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 Photo: Sam Chadwick
 Photo: Steve Burger

Guatemala: The Drunken Races of Todos Santos
By Nick Hunt

By ten o'clock in the morning I’ve taken several liberal swigs from a bottle of aguadiente, a local sugar cane liquor, and hauled myself up to the vantage point of a half-constructed concrete roof to witness the spectacle of dozens of horsemen galloping wildly up and down the dusty road, all of them in stages of advanced drunkenness.

Several riders have already fallen. There are bloody noses and broken limbs this morning. But no-one lets this put a dampener on their day, the biggest and most exciting fiesta of the year here in the northwest highlands of Guatemala; indeed, the danger of the race is its thrill. Below me, packed along both sides of the road, is a sea of heads in blue-brimmed, round, straw hats, part of the traditional costume or traje of the town, along with the distinctive red and white striped trousers and elaborately patterned blue blouses. The galloping horsemen are resplendent in brightly feathered hats, the most daring of them riding without reins, their arms stretched out on either side of them, or even—as the ultimate demonstration of bravado—clutching live chickens by the legs as they rode.

This is the small town of Todos Santos Cuchamatan, and the races are part of the annual Día de los Muertos festivities. The Day of the Dead, most famously celebrated in Mexico, is also an important event throughout Guatemala, particularly in isolated rural areas such as this. It is not only a day to remember and honour the deceased but to celebrate the lives that they lived, and the Guatemalans take their celebrations very seriously. In the weeks leading up to the events, tombstones are freshly painted in bright colours—the Catholics use white while the Evangelicals, who have recently made much headway into Guatemalan religious life, use blue or green—and on the day itself, families gather in the cemetery with flowers, candles, decorations, alcohol, and food. The local marimba bands circulate in the graveyard playing by request on top of the most popular tombs, while families drink and dance on top of the graves of their loved ones.

It is a time of strong emotions: from intense happiness and joy to intense grief, and this is augmented by the state of intense drunkenness which continues throughout the week of the fiesta. For the entire five days that I spend in Todos Santos, the majority of the town is drunk. And by drunk I don't mean tipsy. People are unconscious in the gutters by midday. Women are stumbling along the streets supporting barely-conscious husbands; men are stumbling along the streets supporting barely-conscious wives. Old men are cackling and hiccoughing in every shop doorway. The little town jail is full although the friends of the incarcerated are still free to pass drinks and cigarettes through the bars, so the party continues just the same inside. The manic sound of the marimbas never ends. I have never seen a town in a state of such revelry for so long.

And then there is the other entertainment. A rickety Ferris wheel spins slowly through the air occasionally stopping to leave couples stranded at the top. A troupe of travelling performers dance the Dance of the Bull dressed in masks depicting caricature Spaniards with enormous noses and moustaches painted gold. There is a punch-like figure in a leopard costume who plays tricks on the crowd stealing oranges from children and trying to look up girls' skirts. There is also a popular sideshow called “The Disembodied Head”, which features a pretty young woman's head in a mirrored box, with no visible body, the queue for which stretches the length of the street although apparently some people are avoiding it, saying it might be witchcraft. And over all of this activity comes the incessant boom of exploding fireworks, which ricochet along the slopes of the valley and out of the mountains, heading south.

But the races are the reason I am here. Several hundred other travellers and tourists have descended on the town for this event; the few hotels that exist are full, so most people have found accommodation on the floors of local houses. The people of Todos Santos are proud of their fiesta and happy that outsiders are prepared to travel for hours or days over pot-holed mountain roads to see it, even happy for visitors to accompany them to the cemetery, where the real grieving is done. Perhaps this is because although the Day of the Dead is in one sense a private remembrance of death, it is also a very public celebration of life. And the races with their splendour and crazy bravado celebrate life in all its vibrant intensity; they are, quite literally, death-defying.

The main event is in fact not so much a race as a test of endurance. The aim is not to outdistance the others but to outlast them, as well as bettering the competition in acts of daring to win the praises of the crowd.It is considered a great honour to take part, and even more of an honour to suffer an injury through falling. Falls have in the past been fatal; this is considered the highest honour of all. These races have been taking place for hundreds of years, originating, by one theory, soon after the Spanish introduced horses to the Guatemalan highlands. The Mayans were a proud people and wanted to prove that they could handle these unfamiliar animals as well as their colonial 'masters;' hence the heavy drinking, which demonstrated that they could ride as well as any Spaniard even in states of extreme intoxication. Whether this is true or not, the event still possesses an amazing sense of dignity, despite all the scenes of drunkenness. As well as being an exhibition of  recklessness, it is a show of fortitude, of stubbornness, of strength—all of which the Mayan people have needed to withstand five hundred years of attempts to undermine or eradicate their culture.

This is particularly pertinent in the town of Todos Santos, which is renowned for the strength of its adherence to Mayan traditions. Not only do the men wear full traje—an unusual thing in Guatemala, where even in rural areas most men wear Western-style clothes, but many people still use the Mayan calender, an ancient system which pre-dates the Spanish invasion by thousands of years. In the face of continued and frequently violent repression, the region has managed to remain proud of its history and culture. What these races really show is the ability of the indigenous tribes to adapt to new ways of life—such as horse-riding—at the same time as resisting the most destructive advances of the invaders, who sought to conquer not only Mayan strength but Mayan identity. The wild displays of this festival seem to suggest that any attempt has, ultimately, failed.

I lose count of how many riders fall in the course of this year's race upholding these centuries-old traditions. There are plenty of minor injuries and plenty more near misses, many lucky escapes and many empty bottles by the side of the track.  By the end of the day some of the horsemen are visibly slipping in and out of consciousness in their saddles. Sometime towards late afternoon the last remaining rider falls and is carried off the road, bleeding but triumphant, by the jubilant straw-hatted crowd. The Todos Santos races are over for another year; the celebrations of life and of death go on, and of course, the drinking continues.


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