Members of the Alvarez family add the finishing touches to their sawdust carpet in preparation for a Holy Week procession, in Antigua, Guatemala, on Good Friday, March 29, 2024. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)
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ANTIGUA, Guatemala  — Overnight before the Holy Week processions pass in front of his house, Luis Álvarez works with two dozen family members and friends to create an elaborate, 115-foot-long carpet out of colored sawdust on the street.

“A carpet is a moment of thanksgiving for all the blessings we receive all year long,” said the devout Catholic who’s been preparing Holy Week carpets for more than 30 years. “Each speck of sawdust is a prayer.”

For him and thousands of other residents of this volcano-fringed colonial city, participating in some of Guatemala’s oldest and most popular Holy Week traditions is a laborious but unmissable way to be closer to God as well as to their families and a once tightknit community that’s increasingly diluted by mass tourism.

“All my life this will unite me with my father, and even more so with my sons,” said Francisco González-Figueroa, who as a child became an aspiring cucurucho, as the processions’ float carriers are called, and now takes his two boys to help. “One is always waiting for this moment. It’s the sensations — contact with the divine, but also the music, the colors, the smells.”

He was among more than 9,100 cucuruchos who — in groups of 104 men — took turns carrying the block-long float with a 300-year-old, life-sized statue of Jesus bearing the cross. They started from the church of La Merced around 9 a.m. on Palm Sunday and were still winding their way through the cobblestoned streets after the punishingly hot tropical sun had set.

The brotherhood of Jesús Nazareno de La Merced, founded in 1675, runs one of the oldest processions in Guatemala, but there are half a dozen others in Antigua alone in the week preceding Easter — peaking with two on Good Friday.

Tens of thousands of people, of diverse ages and professions, sign up from across the region to be cucuruchos for a fee of about $5. That helps the various brotherhoods pay for the elaborate, ever-changing float designs that accompany the sacred images and further their main mission of evangelizing.

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The number of carriers — men for the main floats and women for the lighter ones that follow with images of the Virgin Mary — has been booming after processions were unprecedently canceled or restricted for three years during the pandemic.

“We asked Jesus to remove the pandemic because we wanted to carry him,” said Julio de Matta, who’s been a cucurucho for two decades. Like many participants and Antigua residents, he refers to the float as Jesus himself, a sign of his deeply felt faith.

“It’s a feeling of penance. Since we were children, our fathers instilled much devotion,” he added an hour before the Palm Sunday procession started. Even though his turn to carry wouldn’t come for 12 hours, he was already waiting by La Merced church wearing the traditional white veil and violet tunic — the same shade as the town’s jacaranda blossoms.

A few blocks away, Ivan Lemus was also waiting, but for the cucuruchos to plod over the very first carpet he made. It was a promise to his ill grandmother.

Lemus and more than a dozen friends had worked overnight to prepare the base over the cobblestones. Then, they used stencils and spoonfuls of colored sawdust, to create the design, featuring a cross with grapes, wheat, a butterfly. It was all framed by actual colorful carrots, cauliflowers and corn. In the early morning, they had to redo a corner after a passing motorcyclist accidentally slid over and erased it.

Looking excited if bleary-eyed, Lemus, 28, said it has always been a dream to have the procession cross over one of his carpets.

“Jesus passes in front of your house, and you’re offering something and are being blessed,” Lemus said as a friend sprayed the sawdust with water to keep it from blowing away.

Down the street by the ruins of a 17th century church, the family that runs a hairdressing salon kept rushing back to their carpet to fix their blown-over little wooden boxes topped with crosses and filled with yellow chrysanthemums and other flowers.

“It’s our way to thank God because the whole year we have work,” said Alejandra Santa Cruz, as the procession got so close that drumbeats and incense clouds filled the air.

While homes and family businesses still line the historic center, Antigua’s popularity with international tourists means many have been taken over by hotels, Airbnbs and restaurants — fraying the social fabric that makes Holy Week special.

“It’s the only moment to get back the streets in Antigua,” said Leonel González, who started as a cucurucho when he was 10 with his grandfather, father and uncles. “Antigua keeps belonging less and less to the people of Antigua.”

He still travels more than three hours from the city where he works as a doctor each Good Friday to carry the float in Antigua and to catch up on local gossip with childhood friends. They might never meet the rest of the year, but without fail they always find each other.

“When one takes up his place carrying the float, one gives thanks for being there one more year, and remembers those who have gone,” González-Figueroa said, adding that Holy Week events get remembered and planned at family gatherings all year long. “I always tell my sons, this doesn’t make you better or worse, but it unites us.”

That’s why Álvarez is happy to see that young people who often no longer have homes in the historic center are interested in learning about the carpet traditions, despite the effort and cost they entail. He remembers one night in 2011 when three thunderstorms hit at intervals, forcing him to start over each time and complete the work with barely enough materials and just before the procession.

For Good Friday, he planned two different carpets, each of about 1,100 square feet (105 square meters) with 32 main designs — one made in somberly colored sawdust for the morning and one in flowers for the afternoon, when the wind picks up.

But even a few well-arranged pine needles are pleasing to God, if that carpet is made with the heart, and every Antigueño has at least one design in their head, Álvarez said.

Don’t they mind, then, seeing months of planning and overnights of painstaking work literally trampled into oblivion in less than minute?

On the contrary, he answers with a smile: “Waiting for that moment is special, waiting for Jesus to pass by.”

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