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  • Alfombras de Aserrín: The Guatemalan Sawdust Carpets

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    During Lent and Semana Santa (Holy Week) processions in Guatemala, hundreds of men dressed in purple-peaked hoods and capes and women in black carry seventeenth-century statues of Jesus and Mary on three-ton cedar platforms from the Catholic churches. Along their route, families and neighbors make flower and sawdust carpets—called alfombras de aserrín—on the streets in front of their homes. It’s a sign of their faith in God, devotion to Jesus, and love of tradition.

    Since 2000, this 400-year-old Guatemalan tradition has also been practiced in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., by the Guatemalan communities here. Ubaldo Sánchez has been the prime mover in his Guatemalan and indigenous Mam community in Virginia and D.C., teaching others the colorful art form. We formed a collective who work together under the name Alfo-Conce.

    At the Folklife Festival, Ubaldo, David Lopez, Astrid Garcia, and the Viajeros de las Americas have created a beautiful alfombra on the theme of migration, using dyed sawdust, rice, beans, and ears of corn. It shows the U.S. Capitol Building, the American flag, and indigenous peoples.

    The process begins by gathering sawdust from local lumber yards, which is then dyed with brightly colored aniline dyes from Guatemala. We cut out various stencils by hand to make the designs—in this case, the Smithsonian sunburst and our 50th anniversary logo make an appearance.

    The next step is to lay down a background color. A stencil is placed on it, and the pattern is filled in with contrasting colored sawdust. At last, when all areas are filled, the stencil is lifted and the image is revealed. Here in the United States, the artists have developed new techniques and often freehand draw the main image and add finishing touches with spray paint. The tradition is now evolving in our new home.

    The alfombra is ephemeral art, meant to be enjoyed in the moment—a show of devotion to and appreciation for our cultural heritage.

    Yolanda Alcorta is the organizer for Viajeros de las Americas.

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