Custom and Ceremony
Although customs vary region to region,ceremonial life at the Southern Coast is every bit as traditional as in the highlands. In the first place, both regions celebrate the same saints on the same days as one another. Both are tied to the Catholic calendar. Secondly, while Catholic celebrations in the highlands have lower turn-out each year, ceremonial life at the Coast continues as before. Religious processions and celebrations, activities of the religious brotherhoods (cofradias), and Maya ceremonies are an integral part of coastal life.
In both regions, the seasonal round of festivals and religious fairs is relentless. It never ends. In addition, many towns celebrate their saint on his feast day and then again a week later. Likewise, all towns celebrate Holy Week and Christmas Eve. Many towns also honor a second, minor saint. Also, no matter who is the patron saint, in every town there are cofradias dedicated to other saints. They too have their religious festivals.
Despite similarities between regions, there is one coastal religious festival that has no counterpart in the highlands: Carnaval Mazateco. This is a celebration of Fat Tuesday, the beginning of Lent. Mazate’s Carnaval imitates larger, more famous celebrations such as our Mardi Gras, or Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro. In Guatemala, however, Mazate’s version of Carnaval is unmatched. In other towns of the Republic, that day, school children fill egg shells with confetti and powder and bust them over people’s heads. At times, for fun, they use plain eggs.
The desfile (parade) starts off with the departmental indigenous queen in the lead. She is the Nim Ali Xochiltepec, crowned in an election in Mazatenango a few days earlier. However, next come the departmental beauty queens adorned in lavish, yet skimpy outfits, which appear the work of Hollywood designers. What really identifies Carnaval Mazateco, however, are groups of scantily-clad spokes-models gyrating to rythyms a little less sophisticated than those of New Orleans or Rio, I’m afraid.
What predominates in Carnaval are groups of school children parading. Some wear uniforms. Others dress in Maya fashion or as Xinka or Garifuna, the other two indigenous groups within Guatemala. Still others copy the spokes-models. These children come from throughout the Southern Coast to participate. At a point by the main arch in the parade route, people squirt a lot of water. Some actually use hoses. Therefore, it’s risky for cameras.
Carnaval once enthralled me. I now stay away, but not so much for the risk to my camera. It’s that today I devote myself more to cultural activities, and avoid the prurient appeal of Carnaval. I consider too that school parades threaten the Maya culture by indoctrinating children to abandon their cultural identity. But, I’ve got to admit, Carnaval Mazateco is fun.