Spring blooms to life in this elaborate Spanish ritual

Girls sit for hours on flower altars in this ancient tradition.

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A young girl does her part to celebrate the festival of La Maya, which marks the arrival of spring in Colmenar Viejo, Spain.
This story appears in the May 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.

What makes a tradition—and why do people keep traditions alive? You might ask any of the children chosen to be Las Mayas in Colmenar Viejo, a town in Spain. Each spring, a few girls typically between the ages of seven and 11 sit in elaborate altars decorated with fresh flowers to mark the new season.

As crowds pass by for two hours, the girls are to sit perfectly still, their facial expressions a sign of how seriously they take their roles. Families are honored if their daughter is selected from the dozens of young girls who apply to participate in this local tradition with ancient roots. But taking part means weeks of feverish activity preparing the elaborate altars and dresses.

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Crowds pass through the town’s streets for a glimpse of each altar. After the festival, the Mayas come down and attend evening Mass with the community.

Photographer Daniel Ochoa de Olza has spent his career documenting Spanish traditions, from the serious to the sublime. At each, he wonders why they continue. He recalls a festival in Piornal, Spain, where villagers pelt an armored, devil-like character with turnips. And there’s the famous festival of San Fermín in Pamplona, Ochoa de Olza’s hometown—the running of the bulls. “It’s stupid and it’s dangerous, but it’s our tradition,” he says, admitting that he’s run nine times.

The Maya girls create the compositions in which they star, so the portraits aren’t photographically daring, says Ochoa de Olza. But they’re revelatory in the sense that, even in one’s own country, there are always new customs to discover—practices with vibrancy and beauty, even if they may be fleeting.

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For one day, Mayas are the center of attention in their town. Passersby marvel at each altar.

The magic of being a Maya tends to fade as the girls grow beyond childhood, says Ochoa de Olza. As teenagers, onetime Mayas tend to laugh off their past participation, projecting cool by disavowing their youthful enthusiasm. And yet, as former Mayas have daughters of their own, the tradition continues.