A Year’s Worth Of Sins Went Up In Smoke

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

In all of Antigua, Guatemala, there is only one place in the city where two gas stations sit across the street from each other. Someone years ago decided that this is the spot where every December 7, people would gather to watch La Quema del Diablo: The Burning of The Devil.

Across the country on December 7, Guatemalans burn The Devil. The week prior market stalls fill with papier–mâché devils for families who want to personally show the devil his due.

As I walked through swarms of people wearing light-up devil horns, past kiosks selling sizzling street meat and devil apparel, I passed a fire truck parked protectively in front of one of the gas stations. On the platform in center of the crowd stood the bowing Devil. A cigarette shot from his mouth and his horns pointed menacingly towards the audience. There was something dissonantly Christ–like about the wooden statue, being weighed down not by a cross but by red wooden wings.

Two men on a ladder were packing his wooden frame with firecrackers and dousing him with can after can of gasoline. The Devil’s petroleum perfume rose robustly across the anxious crowd.

As the men continued to pour gas on The Devil, a man wobbling with alcohol pouring from his mannerisms and a cigarette in his mouth stumbled over the protective barriers. He walked right up to him and looked the fiend straight in the eyes. There was something intimate about the exchange. As man and demon locked sights, the two men on the ladder just laughed and told him to get away. He remained until one of the news reporters put his microphone in his pocket and helped lead him back to the growing masses.

I went up to one of the volunteer firemen (because the government’s fire department never seems to actually put out home–devouring flames, many Guatemalan communities have their own volunteer departments), and I asked him why anyone thought it was a good idea to burn a devil in between two gas stations. He twirled his helmet between his fingers and shrugged, “Eh, they have been burning The Devil here since even before the gas stations were here. It’s tradition.”

The tradition of burning the devil began in colonial times. In anticipation of the feast of the Immaculate Conception, those who could afford it adorned the fronts of their houses with lanterns. Eventually, the poor who could not afford such lanterns began gathering their garbage and would burn all of the year’s rubbish in front of their houses. Over time it was formalized and in addition to individual piles of garbage, communities started to burn The Devil to clear the way for Mary’s feast.

The idea is to burn all of the bad from the previous year and to start anew from the ashes. In cities throughout the country, The Devil is burned at the stroke of six. In Ciudad Vieja, the first former capital of the country, a devil three stories tall is constructed and burned in the city square.

Other Latin American countries share similar traditions. Colombia has Años Nuevos. These are life–sized dummies made to represent one’s sinful self of the previous year. Often they are portrayed with bulging sex organs, a white nose (for those who struggled with cocaine during the year), and with bottles of liquor in their hands. When the year rolls over, they are doused in gasoline, and the old self brilliantly burns away to make way for the reformed.

In front of Antigua, Guatemala’s Devil is a message from him addressed to his “colleagues.” It is strikingly regretful. It begins: “I dreamt last night that everything was beautiful, that there was a Guatemala without violence, without kidnapping, corruptions, gangs, dictators, extortionists, poverty, and drug addicts.”

After continuing to describe the happy, ideal society of his dreams, the devil’s message continues. “But when I awoke, I realized that everything was a sad, crude reality. This is why I live below.” He ends by saying that one reaps what he sows, and although he will burn at six, he also “wants the Guatemala that everyone wants.”

The message is decorated with comically colored, smiling devil cartoons. It is meant to be humorous, but The Devil’s dreams are also the dreams of millions of Guatemalans, who every year hope political promises will begin to shape a just society that no longer suffers from poverty and soaring rates of infant malnutrition. He may have wanted things to be better and different, but he is not forgiven for his failings.

As the hour approached, a bearded man with a bullhorn in one hand and a torch in the other began reading the charges being leveled against the wooded effigy. The crowd started roaring. Children’s faces danced between fear and excitement. Everyone was on their toes, leaning over everyone to get a slightly better glimpse.

Then The Devil’s hour came and as the torch touched him, he burst into flames. Children screamed, some with excitement, some with fear. The firecrackers packed inside the devil began to blow. The darkened street was alive with a brilliant red light. A cloud of smoke covered everyone diabolically down wind. Traditionally, every injustice of the previous year was now being corrected and the feast day of the Immaculate Conception could begin tomorrow without The Devil’s interference.

As the flames continued to burn, The Devil was reduced to ashes. One reporter standing too close was nearly hit as flaming body parts began to fall. The flames waned. Soon only cinders remained. When the fear of a fire disappeared with the final flames of The Devil, the fire truck was quickly appropriated as a dance floor for the band that played in the wake of the burning.

Another year in Guatemala had come to a close. With their demons faced down, the crowd danced vibrantly into the night. Perhaps later that night, after everyone went home and lay safely in their beds, they also dreamed The Devil’s dream of a harmonious Guatemala, hoping that in the coming year it would be more than just a removed vision.

By Luke Armstrong


About the Author

LukeArmstrongLuke Maguire Armstrong lives in Guatemala directing the humanitarian aid organization, Nuestros Ahijados. His book of poetry, iPoems for the Dolphins to Click Home About (available for sale on Amazon.com) is especially enjoyed by people who “don’t read poetry.” (@lukespartacus)

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