As I entered the small town of Antigua, the former capital of Guatemala, the myriad sights overwhelmed me. The old city is colorful and diverse, scattered with ruined and/or restored colonial structures and small homes. The buildings–painted in vibrant shades of blue, yellow, pink, and green–are strung together like splashes of paint on the canvas of cobblestone roads. And the inhabitants are just as colorful as their environs. Many continue their cultural heritage by weaving their own clothing (traje). Each village has its own traditional designs (huipil), woven in traditional patterns with superbly vivid colors that identify the origins of the wearer.
I was in Guatemala to participate in a photography workshop that included field trips through the countryside in the back of a pickup truck, the typical mode of transportation for Guatemalans. The highlight of our workshop occurred on November first, when we spent the day traveling to the cemeteries of the surrounding towns to join in the celebration of Todos Santos or All Saints Day–a very special day in Guatemala. Villagers observe this holiday by spending time with their family members and friends—those living as well as those deceased. They celebrate life by beautifying the graves with flowers and other brilliantly colored ornamental items. Then, they enjoy a graveside picnic feast as they relate stories to the living about the loved ones who have passed away and tell the departed the most recent family news. They also write notes to their deceased loved ones and attach them to kites before the children fly the kites high into the sky to deliver their messages. The skies fill with shapes and colors, suggesting birds rushing to the heavens.
We visited three very different cemeteries. Struggling to stay in the back of the pickup truck over the intermittent bumps and potholes, I peered through the dust to see that we were entering an enchanting and serene countryside leading toward a small aldea (village). As we entered the village, the site of our first cemetery visit, a crowd of dogs and children chased the truck to greet us. The wagging tails and happy smiles were delightful invitations to exit the truck. We found a petite, informal cemetery behind the village. It was a very poor village, so that the cemetery plots were simply mounds of dirt and grass, as if the ground had simply swallowed the dead. Some of the burial sites bore old, cracked headstones, but the graves of poorer villagers were marked with nothing but a crucifix made from rotted wood or tree branches.
We wandered through the tranquil cemetery, taking photographs. There were very few people there, but I began a conversation with some young boys who were playing in a tree and flying homemade kites. They were a bit shy but very sweet. After allowing me to take photos of them, they invited me to join their family in quiet celebration. I followed them to a grave where the family was lunching, and the boys introduced me to everyone. Our group suffered from a minor language barrier (I hadn’t spoken Spanish in almost ten years), but we still enjoyed talking with each other.
After ascertaining that I was single and childless, one of the women asked me if I would be willing to meet her brother. She was hoping that I would like him enough to volunteer to settle down in the village to help him raise his six children! Flustered and embarrassed, I inquired about his age and discovered–to my surprise—that our ages matched. I thought he looked much older. His wife had passed away recently, and we had been picnicking on her grave. I must confess that I felt uncomfortable as he kept looking at me with a big smile and a shy little wave. I explained that he seemed very nice, but I must return to the United States. Subsequently, I made my retreat to rejoin my group.
The second, much larger cemetery greeted us with a grand air of festivity. A mass of balloons and paper ornaments decorated the entry gates and carnival booths that led into the cemetery. Vendors hawked local delights such as tropical fruits, roasted meats, beverages, and–of course–delectable sweets. As I passed the carnival and entered the cemetery, my senses overloaded with color and activity. The tombstones, looking like ruins scarred with large fissures, stood in a variety of shapes and colors. Small headstones no bigger than speed limit signs were scattered among other headstones that were as big as the side of a house. All were painted in a rainbow of bright pastels shades that ranged from sunny yellow to electrified sky blue. Visitors were forced to use ladders to completely decorate the larger gravestones. One family tombstone displayed an antique large, framed black-and-white photograph of a woman. Two huge green wreaths adorned with yellow and white flowers surrounded the photo while an additional green garland drooped over the top. Dozens of beautiful, fragrant flowers festooned the grave – at least twelve large bouquets crowded with over twenty gorgeous varieties of blooms. And this sight repeated itself time and again on gravestones throughout the cemetery.
The overall impression was one of a decorating competition. People were ingenious in their creativity. Handmade wreaths were fashioned from all types of floral arrangements into every imaginable shape–even hearts. Candles, photos, and other mementoes dressed the tombstones in celebration of the lives of those who had left for another world. However, the “competition” didn’t stop with decorations. Magnificent kites created a kaleidoscope of color as they soared overhead. Both store-bought and handmade, the kites had been designed in various shapes, sizes, colors, and themes. One kite even looked like a devil. The rush of photo opportunities overwhelmed our workshop participants. We despaired at the suggestion of leaving, but we couldn’t hide our excitement at the thought of what might be in store for us at our next stop.
Our pickup truck arrived at the third and final cemetery on our tour to the festive sounds of a ten-piece band. Men dressed in old black suits performed traditional songs in an old, one-sided tin shack. At this more moderately sized cemetery, vendors were pushing their carts and selling beverages, homemade ices, and snacks to the many families who were busily decorating and picnicking on the graves. The peddlers wove through the crowds to visit with each family, greeting each member with warm familiarity. Children ran through the graveyard laughing and chasing their kites, a sight common to all three village cemeteries. Many of us purchased drinks and danced with the locals. I was particularly touched by the ironic juxtaposition of burial plots that were bare and without visitors. Although accustomed to seeing neglected cemetery plots in the United States, here they seemed out of place.
We returned to the town of Antigua in time to witness a religious procession that passed directly in front of our truck. Jumping out, we ran ahead to shoot our last photos before sunset. Thousands of people from nearby villages had come to Antigua to participate in this procession, and the streets were colored with the beautiful petals of a variety of flowers. Groups of men dressed in dark robes marched through the streets, tramping over the petal designs, carrying coffins and crosses. Watching and shooting the procession was an incredible ending to one of my most memorable days—an experience that was both a physical and a spiritual journey through photography.
To find out more about Art Workshops in Guatemala, visit www.artguat.org or call (612) 825-0747.
By Lisa Strick