17 December 2006

Dia del Diablo

On December 6, I received a text message from the Peace Corps Guatemala Security Coordinator that read, "Tomorrow is Dia del Diablo. Pyrotechnics, mischief, and worse. All volunteers should stay indoors after 6pm." I knew nothing of the holiday, except that I wasn't staying in.

December 7, a holiday known as el Dia del Diablo, or day of the Devil, is celebrated in various parts of Catholic Latin America. The explanation often given for this day is that the following day is the Roman Catholic Feast of the Virgin Mary. Before Mary is welcomed, however, the devil must be cleared away in all of its places residing.

El Dia del Diablo resembles Halloween in many ways. Many youths take to the streets to cause whatever mischief they can find at night. The air of the whole day is one of bad luck and bad things. During the late afternoon, people take out previously bought or made life-sized pinatas(assuming he's about 5 feet tall) of the devil and hang them in the street on ropes hung earlier, crisscrossing the street. At 5:30, I was with some co-workers in town, and watched some rowdy teenaged boys stop playing soccer (a rare occasion) to take out a gigantic red pinata to hang in the center of their street, hopelessly blocking traffic.

In my town, you could see a devil hanging within eyesight of any given place. Old garbage, pine cones, and newspapers were placed below the pinatas as the "bed of the devil". At exactly six o'clock, the bed is lit on fire, the flame inching towards the pinata. As the pinata burns, you can hear crowds cheer throughout the town. Another tradition, which I didn't know about until I was standing downwind and near the engulfed pinata, is that the pinata is filled with small firecrackers similar to black cats. As the pinata burns, fire crackers jump all around in a terrifying, exploding effigy. As the clock strikes six, you hear thousands of firecrackers exploding throughout the village, in every neighborhood, followed by cheers.
By time the last effigy is nothing but a defeated, hollow wire of an effigy, the night is dark and people are milling about buying food from the street vendors or heading home. Soon, the only people not heading away from the town centers are the teenagers about whom I was forewarned. By 7:30pm, I decided that a night of burning things that resembled devils was a bad night to be a gringo wearing a red shirt.

Dia del Diablo got me thinking about how important opposites are to religion and culture still. While in the religions of centuries ago and dozens of belief systems we consider simpler than our own contained a constant war between good and evil, light and dark, physical and magic, we usually consider our own understanding of the world significantly more complex. If you look at many of our traditions, however, we maintain that all things must be offset by their opposites. In Catholicism, 40 days of penance (Lent) exist preparing for Easter, the day representing forgiveness of man's sins. Even in Protestant Christianity, the pain and suffering of Jesus is required to offset the joy and happiness of those entering heaven. Opposites dominate collective knowledge so much.

Nonreligious collective knowledge use the same contrasts to explain away problems and be thankful for solutions. In much of popular culture, the 'Roaring 20's' were given as a time of great prosperity of the country. New forms of art and music flourished, and America prospered. In October of 1929, however, the stock market crashed and all good was offset by the Great Depression. In reality, the 1920's the country's industries did not grow that much differently than it had the decade before. The difference is that we sought to be able to contrast the two. Though financial speculation in the 1920's did have something to do with the crash of 1929, this wasn't a case of days of gluttony being offset by days of hunger. It's not that there are no times that two opposites create a clear sense of good and evil, but this is not the requisite, or even norm of phenomena.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I grew up in Guatemala. In fact I spent a lot of time in Tecpan (you know the pila ... that looks like Big Bird .. that was my parents' work ... LOL. That and many homes built. I love the black corn tortillas in Tecpan). Bumped into your blog looking for data to help me with future posts (http://www.facebook.com/dontgetlosttranslations). Well done!

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