On Good Friday I was immersed in color and tradition in Subtiava, a barrio of León. I came for Semana Santa, Holy Week, and accompanied my Catholic friends to several masses and processions. (I’ll write more about those in my next post). But I was particularly excited to see the colored sawdust paintings that cover the streets in Subtiava, part of a 75 year-long tradition.
Most of the paintings depicted Biblical stories, while some were images of Jesus or designs with religious symbols. My Catholic friends helped me understand the meaning—for each painting they identified the story, looking for clues in the characters or props, occasionally asking other people for help.
The narrow “street of the carpets” was closed off all day and flooded with Nicaraguan and international tourists and Leoneses all afternoon.
The paintings range from five by seven feet to six by 10 feet, every inch saturated in color.
Different families design and create the paintings, called “carpets of sawdust” in Spanish for their thickness. They start in mid-morning and work all day in the hot summer sun to complete them. But the process starts weeks before, with the design and preparation of materials.
One artist told me they use powdered clothing dye to get the rich colors of sawdust. Some artists used paper, twigs, salt, leaves, flowers, seeds, and even glitter in their paintings.
Traditionally, each generation teaches the next the art of alfombras: one man was working with his young daughter to finish his design.
And there were many other kids spreading sawdust. I joked with this boy, “Jesus needs his beard!”
A teenager I spoke with gestured to the small homes behind him and said those four households of his family work on the mural, including “all the cousins.” The parents and grandparents sat in rocking chairs on the shady stoop, watching the tradition unfold in the care of new hands.