Todos Santos Cuchumatan
Dia de Los Muertos
November 1, 2003

 

              

                Most municipios in Guatemala have several days of community fiesta.  One of the most impressive is
that of Todos Santos Cuchumatan, located deep in Los Altos Cuchumatanes, the highest non-volcanic range in the country.  The limestone peaks rise to over 3800 meters (12,000 ft.), the town, a little lower at about 2800 meters (9,000 ft.).  Needless to say, this is tierra fria and the temperature can be downright chilly during the evenings.
                This is a ten day fiesta lasting from October 21 to November 2, but the main day is November 1.  All Saints Day (Dia de Todos Santos) is celebrated on November 1 and is to commemorate deceased children, while All Souls Day, November 2, is dedicated to the souls of departed adults.
                Todos Santos Cuchumatan was immortalized in the literature by the anthropologist Maud Oakes in his
classic ethnography Beyond the Windy Place:  The Two Crosses of Todos Santos (Oakes 1951).  It is a very traditional highland Maya community speaking the Mam dialect.  The tzolkin or 260 day ceremonial calendar, used by the Classic Maya (A.D. 300-900), is still in use here (Weaver 1993:145).  Dia de los Muertos (All Saints Day and All Souls Day), while based on the Christian calendar, has its roots in both the ancient Mayan culture and 16th Century Catholicism.  This is a fiesta like none other I've seen in Guatemala, and one of the most famous in the country.
 

 

 

                   Getting to Todos Santos Cuchumatan is not simple matter, particularly during the main fiesta.  The
public buses are crowded and the schedules not very definite (Boobbyer 2002:194-199).  For over thirty years I've been trying to make it here; this year I arranged for a vehicle and driver in Antigua to take me there.  Sure, this was a little more expensive, but saved hours over the chicken bus.

               

*****

Mayan shaman at cave, San Francisco el Alto 

Church Church at San Francisco el Alto

                                                     

 

The road climbs into Los Altos Cuchumatanes

 

           We have left Huehuetenango behind and are now climbing into the massive limestone block
which forms Los Altos Cuchumatanes.  It is the end of the rainy season, but some interesting cumulous
cloud formations hug the highlands.

               

*****

            In traditional indigenous Guatemala, the civil-religious hierarchy, or cofradias (religious brotherhoods)
were of utmost importance in community integration.  While the turmoil of the 40 year civil war and evangelization
by U.S. missionaries have lessened their influence, Todos Santos is one of those places where this tradition
is still strong.
             Quite simply men participate in various levels of the hierarchy by participating in and sponsoring traditional fiestas.  As he moves up in the hierarchy, his influence, political and social, rises.  It is extremely expensiveto participate - one pays for the privilege.  This is a redistribution mechanism - alcohol and food is given
back to the community.

               

 

Jinetes (horsemen) the night before race

 

                 The main event of the fiesta is the horse race competition on November 1.  The jinetes (or horsemen)
spend the evening before the race in ceremonial alcoholism.  By the time of the race, the following morning, many are quite inebriated.  Many fall during the sprints and fatalities are not unknown.  As was explained to me by several of the locals, if someone dies during the race, it is considered an offering to the Mayan spirit world and "va a pasar un buen año"  (it is going to be a good year).

               

 

Member of cofradia (religious brotherhood)         Ceremonial alcoholism and marimba                   Ceremonial alcoholism
(The above three photographs taken with Nikon N-80 and f4, 70-210 mm AF lens)          

          Both men are alders in a religious cofradia.

*****

 

Jinete dancing, the night before race
(Nikon N-80, 28-105 mm AFD lens)

*****

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Marimba and dancing, the night before the race

*****

Jinetes preparing to race, Nov. 1, Day of the Dead, 2003
(Nikon N-80 with f4 70-210 mm AF lens)

*****

 

Running sprints, Todos Santos Cuchumatan

 

Jinetes in competition

Fallen jinete being helped off track.  If someone dies during the competition, it is viewed as an offering
to the Mayan spirit world.
(Nikon N-80, 28-105 mm AFD lens)

*****

 

    Viejito at market (Nikon N-80)                                          Church steps, Nov. 1, 2003, Todos Santos Cuchumatan
 

Tradtional Dress, Todos Santos Cuchumatan

 

Clouds, fog, and fiesta, Todos Santos Cuchumatan

 

Church steps, main fiesta Day, Nov. 1, 2003


   Muchacho watching race                                                                            Muchachas at the fiesta           
(Both photographs, Nikon N-80, f4, 70-210 mm AF lens)      

 

        

What happens when a gringa goes into a cantina!  Her name is Laurie, she
did not lose her eye, but the beer bottle came very close.  She blundered into a bar room fight!      

 

        

   

                Political divisions run deep in traditional peasant society.  Todos Santos was a powder keg when
I arrived there.  Someone had been killed a few days prior and the town was on edge.  Laurie and some others
had wandered into a cantina, when two village factions started to have a go at it.  She wasn't the target, but got
hit when the beer bottles started to fly.  Advice - stay out of the local watering holes!
                I might add, at no time did I ever feel threatened - the locals were quite helpful and were aware of my
photography.  While filming one marimba and dance, some of the participants had a little too much guaro to drink.
One of the more sober jinetes politely suggested it was time to leave, which I did.

                 

 

   Rancherias outside of Todos Santos                                                      Leaving Los Altos Cuchumatanes

*****

Antigua

        Pacific Ring of Fire Volcanoes near Antigua                                      Traditional Catholic Procession in Antigua, Nov. 2, 2003
               (Nikon FE2, 200 mm AIS lens)

       Volcan de Agua, Antigua                                                                        Colonial archway, Antigua

Notes on Photography

                    I was non-intrusive, but not un-noticed.  Just about everyone in the photographs was aware of my
presence and even posed.  It helps greatly to have one of the locals employed as a guide - without this assistance
I could have never recorded many of these images.
                    Unless indicated otherwise, the images here are taken with a Sony 717.  When a Nikon is used, the
lens utilized is an older f4, 70-210 mm AF zoom.

 

Literature Cited

Boobbyer, Claire
        2002    Footprint Guatemala Handbook.  Bath, England:  Footprint Publications.

Oakes, Maud
        1951    Beyond the Windy Place:  The Two Cross of Todos Santos.  United Kingdom:
                   Gollancz.

Weaver, Muriel Porter
        1993    The Aztecs, Maya, and their Predecessors.  New York:  Academic Press.
 

 

Photographs and text by Dr. Gene J. Paull
Page design and construction by Erica Renée Lopez

 

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