Celebrating God and Semana Santa in Guatemala City

Last Updated on April 21, 2023 by Ellen

It’s Holy Week in Latin America, and that means many businesses (and government offices) are closed for vacation.

We left a beach area just like last year during the Holy Week to avoid the crowds. Last year we left Mahahual, Mexico, and headed to the colonial city of Campeche. This year, we decided to come to Guatemala City before we move on to Lake Atitlan.

Holy Week, or Semana Santa, is still celebrated in the city, but it’s less crowded than popular than traditional vacation areas, like beaches and lakes. Last night, we watched a procession in the city’s main square and I saw the love for god on so many faces as they participated in something I’ve never seen before.

Usually, floats in processions are on some kind of vehicle, like a flatbed truck or pickup. But last night, a group of about 100 men and another large group of about 50 to 60 women each carried a large, heavy float on their shoulders. It was incredible. And the floats themselves were so elaborate and beautiful.

(The people with the long staffs to the sides and front of the floats use their poles to lift electric lines.)

Each night leading up to Easter, a different local congregation leads a procession down a route through the city and around the main square and the Cathedral of Guatemala City. I’m not Catholic, but I love the sense of unity and god and goodness and love that pervades the atmosphere.

That said, Guatemala City has a rough reputation. Mostly, I felt safe around the historic district. There is a large police presence, and many private security guards carry rifles or shotguns outside of businesses – like the place we went to for lunch. A local we met and chatted with at the procession explained to me that the guards outside of businesses act as a deterrent for any would-be robbers. The people who patronage the businesses obviously have more money than most people in Guatemala City, so the people inside the businesses, and the businesses, can be targets for crime. The guards make it so they aren’t easy-pickins.

It’s a stark contrast to the love of all that’s good and right – the love of god – that I saw on the faces of the procession participants and the onlookers. Good and bad, in its most basic form. The eternal theme of humanity. The story that’s told over and over and over. But the righteous and evil theme doesn’t tell the whole story, really. There’s a reason people chose to be ‘bad’ – and it’s because they don’t ‘have’ much of anything.

The place where we had lunch is an example of the haves versus the have nots. It also has a connection to storytelling.

We ate at a lovely restaurant named San Martin, a Guatemalan chain with a new headquarters in the city. The building is beautiful and historic. It started as a private home, and then housed one of the 10 oldest newspapers of the “New World.” The Diario de Centroamerica was founded by an English journalist and the building – called Casa Pavon – housed the paper’s operations. At some point after major earthquakes in 1917 and 1918, it became a bank. Over years since, it housed shops and eventually became vacant until San Martin recently rehabbed it to make it the chain’s main location on Sixth Avenue, which is a bustling pedestrian-only street.

(Not pictured: the security guards with large guns. They were in the doorway on our way in. Perhaps they moved for this picture, or, perhaps they went on a patrol.)

The restaurant kept much of the antique look inside, and it’s tastefully decorated. (A Google-translated article into English for any architecture buffs is here.)

Inside, is a story of the haves. Outside, the haves nots. Another theme in stark contrast to the message of Holy Week, and the idea of humanity living in harmony and equality.

It’s another opportunity for me to realize how damn blessed I am – another chance for me to recognize I have a life of great fortune compared to so many people I see in poverty.

Other posts from Guatemala:

1 thought on “Celebrating God and Semana Santa in Guatemala City”

  1. It really is a thrill to be in a place where hundreds of people participate reverently in a religious procession through the streets of the town. (At St Mary’s in Wooster a few years ago, we were not allowed to set foot on the public sidewalk just outside the church door. ). This is a wonderful time to be there!

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