Saintly Carpets

Posted on April 22, 2011

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An alfombra ready and waiting for the procession to arrive

Living in Latin America, I find the rituals and customs of Catholicism fascinating.  Semana Santa is perhaps the most tradition-infused time of the year.  Since Holy Week is a national holiday, I spent the past few vacation days travelling through the Ruta de las Flores in western El Salvador.  In several of the small colonial villages along this colorful route, we were audience to elaborate events and processions in preparation for Easter Sunday.  Among the numerous traditions celebrated during Semana Santa, one of the most interesting (and aesthetically appealing) is that of creating alfombras de flores.

The custom derives from Matthew 21, which describes Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem, now known as Palm Sunday.  The masses celebrated his arrival by throwing their robes on the road to literally pave the way for him, creating a ceremonial carpet for his donkey to walk on.  In that vein, several communities throughout Central America (at least in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, though I’m not certain of the prevalence in the rest of Latin America) carry on the tradition of laying down saintly carpets for processions of youth and adults carrying moveable monuments of the Christ and the Virgin.

Fabricated of flower petals or dyed salt, saw dust, and other materials, the alfombras are akin to Tibetan mandalas.  They serve as a sort of meditation, with the designers putting in hours of work to create a beautiful motif that in a few minutes’ time is destroyed as the processional marches over it.  The reward lies in the hard work put in by the participants, a dicho labor of love.  Here, we see a bit of the process for one alfombra created by children for a children’s processional in Juayua:

A Portrait of the Young Artists at Work

This was a simple alfombra from a small-town celebration.  The material was unique, however:  rather than utilizing the standard sawdust and salt combination, this coffee-growing community created carpets with the shucked shells of coffee beans.  How’s that for recycling?

A Boy Bearing the Processional Altar

Other communities compose elaborate, ornate alfombras that stretch down the length of entire blocks, filling the city with intricate imagery and colorful designs.  Some families have been creating alfombras for hundreds of years.  The motifs reflect not only religious themes, but social, historical, and natural ones as well.  In the indigenous town of Izalco, for instance, several carpets lining the cobblestone paths memorialized native figures and symbols, while others highlighted the natural landscape of the nearby volcano and sugarcane valley.  (Unfortunately, I accidentally erased those images from my camera, boo!)

Procession Underway, Alfombra Underfoot

Whether Catholic or not, there is much to be learned from these centuries-old traditions.  Seeing these children patiently making an artistic creation with their red-stained hands, for instance, urges me to reflect and meditate through a physical craft or skill.  In your time off or in the midst of family gatherings this weekend, I hope you can find a chance to simply work with hard effort and mindful concentration on something you enjoy, whether it be creating a beautiful artwork or cooking a pot of beans.  Sometimes the reward comes in the process, the doing, the living out of traditions, and the love with which you devote yourself to the task at hand.

What Remains after the Parade

Happy Easter!

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