Quema del Diablo

December 8, 2009

Living in Guatemala is an emotional roller coaster. Last night, I looked out the window of my cab at the sun setting over the Pacaya volcano and felt blessed. I had just attended a Mayan ceremony held in the pine forest on the campus of my new workplace. The “hacerdotes” poured sugar in a thin line on the earth, forming the shape of the flower, then filled the space with offerings of candles and chocolate, pine needles and flower petals, fruit and honey, all carefully arranged to preserve the balance of energy central to Mayan spirituality. They distributed fruit and white and yellow candles, and instructed us to place the white candles to the North, the yellow to the south, and to cluster the fruit at all four directional points. They built a cone out of pineapple trimmings and set the offering alight. As the flames licked upward, the hacerdotes led a series of prayers, turning to each of the directions, beginning with the east, associated with the rising sun and the color red, to the west, purple, symbolic of the “sun’s fall,” the south, yellow, symbolizing water, and the north, white, the direction of air and ancestors. As I watched the fire consume the petals and the wax, I understood how color can be seen as sacred, how ritual can cleanse. I was sure I was meant to come to Guatemala.

Tonight, I want to go home and drink non-instant coffee and eat salads and flush my toilet paper down the toilet and not to stare violence and poverty and desperation in the face every time I leave the house. This morning’s newspapers were splashed with images of police trucks burning in a town in the department of Sololá, where yesterday morning a man suspected of stealing cloth from the market was lynched. This is the third lynching in the Guatemalan highlands in a week and a half. Lynching here is a form of vigilantism, a public display of the anger at the ongoing decline of the security situation. But still, its hard to understand the sheer ferocity and brutality of these attacks. Victims are beaten or burned to death: three women who were captured with the thief barely escaped the flames that engulfed the police pickups. 

It was an inauspicious start to the day known as “Quema del Diablo,” or “the Burning of the Devil.” At precisely 6:00, children and their parents enter the streets, armed with fireworks and devil piñatas. The piñatas are torched, the fireworks exploded. It’s like Fourth of July, except infused with the kind of transgressive euphoria normally associated with trick-or-treating, as adults and children savor the usually forbidden pleasure of Guatemala City’s night-time streets. Someone told me that the fires were meant to purify the streets for the processions of December 8, when some communities celebrate the feast of the Virgin of the Conception. How devil piñatas were first introduced was not entirely clear. Maybe it’s originally a Spanish tradition? All I know is that I would have enjoyed the whole thing more if I hadn’t woken up to read the story of the death of a man who may or may not have been a a thief and a devil: a man who was burned in a beautiful town in a small country that resembles nothing so much as a fallen Eden. 

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One Response to “Quema del Diablo”

  1. Rose said

    A beautiful post, Emma!

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