Sawdust Carpets

I was so glad to hear that Comayagua, Honduras was going to be one of the stops on our Central American tour. My youth group would make small sawdust carpets every year during Holy Week. One of the members went to Comayagua on a family vacation and brought back the idea. I was ecstatic to find out I was going to see the real thing.

Each year during Holy Week, the residents paint the street in colored sawdust along the religious processional route. Some people use colored beans and seeds in their designs, but for the most part they use sawdust. I wanted to get there early to see how it was done, but we could only come in on that Thursday evening. By then, most of the streets were already decorated.

As we settled into the hotel, the exceptionally pretty housekeeper told us to hurry up and get dressed so we could go see the reenactment of the Last Supper in the Parque la Libertad at 6:30 p.m. It was a nice experience. Afterwards, we went to eat our own supper because we were all hungry from the trip. While at dinner, the waiter, who recognized us as tourists, suggested we go to some street I’d never heard of and watch a man and his family make the last sawdust carpet. He told us this family starts working at 12:30 a.m. and finishes around 6:00 a.m. That’s exactly what I came to see, so I was definitely in! So I knew I’d have to take a nap if I was going to be there at 12:30 a.m., so after dinner I went to bed.

My alarm went off at 11:45 p.m. I couldn’t believe I’d slept so long, but I was excited to get out there and see how these famous carpets are made. The streets were practically empty. I’d heard of an overnight silent processional taking place but I didn’t see anyone along the route I was going. With the empty streets, I got out there at about 12:20 a.m.

There was a layer of tan-colored sawdust that covered the street with the outline of the finished product stenciled across the sawdust. The father saw me admiring the stencil and asked if I wanted to help. I got really excited and told him yes. He called for his daughter to come outside with the sketch of the outline he’d drawn on paper. His daughter came out, wiping her eyes, and handed me the paper. I saw the amazing color and the attention to detail and I was excited to help out.

saw_dust_carpet_comayagua_honduras

The father gave me a section of the carpet to work on and gave me the drawing to go by. The section had very specific colors, so he gave me the bags of the colored sawdust that corresponded with the section. The family was very serious about their work, so they didn’t really talk. I got the occasional smile and nod, but not much conversation. I couldn’t hold my eyes open by about 4:30 a.m. I took a few pictures of the work I’d done and the almost completed project and went back to the hotel. Unfortunately, I slept through the actual Good Friday processional but I did get to a chance to help make this festival a success.

Activities:

  1. Explain the tradition of sawdust carpets in Comayagua, Honduras.
  2. Does your family celebrate Good Friday? Do you know of any US traditions on or around Holy Week?
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El Güegüense o Macho Ratón

Have you ever been to a masquerade ball or a costume party where everyone’s face is covered and you don’t know who’s who? That’s what it’s like on some days at the Festival of San Sebastián in Diriamba, Nicaragua. It takes place every January 17th to the 27th. People take to the streets to celebrate Saint Sebastian, the city’s patron saint, and to watch a theatrical reenactment of Nicaragua’s first literary work, El Güegüense o Macho Ratón. All of the colors are vibrant and the people are very friendly.

I felt bad because I didn’t have a mask on but I soon forgot about it. First, these three indigenous-looking men came down the street playing small, woodwind instruments. They were followed by a little boy playing a wooden drum. I think the little boy could have been one man’s son because they looked alike. The small band contained the only people that were unmasked. Then around 20 men in horse masks with brightly colored manes came galloping down the street in neat rows with no shoes on. Barefoot on the street! Behind the horses were around 20 men in colonial Spanish dress and Christopher Columbus-style masks. They danced around each other for a few minutes, then around 20 of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen came through the rows of holding their gorgeous fan dresses. It was definitely telling a story, and thankfully I knew what the story was.

gueguense-diriamba
I did my homework before we came to the festival: El Güeguense or Macho Ratón is a story that was originally told in Nahuatl. It’s like pioneer stories of the United States that were told orally, then written down generations later. This story, however, is not a happy one. It all started when the Spanish conquistadors came to Diriamba. They asked to speak to the indigenous leaders, who agreed to a meeting. During the meeting the conquistadors told the people of Diriamba to surrender to their rule. The leaders went back to think about it and ultimately declined, at which time they boldly attacked the Spaniards. Pretty brave, huh? This led to a revolt, in which the Spaniards proved too powerful for people of Diriamba. Unfortunately, many of the indigenous population were killed and the survivors were forced to live under corrupt Spanish rule.

A short time later, an anonymous writer created a theatrical play called El Güeguense or Macho Ratón, mocking the Spanish rulers’ style of oppression and greed following their victory over the people of Diriamba. It was passed orally though the generations until one day in 1942 it was written down and published in a book.

So every year, during the Festival of San Sebastián, people dance to the same beat and portray this time of oppression for the people of Diriamba. It seems sad to think about, but the people are celebrating. They’re celebrating the bravery of their ancestors, celebrating Nicaragua’s first literary works, and the advancements the people have made since that dark time in history. I was glad I was able to celebrate with them.

Activities:

  1. Go to Google Maps (https://www.google.es/maps) and find Diriamba. Describe where in Nicaragua it is located. Zoom in to see the satellite image and some of the photos that were taken around the town. What can you infer about this town?
  2. What is the sad story behind El Güeguense or Macho Ratón?
  3. Do you know any US celebrations that pay homage to a historical event? Name a few.
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El chicle

So today we took an off-road tour of the Guatemalan rainforest. Our guide, Mr. Rico, was an older gentleman and he was a former chiclero, which is Spanish for a chicle gatherer. Mr. Rico took us to see the Manikara zapota trees, also known as sapodilla, and inside those trees is the chicle. I always knew that the word chicle was Spanish for “gum,” but it’s also the name for the latex-textured sap that comes from the sapodilla tree.

It was easy to listen to Mr. Rico’s stories about when he was a chiclero. He was a great storyteller, and I found myself looking out the window and seeing exactly what he was talking about as we traveled through the rainforest. He said that dozens of young men would go out in bunches to gather chicle. They would use machetes to cut into the trees and drain out the chicle.

Rico also told us about the history of gum. The Aztec and Mayan civilizations had been tapping into these trees for centuries. The sapodilla trees also produced delicious, tropical fruit, so these cultures would use the fruit to flavor the chicle. The rest of the world didn’t know much about chicle until American inventor Thomas Adams tried to figure out what to do with the material. Mr. Adams added sugar and flavorings to the chicle and he created his own version of chewing gum. Soon after, William Wrigley started purchasing chicle from Guatemala and Mexico, and he began one of the most successful chewing gum companies in the world. Wrigley provided gum to the troops in World War II, and the troops introduced gum to different countries around the world. Who knew that something as simple as chewing gum had such an interesting history?!?!

Sapodilla Tree

We toured around the rainforest a little longer and went back to Rico’s tour office. He said he had a surprise for us, and I was hoping he would show us how to make gum. I was so very excited when my wish came true. There he had a sample of the chicle in raw form, and he told us he was going to show us how to make gum from scratch. He put the chicle in a pot and boiled it for a little while. Then he added sugar and some kind of fruit juice. After it boiled for a little while longer, he poured the mixture into little gumball molds where it had to cool.

While the mixture was cooling, I asked Rico why he stopped being a chiclero. It seemed like a cool job, and I was curious why he would change from being a chicle gatherer to a tour guide. He told me that in the 1940s people switched to a synthetic version of chicle because in some places people were not harvesting the chicle properly and ended up killing the sapodilla trees. Rico said that after you get the sap out of the tree, you have to wait about five years before trying to get more out. Also, you have to know when to stop before you take too much out of the tree. Unfortunately, chicle was very popular and people were not waiting long enough and they were not respecting the tree. So the big companies switched the base of the gum from chicle to something more synthetic to save the trees and the tree population.

It all made sense. We should protect our environment and respect the things that come out of it. I think they did the right thing by slowing down the demand for chicle. Some companies still use chicle as the base for chewing gum, but there are guidelines they must use to harvest the chicle. After I bit into my first piece of gum, I knew that the chicle made it taste so much better and the feeling in my mouth was much smoother. I was taken back to my days as a kid, walking nicely in the supermarket or using my inside voice in the library, all so I could have a piece of gum from my mom.

Activities:

  1. Explain where chicle comes from.
  2. How did Thomas Adams invent the first chewing gum?
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