As the first morning light hits the cobblestone streets of Antigua, Guatemala, locals come out of their homes with baskets full of flower petals, palm leaves and dyed sawdust. It’s one of the first days of Semana Santa, or Holy Week, a celebration that begins on Palm Sunday and ends on Easter, where locals use materials plucked straight from nature to transform the streets into colorful carpets, or alfombras.
The vibrant tradition has been an important part of Antigua’s cultural heritage for centuries. It was first introduced in 1524, when the Spanish conquistadors traveled from newly conquered Mexico to invade Guatemala. With them, the soldiers brought along their tradition of creating the carpets. However, the roots of the tradition stretch even farther to Santa Cruz de Tenerife, the capital of the Canary Islands, a Spanish territory, as part of the Feast of Corpus Christi, a Roman Catholic event honoring the presence of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist.
Fast forward to modern-day Antigua, and the carpets have grown more and more elaborate, with some taking days at a time to complete and overtaking the entire length of a city block. Over the years, the originally religious tradition has also become more inclusive, with non-Christians joining in the celebration.
“At one time, the carpets were quite simple, but now they’ve crescendoed and have become the backbone of Antigua’s cultural traditions,” says Elizabeth Bell, founder of Antigua Tours, a local tourism operator, and author of the book Lent and Holy Week. “You don’t have to be a Catholic to make a carpet, everyone gets involved.”
Bell, who moved to Guatemala when she was 14 with her family, has been giving tours of Antigua since the 1990s. She did graduate work in cultural history and history preservation at Unesco to become an expert in her adopted city and country.
Bell estimates that on any given day during Semana Santa hundreds of carpets are on display throughout the city. Everyone from church parishes to residents will make them with any organic materials they have on hand. It’s not uncommon for people to create images of Jesus Christ on the cross and to retell the story of the Passion of the Christ, as well as non-religious motifs like birds, animals and bouquets of flowers.
One of the most popular materials to use is sawdust, purchased from local sawmills or carpentry shops and dyed a kaleidoscope of different hues, including blues, purples, reds, oranges and greens.
“People will buy supplies at the local market or use flowers plucked from their gardens,” Bell says. “One year I picked bougainvillea from my garden and used the petals. It all depends on what’s in bloom.”
For the largest works of art, people plan out their designs months in advance and work in large groups to roll out their carpets in time. To create the carpets, first water is sprayed onto the road surface to clear any existing debris. If a road is cobblestone, people will fill in the cracks with sand or undyed sawdust to make a level surface. Some artists use cardboard stencils to create intricate patterns and designs and employ long planks of wood that stretch above the artwork (almost like scaffolding) so not to disturb the work they’ve already done.
Once complete, thousands of people will join daily processions that weave through the city streets, typically beginning inside one of the local churches as part of velaciones, or holy vigils, and then traverse through different neighborhoods.
This year’s celebration is particularly special since it’s the first time in two years that the city has held formal events for Semana Santa, due to the Covid-19 pandemic. While this year’s event has been scaled down significantly compared to previous years, with fewer processions, it will still include live music and a stacked schedule of parades. Some of the routes are publicized, while others can come as a surprise, with residents constructing carpets on the spot with any materials they can gather as soon as they hear the crowds nearing their property.
“Often the carpets are finished moments before the crowd sets foot on them,” Bell says. “The carpets are meant to be ephemeral and showcase the artistic expression [of each creator].”
After the crowd passes, dump trucks and sweepers clean up what’s left of the carpets, recycling it into compost.
“Within 20 minutes, everything is cleared and you wouldn’t even know what was once on the ground,” she says. “This makes a clean slate for more carpets to be built the next day.”