To Heaven Through the Streets of Guatemala City: the Processions of the Virgin of the Assumption

Abstract:
Guatemala City’s Jocotenango neighborhood bustles in August with the annual celebrations honoring the Virgin of the Assumption, the capital city’s patron. The Virgin travels triumphantly atop the shoulders of adults and children, arms raised skyward, forever caught in her journey toward heaven. Devotees carry her past shops, brightly painted homes, and neighborhood churches. Many of the participants have themselves traveled to see her traverse the streets. Some come from nearby communities. Others who have left the capital city to find work in the United States return to their childhood church every year.
The photo essay highlights the quiet and contemplative moments interspersed among the sharp blasts of cheerful firecrackers, triumphant notes of the wind and brass band, and the powerful energy that is produced when thousands congregate to witness or perform in one of Guatemala City’s chief religious processions. The essay also seeks to capture the tenderness and love found in the careful aesthetic considerations that shape visual aspects of the procession of the Virgin of the Assumption.

During the month of August, Guatemala City’s Jocotenango neighborhood bustles with activity as inhabitants prepare for the annual celebrations in honor of Our Lady of the Assumption, the capital city’s patron. La Nueva Guatemala de la Asunción is the official name of the sprawling city and has been the site for devotions to the Virgin of the Assumption since the 17th century. When it became the capital of the country in 1776, the Virgin of the Assumption was named the official patron.

The feast day of the Virgin of the Assumption is August 15th, and commemorates the Virgin Mary’s glorious rise to heaven. It is a time when thousands congregate to witness and perform in one of Guatemala City’s chief religious processions. The devotional aspects of the celebration are anchored at the Parroquia Nuestra Señora de la Asunción in Zone 2, a church merrily painted in pastel orange and white. The church is home to two confraternities that organize the August processions. One is for adult members, founded 25 years ago, and the other, the cofradía infantil, cultivates the participation of neighborhood youth.

Great tenderness and love are found in the careful aesthetic considerations that shape visual aspects of the procession. The devotional sculpture, the imagen, and its attendant float are the crux where art and ritual converge. The imagen is designed to be appreciated “in the round,” so the confraternity’s stewardship of the imagen extends to all aspects of her presentation—the robes, hair, skin, eyes, and posture. Like many of Guatemala’s sixteenth and seventeenth century sculptures, this imagen of Our Lady of the Assumption has real human hair, a detail that lends her a distinctively life-like quality. After careful deliberation in the early months of 2007 the confraternity selected a new hair arrangement and extreme care was taken so that the color of her tresses complemented her eyelashes, eyebrows, honey-brown eyes, and creamy skin. The anda, the multi-imagen mise-en-scene, completes the tableau and provides a narrative to surround the Virgin’s rise to heaven. The 2007 float was populated by four angels, San Juan, Maria Magdalena, and a number of cherubs.

The leaders of both confraternities welcomed me to observe the preparations of the floats that the devotees carry, to attend the blessings of the Virgin’s vestments, and to meet with members. I am especially grateful to have gained permission to photograph the preparations and to walk within the procession, camera in hand, to observe the spectacular ambulatory ritual.

The photographs included here were taken during a research trip generously funded by the Tinker Foundation.


Catherine A. Reiland is a master’s candidate in Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University. Born and raised in Wisconsin by her Guatemalan mother and North American father, Catherine traces her interest in religious performance and devotional sculpture to childhood memories of attending processions and visiting churches with her grandfather and aunts. Her grandfather’s home was located in the heart of Guatemala City and provided easy access to the city’s grand penitential processions and temples that house centuries-old imágenes. In addition to her research on Guatemalan religious performance, Catherine is currently an editorial assistant at NYU’s Hemispheric Institute and a project manager at the New York University Humanities Initiative.

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