Tag Archives: Leon

Easter in León

The Bishop of Leon and other priests during jueves santo mass.

The celebrations of Semana Santa in León are bright and powerful, with fireworks crackling, processions of hundreds, and long masses presided over by the bishop and fleets of priests and altar boys in full regalia.

The energy of the Catholics in attendance defied both the incredible heat of the dry season and the temptation to join half the country on the beach!

On Thursday afternoon I went to the “solemn mass” at the cathedral with my Catholic friend Claudia.  Since I was raised agnostic, everything that takes place in church is, well, Latin to me! Claudia was an excellent guide, explaining rituals and prepping me for photo opportunities.

Women in the choir

The solemn mass was, mercifully, short (unlike the three hour-long Saturday evening mass which culminates in Christ’s resurrection.)  Yet it was full of ceremonial detail: musky incense wafted through the massive marble expanse, the words of the priest echoing with each swing of the censer; a small choir of young women and a handful of young men harmonized over the songs of the flock; women knelt, heads bent in prayer, on the steps around the edges of the altar.

(I’ve included some recordings: click on the links to listen.)

Sounds of the Solemn Mass

Near the end of the mass a dozen men of the community sat waiting in two pews at the front of the cathedral, their bare feet visible beneath brown pant legs.  When the bishop stepped down from the high altar, the crowd drew in to watch as he washed their feet with water from a glass pitcher.

Claudia explained, “It’s an act of humility, and it reminds us of what Jesus did before the Last Supper, washing the feet of his disciples.”

The procession of the seven altars

After the mass the bishop led the congregation to seven other altars, starting with the rarely-open chapel adjacent to the cathedral.

Claudia and I and a couple friends joined the procession as it wound through the narrow streets in the dusk.  Though another friend later scolded me, “You’re supposed to go to all seven,” after hours of standing during mass we just visited two churches, the somber La Merced and yellow-trimmed St. Francisco.

Songs of the procession of seven altars

Friday's procession

The bells were silent on holy Friday, the streets mostly empty.  In late morning another procession flowed through the city, with larger-than-life icons held aloft on the shoulders of the congregation.  The bearers dripped with sweat in the midday sun, though they continued singing and praying with the loudspeaker mounted on a pick-up in the middle of the procession.

Maria was borne by several dozen men and women, a bouquet of lilies at her feet.

Bearing Maria

A massive statue of Christ robed in red needed an entourage to proceed it through the streets—men with long wooden poles lifted the electric lines for it to pass under.

The bells found their voices again Saturday night after the mass to mark Christ’s resurrection, the whole city booming with fireworks and ringing with sound.

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Art and Faith during Holy Week

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.

Moses parting the waters.

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.

A painting in progress

Sawdust dregs

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.

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Christmas in Nicaragua

Traditional Christmas toys from Masaya

During the Christmas season in León I clapped for giant dancing puppets, went to an evening Mass, sang hymns to the Virgin María by candlelight, and was bombarded by booming advertisements from truck-mounted stereos for Huge sales! and Special holiday offers!

The shopping streets around the main market in León were literally overflowing—bright plastic toys, flimsy kitchen tools, tin decorations, and multicolored knickknacks spilled out of storefronts and across the sidewalk into the street.  There was barely room for one car to pass through, so pedestrians, bicyclists and buses jockeyed for space to squeeze, or dash, through.

Fake Christmas trees were ubiquitous in shops and homes in the center of León, some natural-looking in dark green, most bright blue or silver or white, and surprisingly expensive: from $10-$50.  Christmas music blared from stores: in the air-conditioned, fluorescently-modern supermarket in the city center I heard “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” multiple times, in both Spanish and English!

Custom cars

Yet, in some kind of answer to the mountains of cheap plastic goods, the broad plaza next to the cathedral featured rows of traditional toys, made by hand out of straw and wood in Masaya.  (A yellow wooden “Nissan” or “Toyota” could be yours for a mere 20 córdobas, one dollar!)  Families strolled through the parque central at night to enjoy the lights of the crèche and to watch the dancing puppets of la Gigantona.

La Gigantona y el Pepe Cabezon


La Gigantona y el Pepe Cabezón  is a uniquely Nicaraguan Christmastime tradition.  In León multiple Gigantonas could be located on any given evening by listening for the drums that accompany the puppets’ wild dancing.  Troupes of kids crisscross the city, stopping at houses and acting out the story of la Gigantona y el Pepe for 10 córdobas, about 50 cents.  The larger-than-life-size papier-mâché puppets represent a giant Spanish woman (hence la Gigantona) and the short but smart indigenous man, el Pepe (hence his moniker cabezón, big-headed.)  The story symbolizes the mixing of Spanish and Catholic traditions and indigenous belief.  The Gigantona shakes wildly back and forth as the Pepe bobs his huge head up and down.  Meanwhile, another child recites coplas, poetic sayings, in a loud voice to the crowd.

I was fascinated by the kids in the troupes, lugging the heavy puppets and drums up and down the streets, with improvised costumes made of a sweatshirt hung on a coat hanger or an old suit jacket for Pepe, his head made out of a woven market basket turned upside-down and painted.            

One night at the beginning of December I heard singing coming from the family whose house I share, the voices of the women occasionally joined by the two young sons.  Some songs were sweet and melodic, others more animated, where they clapped hands to accompany their voices.  For nine nights they gathered to sing and pray to the candlelit altar of María in the dining room.  One of the holiest days of the year for Catholics in Nicaragua, the 8th of December is when they celebrate the Immaculate Conception of María.

I went to record their music, touched by the clarity of their a capella voices.  I recorded a few songs, then Carola passed me the songbook and I joined them, the boys laughing at me as I stumbled over the words.

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Dia de los muertos

On November 3rd Nicaraguans celebrated Dia de los muertos, visiting their family gravesites to clean and decorate them.  The day before people bought armfuls of bright flowers to lay on the graves.  All along the paths of the cemetery vendors sold tamales and buñuelos, balls of fried yucca drenched in molasses.

Flower seller near the Iglesia San Juan, the day before Dia de los muertos

The rush for tamales and bunuelos

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El festival del bosque seco tropical


One of the mapaches, Maria Esther, presenting her tree

This month I climbed two volcanoes and marched in a parade with cardboard sea turtles and students on stilts as León celebrated the bosque seco tropical, the tropical dry forest.   SONATI, an environmental education organization I’m volunteering with, hosted a weeklong series of free events, open to everyone.  (The name stands for Sociedad y Naturaleza Internacional or “International Society and Nature”).  Each day the general public and school groups could learn more about the ecosystem surrounding León through guided walks and hikes in and around town.  One day I accompanied the students from my English class to the botanical gardens, where each presented a tree native to the tropical dry forest.  “Los mapaches,” the raccoons, as their group of fifth graders is known at Sonati, described their trees, traditional uses, and threats.

The mapaches with two of the guides (also their teachers) from Sonati

In another part of the festival, several colegios, high schools, participated in a mural contest, creating colorful images with environmental messages.  The catch: they had to use all recycled materials (except for cement).  I visited one school in the final days of finishing their mural, as students spread cement and fixed bottle tops and pieces of ceramic, glass, and mirror to create designs.  Each school was responsible for an original design, conceived and carried out by students.  A student there proudly showed me his pencil sketch of a section of the mural, with a frog catching an insect and the national bird, the plume-tailed guardabarranca (the “turquoise-browed motmot” in English).  One of the boys working with him had collected shells from the beach to represent the trunk of a tree, while another carefully glued long pieces of mirror for butterfly wings.  Their message read, “Be the change you want to see in the (world),” with the earth represented by blue and green plastic bottle tops.

Affixing butterfly wings


Detail from the mural

Further down the wall, a group of girls cleaned cement off of the bottle tops while their teacher stood on a ladder gluing tops for the message, “The forest gives us life.”

The weekend featured the culminating events of the festival: a volcano hike and the carnaval.  Both activities have greatly increased in size since 2010, the festival’s inaugural year.  At 6 a.m. over 400 people boarded six school buses that trundled up the dirt roads to the base of the Volcan las pilas.  Teenagers and families struggled to climb the steep trail, which cleaved through loose volcanic sand then leveled out in the shade of secondary forest.  Many people wore flimsy sandals and carried heavy bags of food for lunch, with no hiking gear to speak of.  Yet, amazingly, the vast majority made it up the four-hour trek to the summit.  On the way up I met some girls who’d taken off their shoes and were walking back down the trail, and I gave them a pep talk and some water to convince them to keep going.

When we finally summited (after a much-needed break for lunch), they all agreed the vista was worth it: immense Lake Xolotlán, the distant church spires of León, the bright blue crater lake Asoscosa, and green growth spilling down the volcano’s flanks.  A fumarole smoked above us and soon mist rolled in, reducing visibility to less than 100 feet.

We were surrounded by secondary forest and ranchland—the primary forest was cut down as recently as a decade ago.  The previous weekend on an exploratory hike with Sonati we bushwhacked down from the summit to primary forest, completely shaded by hundred-foot gray-barked ceiba and feathery-leaved acacia trees, the faint trail littered with yellow jocote fruit and matted with ferns.  We walked vertiginously close to the sheer edge of the crater, where green foliage poured down beyond our view, a tangle of canopy and vines, calls of white-face monkeys echoing below.

The next day the mapaches put the finishing touches on their skit, song and dance performance for the carnaval.  But a few hours before the parade was set to start it started raining—hard.  Just 30 minutes before the skies cleared.  I quickly painted raccoon eyes on each mapache and we jumped on a crowded bus to cross town.  There we joined hundreds of students from other schools, dressed as turtles, flowers, and trash monsters. One girl wore an incredible dress designed by her mother made entirely out of woven, diamond-shaped pieces of plastic soda bottles.  A giant caterpillar was brought to life by a handful of teenagers, like a dragon from Chinese New Year.  A group of teenagers waved banners with messages like, “the tropical forest is life” from atop stilts.  Since this is Nicaragua, where there is always music, and also a carnaval, one of the trucks in the parade blared salsa, merengue, and even reggaeton as we danced through the streets.  People came out of their homes and stores to cheer and wave and vendors set up stands to sell food and drinks.

The mapaches were at the head of the parade carrying Sonati’s banner and taking turns leading dances.  When we arrived at the city center each school group performed and were judged for the quality of their environmental message.  As representatives of Sonati the mapaches were not part of the competition, so they performed first.  With perky tails made of shredded, re-used plastic bags threaded on wire, they pretended they were on the banks of a river, washing their food, when a hunter appeared, capturing some for pets and scaring off the rest.  Then the hunter returned to cut down trees and throw trash in the river.  At the end of their skit, the hunter was enlightened by one of the raccoons, freeing the ones he captured, and bringing the trees back to life (my starring role—a resurrected tree!)

First place in the competition went to a high school whose performance included beautiful costumes made out of recycled materials, a graceful dance, and dramatic scenes of destruction of a forest followed by its restoration.  A light rain returned during the last performances, bringing the energy of the day to a quiet end.

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