigy of Maximon above the crowds following the float of Jesus. Photo: Anna Watts/Comvite

Maximon rises above bystanders as the cofradía turns him in a slow circular dance that occurs every few feet during Good Friday processions. Photo: Anna Watts/Comvite

Female members of the cofradía hold candles protected by banana leaves to lead Maximon’s way during the procession. Photo: Anna Watts/Comvite

Maximon rises above bystanders as the cofradía turns him in a slow circular dance that occurs every few feet during Good Friday processions. Photo: Anna Watts/Comvite

Girls watch as penitents carry Jesus’s coffin through Santiago Atitlán’s main square. Photo: Anna Watts/Comvite

Crowds hold candles while night falls as they wait for the procession to arrive through the streets of Santiago Atitlán. Photo: Anna Watts/Comvite

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