Local Leon neighborhood's Good Friday tradition
04/03/2015 - 04/03/2015 97 °F
One of the locals works on his sawdust carpet amid the blaze of color of his neighbor's efforts
Although I grew up Catholic, I would hesitate to say that I am devout follower of my denomination's traditions. Fish is not my Friday meal and I don't confess my sins to a priest. What's more, compared to the enthusiasm shown by the residents of Sutiaba neighborhood, I may as well be a heathen sacrificing a bull to Zeus! They show their devoutness with a colorful, annual tradition whose beauty lasts for only part of one day. The residents of the neighborhood compete with one another to design the most colorful and beautiful, religious-themed carpet made of colored sawdust. They create them on the streets of their little section of Leon, and both tourists and citizens flock to watch them work. The beautiful carpets are blazoned with themes such as the baptism of Jesus, Jesus as the Good Shepherd, or religious symbols such as chalices, doves, and crosses. These colorful works of art are meant to be obliterated, though, by the people who march during an evening religious procession through the streets.
Step One: Create the frame for your carpet and water the sawdust and tamp it down into a smooth surface
Step Two: Residents mix bags of colored sawdust as they stand next to their "canvas" on which they will create their image
Thankfully, our last day in Nicaragua turned out to be Good Friday, which gave me a chance to witness this tradition first-hand. We took two trips down to the Sutiaba by cab (less than $2 each way). On our first trip in the late morning, the residents were setting up the bases for their carpets. Most had framed the rectangular area with wood and poured sawdust into the area about 3"-4" deep. They watered the sawdust and then pounded it down to create a smooth surface. After they are satisfied with their "canvas," they sketch out their design with a pointed object. Most look off of paper sketches, photocopied paintings, or even pictures on their cell phones for inspiration. They then begin to mix up the bags of colored sawdust. Light-colored sawdust is poured into a watertight plastic bag, and is combined with paint and water. These are shaken to ensure the color works its way through the sawdust thoroughly. The whole family or neighborhood gets involved in this. During this time, vendors begin to stake out their places to sell food, drink, or trinkets to the crowds.
A family works on the details of its carpet in the Sutiaba neighborhood
An artist incorporates flowers into his carpet's colorful design
We timed our second visit perfectly, arriving around 4 pm. Some of the carpets were completed, but many were still being worked on. Time seemed to stop as we walked and others in the gathering crowd walked from carpet to carpet, photographing the artists at work. Some of the larger carpets had as many as a half dozen people working on them at once. On Most, it was easy to spot the main artist, who directed assistants to fill in background portions while they concentrated on the highly-detailed parts of the artwork. A number sprinkled packets of appropriately-colored glitter into parts of their scenes to make it sparkle and stand out. We saw one artist working in flowers and vegetables into his work. Some were done flat, while others were formed in relief, with parts of the drawing higher than others.
Residents use pictures and sketches -- even cell phone images -- as inspiration for their canvas
Their care and attention to detail was inspiring. It was heart warming to see a family working together on their devotional offering. Children sat by their parents watching and learning. Teens pitched in and were coached by more experienced members of the family. Some of the carpet designs were very amateur, and you could tell that it was a work of the heart -- not necessarily of art. However, others were stunningly rendered, with shading and subtle variations in color. You would see them smoothing two colors together to blend them on the surface. We even noticed carpets that incorporated prepainted styrofoam sections. One showed a bishop whose clothes were done in colored sawdust, but whose face and hands had been painted on styrofoam and were then placed into that part of the carpet. We disagreed on whether the minority who did this were "cheating" or not. Certainly, it would be much easier to paint a design on styrofoam than it would be to create it from a mosaic of bags and bags of different colored sawdust.
Scenes had religious themes, such as Jesus as the Good Shepherd
I was shocked to look at my watch and see two hours had gone by. We'd been told that the crowds would grow into a wall-to-wall mass of people by the time of the procession. It was getting packed when we decided to call it quits and go to dinner. Although we could have eaten at one of the numerous street vendors, I have never been a fan of "fair food." So, we decided to escape the throng entirely and checked out a restaurant our guidebook had recommended.
We joined the throngs checking out the creations of the residents
Our shuttle to the Managua airport would not pick us up until 9 pm. We had been essentially "homeless" on our last day in Nicaragua, ever since our noon checkout. In between our two visits to the Sutiaba, we'd paid $6 apiece to the nearby Hotel Azul to use their pool and facilities. We lounged for a few hours in the cool water, letting the sun beat down on us while the midday heat raged. It was a relaxing, low-key way to end our week in Nicaragua. The colorful carpets of Sutiaba were certainly worth the inconvenience of not having a hotel room for that day. Being able to watch the devotion shown by its residents was a special moment in my travels. I know that, at times, on this trip I groused whether Nicaragua was living up to my expectations. In the recount of my travels, would I recall my time in Nicaragua fondly? The final two days in Leon ended the trip on a high note. Walking amidst the scenes of religious splendor created by ordinary men and women in a poor Nicaraguan neighborhood will forever be a colorful spot in my memory.
Simple tools and even simpler ingredients blended to create works of art destined to live only for part of one day
Although these images have all been trampled and obliterated, the memory of them will linger in my recollections of Nicaragua