How Holy Week unites Guatemala

In a country defined by deep inequalities and cultural divisions, the Semana Santa celebration plays a key role in forging national identity.

People take part in a procession for Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week, in the colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala. For Catholics, the procession—known as La Reseña—commemorates when Jesus Christ entered Jerusalem, and palm branches were placed in his path. Holy Week or Semana Santa, which had been on hiatus for two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, returned to Guatemala, which is famous for its elaborate parades and rituals leading up to Easter Sunday.

In the weeks leading up to Easter Sunday, Guatemala transforms.

From the heart of the dense capital city to remote Indigenous towns in the rural highlands, people flock to the streets, and the country is splashed with a medley of colors: plazas are adorned with flowers and intricate display; women and men draped in bright Mayan textiles hoist heavy wooden caskets to represent the death of Jesus Christ in the Catholic tradition of commemorating his death; and artwork dots the streets as communities gather to eat and take a rare moment to rest.

Known as Semana Santa or Semana Mayor—Holy Week or Major Week—the celebration has become a cultural staple, almost bigger than Christmas, explains Juan Manuel Castillo, a Guatemalan anthropologist. While the holiday highlights only one week of activities, smaller celebrations begin in February, reaching a climax on Good Friday, which commemorates the crucifixion of Christ, followed by his resurrection on Easter Sunday.

But in a country defined by deep inequalities and cultural divisions, the custom goes far beyond religion. Brought by Spanish colonizers in the early 1500s, Holy Week has over time incorporated components from a variety of Indigenous cultures that make up Guatemala. The result is a mix of Catholic beliefs and imagery blended with Mayan traditions.

It’s also a holiday when people from different social classes and cultural traditions can stand shoulder-to-shoulder in a gathering that is taking on greater meaning this year following a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As an acknowledgement of the pandemic, costumes now include face masks.

“It’s a space where the rich, the poor, university graduates, and those without an education, office workers and street vendors all fit,” Castillo says. “That’s why Semana Santa is so important for our national identity. It’s a public space where we all come together one time a year.”

Documenting a sense of unity

It was that coming together that first drew Saul Martinez, who worked as a news photographer in Guatemala for 10 years, to the holiday, which he has been documenting for a decade. The devotion exhibited by believers during the celebration, the sense of unity across the country, and the intensity that can be seen on the faces of those taking part in mock funeral processions encapsulates the strength of their faith and provides a respite from the country’s harsh realities.

“You just see the look on their faces and see that nothing else matters that week or that moment,” Martinez says. “The people are what make the images beautiful because they’re so dedicated to this."

“Crime goes down, you can walk the streets, which you often can’t do in the [capital] city, for example,” Martinez adds. “That week is just very festive. It’s an escape for everyone. [Guatemala is] a country with so many problems, but that week, everyone forgets.”

For Cristy Toj, taking part in this year’s festivities was “like returning to our lives.”

The 59-year-old Guatemalan, of the Mayan Indigenous people Quiché or (K'iche'), lives in the country’s western highlands in the city of Quetzaltenango. Before the pandemic, Toj would travel hours to the small town where she was born, Santa Cruz del Quiché, to celebrate the week with her family and community.

Each year, she makes traditional honey bread, pan de yemas, to share with relatives, friends, and neighbors. The food traces its history to the biblical story in which Christ broke bread and shared it among his worshipers. Dried fish is also eaten, another tradition coming from the same story.

Toj has fond memories of the intricate alfombras, carpets made of flowers, sawdust and fruit, stretching along the streets of her hometown. Each alfombra, sometimes as big as a house, depicts scenes from the Bible and Mayan traditions, as well as animals, fruits, and other designs in vivid color. Because the country is home to 24 Indigenous groups, with sizeable mestizo populations in cities, each region features distinct traditions and foods.

The trickster

Perhaps the most peculiar aspect of the celebrations takes place in the small lakeside town, Santiago Atitlán, where believers pay homage to Maximón, also known as Rilaj Mam, a mischievous folk saint with Indigenous and Spanish roots; he is often depicted as a smoker and boozer.

According to legend, husbands who traveled frequently for trade enlisted Maximón to protect the virtue of their wives. But he instead disguised himself as a loved one so he could have sex indiscriminately. When the husbands returned and found out what had occurred in their absence, they went after the trickster and cut off his limbs.

How Guatemalans began worshipping the saint, also known as San Simón, is unclear, but he has grown to represent the light and dark in humanity and encapsulates “folk Catholicism,” a mix of Indigenous and Catholic customs.

During Holy Week, Maximón is paraded through the streets, and celebrators seeking good fortune, health, and love make offerings of tortillas, cigars, liquor, and money at his shrine.

Reclaiming the streets

Meanwhile, in Guatemala City, where a high level of crime affects the daily lives of its one million residents, Holy Week festivities allows worshippers to reclaim the streets of the capital, which normally empty out after the sun sets.

“For Guatemalans, Semana Santa is the biggest party of the year, and it’s almost contradictory because we’re associating this talk of death with this celebration,” says Castillo. “Why is that? It’s the only opportunity we have all year to reclaim our public spaces in Guatemala City.”

For those taking part this year, such as Toj, the public celebration of Holy Week is a welcome return to tradition after the pandemic put so many lives on hold. It’s a time once again to embrace religion, culture, equality, and the beauty of life.

“For me, it’s all about enjoying these traditions and spending time with family, friends, and neighbors,” Toj says. “This sickness hit us hard, and this is a way of saying ‘Bueno, I’m alive.’”

Born in Guatemala, Saul Martinez is a independent photographer based in South Florida. He has been documenting Semana Santa across Guatemala for over a decade. Follow him on Instagram @saulmartinezphoto.

Megan Janetsky is a Colombia-based journalist covering human rights, migration, gender issues, and politics across Latin America.

James Rodríguez is a documentary photographer, filmmaker, and drone pilot who has been based in Guatemala since 2004. Follow him on Instagram @mimundo_org.

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