It Hadn’t Happened in 800 Years– Until Now!

The celebration of Diá de la  Independencia (the Guatemalan Independence Day) was great, however I never could have imagined the magnitude of the enormous religious procession coming up just 9 days later on September 24, 2018!  El Jubileo De La Merced, an unbelievably impressive procession, was to commemorate the 800th (800th!!) anniversary of the founding of the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy (Orden de La Merced or Order of Merced) on August 10, 1218 in Barcelona, Spain, some 558 years before the founding of the United States!
Iglesia de La Merced, Antigua Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

This Order, known as the Mercedarians, established a church here in Guatemala back in 1548. The original church was destroyed by earthquakes and re-built a couple of times until the current structure dating back to the 1800s was built here in Antigua. The Iglesia de La Merced (Church of the Merced), where the procession began, is probably Antigua’s most ornate church and is quite beautiful. It is located just up the street from the Spanish school that I attend. This “jubilee” was a one-time celebration, not something that has happened ever before! And I was lucky enough to be here! 

I learned that this was the procession of Jesús Nazareno de La Merced together with Nuestra Señora de La Merced (Virgin Mary). I had seen a map of the route and I noticed that it was actually coming down our street (where I live with the family) the day of the procession by early in the afternoon.  On actual the day, I was eager to see the procession so walked up the route in reverse to try to find it. As I did, I came across beautiful alfombras (street carpets) that people had made or were in the process of putting the finishing touches on. Some were amazingly stunning! 

In preparation for the procession, many neighborhoods and families had

Alfombra, Antigua Guatemala 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

created these beautiful alfombras which are made of sand, colored sawdust or plant materials such as pine needles, and decorated with plants, flowers, fruits and vegetables. (Alfombras are also made during the week before Easter so these are well-known in Antigua). Many people had begun very early in the morning to create them, constructing them directly on the cobblestone streets of Antigua. 

Alfombra, Antigua Guatemala 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

In order to prepare the area for the alfombras, the cobbestones are covered with a layer of leveled sand to create a good base. Then plant materials such as flowers, leaves, flower petals and pine needles, or natural and colored sawdust is then used to create the carpets. The sawdust is prepared by sifting it through a screen to keep any rough pieces from ruining the intricate patterns that are soon to be created. Richly colored dyes are then added to the sawdust. Once the colored sawdust is ready, the beautiful carpets are created by spreading the prepared sawdust over the layer of sand. Then various designs inspired by Mayan tradition, 

Alfombra, Antigua Guatemala 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

religious beliefs or nature are created using carefully hand-carved wooden stencils. Some of the stencils have been passed down from generation to generation but new ones are also created every year so the designs of the alfombras are always unique. People spend hours creating these amazingly intricate patterns. To keep wind from blowing the alfombras away, people use watering cans to keep the sawdust and plant materials wet and compacted.  

As I continued to walk the alfombra-lined route in reverse, I passed a small

Getting Incense Burners Ready for Procession, Antigua Guatemala 2018, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

group of men dressed in dark suits preparing incensarios (thuribles, or religious incense burners), for the procession that would soon be arriving in the area. I eventually found the street where the procession was approaching very slowly about a block away. Powerful firecrackers split the air and rattled my eardrums periodically as part of the procession. Lots of people had gathered on the route and were eagerly awaiting the procession to arrive. There were lots of street vendors selling the usual toys, inflatables, candy, cotton candy and other food treats and balloons. 

As the procession got closer, it was lead by people in religious clothing and 

Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

robes, some holding masts with banners and other related items. Some people, children included, were were swinging thuribles or religious incense burners producing dense clouds of grayish brown musty-smelling smoke. In the distance, I could hear the band playing sad dismal funereal music. Also in the distance, I could see what I thought was a float bearing statues of Jesus, Virgin Mary and a couple of other people, maybe saints, coming down the street. While I thought it was a float, I couldn’t figure out why it seemed to be swaying back and forth from side to side. It was huge and tall so ahead of it, men holding special long poles were lifting the overhead electric power lines up even higher to make sure the “float” could get through the narrow street. 

However, as it got closer, to my disbelief, I was astounded to see that this

Anda, Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

“float” was actually being carried by a huge number of people! There were  no wheels! No wonder it was swaying! Essentially, they were carrying an enormous beautifully carved dark wooden platform or “anda” upon which were several giant, deeply dramatic and intricately detailed religious statute-like figures called imágenes católicas (Catholic images). They included an antique Baroque piece of Jesús Nazareno de La Merced bearing the weight of the cross he is carrying, dressed in a cardinal red velvet tunic with gold threads. There was another imágen of Nuestra Señora de La Merced wearing a beautiful gown in white and gold, and several others that were also very impressive. Each of the imágenes was magnificent. 

Anda, Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

It took at least 80 cargadores ( people who carry the anda), more than 40 on each side and one or more in the middle of the front and several in the back to carry the huge anda through the streets and avenues of Antigua! It actually is an honor to be able to carry it and people apparently pay money to be able to carry it for about a block and then another cargador rotates in. More than 4000 cargadores, both men and women wearing dark suits were lining the path in front of me as the procession slowly went by. These cargadores walked along waiting patiently for their turns which seemed to be organized very methodically and systematically. I could clearly see the pain in the cargadores‘ faces as they

Man Holding Incensario, Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

strained to hold the immense weight of the massive imágenes-bearing anda. The procession route was also lined with thousands of parishioners and visitors who came, some from great distances, to witness the once-in-a-lifetime procession. The anda was followed by a large brass band playing very solumn funeral-like music that I read was written by Frederick Chopin and Guatemalan composers. 

I literally stood in awe as this amazing procession passed me, the likes of which I had never seen. I waited for it to pass and then in my further disbelief, I realized that the beautiful alfombras that people had worked so hard to create were trampled and destroyed by the procession!  I quickly learned that this is

Remains of an Alfombra After the Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

actually part of the tradition. Apparently, the making of the alfombras in Antigua is sacrificial in nature. The people here believe that just like Jesus Christ sacrificed himself for mankind, the people of Antigua dedicate themselves to making these beautiful street carpets only to have them destroyed by the procession. Therefore, as soon as the procession passes, the cleaning team of  men with shovels and brooms, along with a bulldozer and dumptruck are right behind it cleaning the sand, flowers, plant

Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

materials and sawdust. A few sprinkles of colored sawdust of what had been unique beautiful works of art were all that remained. 

Once the procession passed, I quickly made my way back to the house where I am living to meet up with the family. They were on the sidewalk outside the house waiting for the procession to arrive and they were excited to see me.

Alfombra made by the Family I’m Living With. Procession, Antigua Guatemala 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

The family had actually made their own beautiful yet simple alfombra. A few days earlier, they told me about the procession and that they would be making an alfomfra. They said I was welcome to help them but by the time I arrived back to the house, they had already finished it. Nonetheless, it was a great time experiencing the procession a second time, especially this time with the family. Because the procession moved so slowly, it actually lasted 11 hours until it returned to the Church of the Merced! The next day, on my way to school, I saw additional crews working to clean up any materials that remained from the procession. As it turns out, my maestra at the Spanish school is a congregant at the Merced church. During class, she explained more about the procession and we actually walked up to the church which is just a couple of blocks up the street.

The giant anda was still inside the church being held up on giant sawhorses waiting for it to be moved to its storage area. It was so enormous, it had to be divided into 3 parts. Up close, I could see the intricate detail of the beautifully carved antique wood and the slightly-padded indentations where the people stood when carrying the anda on their shoulders during the procession. Each of the indentations were numbered to help organize the rotation of cargadores as it moves along. It was amazing to see this gigantic masterpiece close enough to touch it. Unfortunately, no photos were allowed inside the church.
The following additional photos were some of my favorites that helped capture this increíble  (en-cray-eeb-lay – incredible) day that I will never forget.
Alfombra, Antigua Guatemala 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Alfombra, Antigua Guatemala 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Alfombra, Antigua Guatemala 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Alfombra, Antigua Guatemala 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Alfombra, Antigua Guatemala 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Procession, Antigua Guatemala 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Procession, Antigua Guatemala 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Pushing the wires higher for the Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Jesús Nazareno de La Merced, Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Nuestra Señora de La Merced (Virgin Mary), Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Alfombra of Sawdust, Procession, Antigua Guatemala 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Anda, Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Boy Holding Incensario, Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Anda with Jesús, Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Selling Treats for the Procession, Antigua Guatemala 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Nuestra Señora de La Merced (Virgin Mary), Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Balloons and Toys, Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Bubbles for Sale, Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Family Standing Where Alfombra Had Been, Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Angels for Sale, Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Toys for Sale, Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Clean Up After Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.