Independence Day in Chimazat, Guatemala

July 4th is not celebrated in Guatemala except by expats, Peace Corps workers, the Marines at the American Embassy and a few wandering tourists. But Guatemala has its own “dia de independencia” which is observed on September 15th. Guatemala and Mexico share the same Independence Day as they separated from Spain together in 1821 with Guatemala breaking with Mexico in 1823.

Their fiesta has the good fortune of occurring while school is still in session. In the indigenous village of Chimazat, where our son lives, the independence day celebration is combined with their feria (a fair derived from a saint’s day). The Queen of Chimazat had been crowned the day before we arrived. She will represent the town for a year and will travel to other competitions.

We attended an evening grade school performance where queens are selected to represent the school. The children in the younger grades dressed in various native garb. Shy bows by young boys were matched by demure curtsies from the young girls as they began a traditional dance. Words were swallowed and hurried when a child spoke. As the grades progressed, the old lost out to the new. Costumes and performances became looser and stranger. The 5th grade Snow White wore a Santa hat and a yellowish squirrel outfit while the dwarfs’ beards were cotton balls taped on the face. Sixth graders disguised themselves in Halloween masks and danced wildly, without form.
At least three hundred parents attended. The mothers wore their ornate, flowered, traditional huipils (or blouses) and slyly acknowledged the modern world with high heels. Dads lounged at the back. We could have been watching a performance at Aikin Elementary as parents crouched in front of the stage to photograph or film their child. At the end of the evening, all of the queens were presented – the Sports Queen, Independence Day Queen, Miss Congeniality, a queen for each grade, the Queen of the School. There was a crowd of crowns.

Every village and town in Guatemala had parades on Independence Day, primarily centered around school children. Each grade marched with a different indigenous or school outfit and played instruments such as flutes or xylophones. Our favorite marching band was seen in a nearby town where the Salvation Army equipped the children in their school with sharp uniforms and serious drums and bugles. Mothers and teachers walked along with the classes. And, in Chimazat, each newly crowned queen reigned from a large arm chair in the back of a pickup filled with balloons, carnations, roses, and daisies. (We could have had a small wedding with the flowers used for the queens’ carriages.) These diminutive members of the royalty took their position seriously and didn’t smile or wave with their glove covered hands.

Fuegos were popular. These were groups of school children who ran from town to town with the lead child holding a burning torch. Each school had a destination. Even traffic on the Pan American Highway slowed for the determined students who often ran miles. A school bus followed for any stragglers.
Independence Day itself had a familiar feel. Fireworks exploded throughout the day. Flags flew from homes and businesses. Most families had a large (late) lunch and were joined by out of town guests and family members. We dined with our son’s friends, Josefina and Antolin, and their extended family. Tables were moved outside to the courtyard and every available chair placed around them. The household’s cats, dogs, baby ducks and geese joined us as well as some fairly friendly bees. The food had simmered for hours in enormous pots over wood fires. After a blessing, large bowls of pepian, a Guatemalan favorite, were served. It’s a steaming caldo (or soup) filled with rice, turkey, green beans, and potato and flavored with pumpkin and sesame seed. As we finished, another round of 20 relatives arrived and replaced us at the table.

There were also soccer matches and games such as catching a greased pig or climbing a greased pole to grab a 100 Quetzal bill (worth about $12). The latter was much harder than it looked and the clever, successful team was a father whose child climbed on his back. For those who partake of alcohol, it was also an accepted day of indulgence.

But there is a political edge to the celebration. Nobel Peace Prize winner, Rigoberta Menchu, explains in her autobiography, ” I, Rigoberta Menchu,” that Independence Day is a ladino celebration, only for those descended from the Spaniards or of mixed heritage. She believes the indigenous of Guatemala were not liberated in 1821 and they continue to struggle for equal rights and freedom from discrimination. Sadly, there is a long history of such treatment.
Whatever the date, Independence Day is important to acknowledge. It indicates a transition and a connection to the courage of our ancestors. Fireworks, food, family unite us regardless of country. So, until the next column, remember “All the world loves a parade.”
A wonderful authentic tour of this beautiful area of Guatemala is conducted by Walker Clark (our son) with the help of his many Guatemalan friends. His web site is

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