Photograph by Daniel Ochoa de Olza, AP
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The festival of Las Mayas, Colmenar Viejo, Spain

Photograph by Daniel Ochoa de Olza, AP

Surreal Flower Altars Define This Ancient Spring Tradition

To mark the beginning of spring these young girls sit still on altars surrounded by an elaborate display of flowers and herbs.

Every spring, families in the Spanish village of Colmenar Viejo with daughters between the ages of 7 and 11 gather to decide which of their girls will have the honor of being chosen as this year’s stars of “Las Mayas”, a collective rite of spring dating back to medieval times.

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The participating families build and decorate altars with aromatic flowers and herbs gathered from the surrounding countryside. The four or five mayas dress in costumes, a wreath of flowers adorning their heads. There are no written rules – everything has been passed down orally from generation to generation.

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On festival day, the mayas must sit in serene stillness on their altars on the streets of the village for two hours as the people living in the village pass by, admiring and commenting on the displays. A band of musicians roves from altar to altar, extolling the beauty and elegance of each girl. 10-15 other girls dressed in long white dresses and black jackets who serve as the mayas’ attendants, asking for coins from spectators in exchange for cleaning their jackets with brushes. Afterwards, everyone heads to church for mass. Sitting in the midst of them is like being in the middle of little angels, says photographer Daniel Ochoa de Olza.

(The scene is surreal but probably no less so than the Jarramplas festival he goes on to describe where a man dressed in body armor is pelted by turnips as symbolic punishment for stealing cattle.)

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Ochoa de Olza balances his job as a staff photographer for the AP with his personal passion for documenting Spain’s arcane festivals, of which, he says, there are many. His work on a bullfighter Juan José Padilla won a World Press Photo Award in 2013. This year, it is his portraits from Las Mayas, a festival particular to this small village about 18 miles outside of Madrid.

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These tableaux bring to mind Catholic icons, woodland fairies and a dash of Frida Kahlo. The scene may be visually rich but it is photographically straightforward. “The pictures are very simple,” he says, “but they have layers. That is what I like about shooting traditions. It’s another way of telling the story of my country. And I am discovering those traditions myself. They will last a bit longer than the breaking news that will be gone on a week – traditions will evolve over time, some will disappear completely.”

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What is also interesting to him is observing the human figure in the midst of the flowers and decorations – a human whose character and attitude are apparent by the look on her face, whether her eyes express a smile or annoyance at having to endure two hours on display.

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Ochoa de Olza hopes these pictures are a chance for people to understand how something that may seem exotic is part of our collective experience as human beings. “We are all doing strange things in all parts of the world,” he continues. “Everything is mixed with religion in Spain,” he says. “And I find it interesting in the 21st century we are still doing these festivals – it is a way to see where we are going and where we have come from – looking back to look forward.”