Unapologetically Maya: Ubaldo Sánchez’s Ephemeral Alfombras
Imagine spending days intricately placing sawdust, flowers, fruits, and more on the ground depicting religious icons. Now imagine that at the end of the week, it would all be walked over and quickly swept away. For Guatemalan alfombra de aserrín (sawdust carpet) artists, the physical act of creating their art far surpasses its short-lived ephemeral reality.
Returning to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival for the third time, Ubaldo Sánchez and Guate-Maya DC are a local artistic group with roots in Guatemala Maya Mam communities. Originally from Concepción Chiquirichapa, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, Sánchez was noticed from a young age for his artistic talent, teaching others how to create alfombras. He immigrated to the United States as a teenager, enrolled in Arlington Mills High School, and, in 2009, his painting New Dawn was selected by President Barack Obama to enter the White House collection.
Since collaborating with Guatemalan art collector Yolanda Alcorta in 2007 to start creating alfombras, Sánchez has become a leader of the local Guatemalan community and has received the Order of the Quetzal in 2016, the highest award given by the Guatemalan government. Sánchez was a participant in the 2017 and 2018 Folklife Festivals, creating two alfombras to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the event and another as a cross-cultural collaboration with the Federacio Catalana d’Entitats Catifaires (Catalan Federation of Flower Carpet Organizers) to highlight Catalan culture. This year, they presented in the Pergola as part of Creative Encounters: Living Religions in the U.S.
Of course, the tradition of alfombras de aserrín goes back much further. The practice has roots in both Maya and Spanish cultures: for the Roman Catholic feast of Corpus Christi in Spain, people cover the streets with handmade rugs for processions to honor the eucharist, like the Maya tradition of setting down flowers, herbs, candles, and sacred objects as passageways to ceremonial sites for nobility to walk upon. When the Spanish conquest of the Maya began in the sixteenth century, the similarities in this shared practice were exploited to impose Christianity by hybridizing local tradition with images of Christ and the Virgin Mary.
Yet, the practice of creating these alfombras has become more nuanced over time, as contemporary Indigenous Guatemalan people reclaim it as a foundational, syncretic element of their Easter festivities. Antigua, Guatemala, is arguably the epicenter of the tradition, as alfombras as long as 150 feet line the streets from the churches with contrasting textures and colorful religious imagery. The alfombras set the base for the festivities, supplemented by burning copal, live bands playing funeral marches, loud group prayers, and large andas (processional floats) marching down the alfombras, creating an overwhelming ambiance that heightens the senses of those participating and watching.
The Body as Artist: Sánchez’s Alfombra Techniques
Three thousand miles away from home in the D.C. area, Sánchez brings this important tradition to the National Mall to promote the visibility of his culture, channeling the intangible spiritual ambiance of the processions found back home.
“Making the alfombra is a community process that demonstrates our devotion to our cultural heritage,” Sánchez says.
He takes inspiration from the Christian Bible, oral histories, the daily lives and struggles of his community members, and his physical surroundings to adapt the traditional Maya and Catholic imagery for alfombras at local churches, museums, nonprofits, embassies, and the Folklife Festival.
His materials range from bags of fifty to a hundred pounds of fine and rough sawdust from local sawmills, which are then dyed in massive quantities in buckets withhand drills, as well as white sand, fruits, vegetables, flowers, pine needles, and more. His team uses unique natural pigments that can only be sourced in Guatemala, such as a white chalk found in mountains and achiote, a yellow and orange dye from shrubs, for the alfombras’ signature saturated look. Breaking away from tradition, Sánchez often uses any items his fellow artists have on them, including oranges, rice, and even kitty litter, to assemble the alfombras and localize his materials in his new home.
Since the pigments are water-based, the alfombras must be kept wet for their bright color. Sánchez and his team regularly wet their hands and spray water onto the designs. Once they mix sawdust with pigment, they place and flatten the material with a wooden board. They add a layer of sand by either sprinkling it freehandedly through a tight fist or through stencils cut by Sánchez, and then spread it with brushes. Other materials like vegetables and pine needles are simply placed by hand.
It is hard to separate the art from the artist, as Sánchez’s body becomes part of the materials. He pushes, sprinkles, spreads, and drops materials onto the floor in a delicate, intentional manner, often leaving remnants of fingerprints and handprints. By preparing and applying the sawdust, Sánchez works along with the physicality of the material, highlighting its rough or soft texture while taking advantage of his hands and fingers as tools and spreaders of materials.
The First Alfombra: Weaving through the Rain
At this year’s Folklife Festival, Sánchez and Guate-Maya DC created two separate alfombras, each done over the course of three days. For the first time at the Festival, their designs focused primarily on the Guatemalan Maya religion and culture.
Sánchez and his team—including Kevin Cabrera Sánchez, Rocsana López Sánchez, Armando Hernández Orozco, Julio Escalanta, Carlos Sánchez, Julia Sánchez, Vicky Cabrera Sánchez, along with long-time partner Yolanda Alcorta—arrived in a pickup truck the day before the Festival to drop off several dozen large, heavy trash bags filled with dyed sawdust—a byproduct of the Festival tech crew’s construction projects. Where myself and three other interns struggled to carry even one of the extremely heavy bags, Sánchez expertly carried on his back with no hesitation.
Alcorta brought fresh flowers for the alfombras as well as altars by other participants, including the Hindu Temple of Greater Chicago and the Esparza family. Assisting Alcorta was a team of volunteers who would staff the nearby tables where visitors could play with sawdust, sand, and flowers to create their own mini alfombras by hand or with stencils.
1. The Main Point: The Altar
2. Fruit Offerings (and Smithsonian Sunbursts)
3. A Familiar Weaver and Child
The next image depicted is a Guatemalan Maya Mam woman carrying a child. Around her back, she holds a backstrap loom, used in traditional Guatemalan weaving since at least 2500 BCE. The loom stretches the warp threads (longitudinal) while the artisan weaves the weft threads (latitudinal) to produce a design over a plain weave. They are used to make huipil, a tunic-like indumentaria (ceremonial dress) worn by Indigenous women and decorated with saturated colors. Since the weaver controls the tension entirely with their body, the textile becomes an extension of their body.
In Guatemalan Maya communities, weavers use the backstrap loom to incorporate brocade: a supplementary piece of weft on top of the base layer, ending in complex, raised designs. It requires counting the threads and lifting certain threads with a stick. The whole process must be completely premeditated, either by a memorized plan or duplicating a finished model.
“Weaving and women are central to Maya life,” Alcorta shared. So, the image of a woman carrying a child and simultaneously weaving highlights ideas of nostalgia, family, and artmaking. Since huipil making has becomes less prevalent as Indigenous people in Guatemala move away or convert to fundamentalist churches that shun the religious textiles, Sánchez wanted to display the importance of the female weaver and her craft.
4. La Diosa Ixchel, Goddess of Weaving
5. An Ode to Huipil Forms
During the second evening of the Festival, a huge storm brought heavy rains. The tarp covering the alfombra ripped, allowing water to flood into the Pergola. The next day, we were shocked to find its colors washed away and blended together, creating a sort of ombré effect throughout the dyed sawdust. Ixchel suffered the most damage, and the team worked quickly to repair it for the ceremony that night, replacing it with a symbol of the Espíritu Santo (Holy Spirit) of a dove.
Although it was a quick fix, this interchanging of iconography from Maya to Catholic speaks highly to the syncretism of contemporary Maya people—regardless of where the practice of the alfombras came from, it has become its own hybrid practice.
By the end of the third day, the alfombra was repaired as best as they could manage, and Guate-Maya DC led a ceremony of burning copal, wearing huipiles, and blowing traditional whistles. As the artists and guests processed through it, the alfombra was destroyed. It was quickly swept up, and the space was prepped for the next three days of work for the final alfombra.
The Second Alfombra: La Virgen as Syncretic
1. Stylizing a Latino Icon
2. Preserving a Respected Position
Below la Virgen is an image of an Indigenous Guatemalan woman wearing traditional indumentaria from Quetzaltenango—Sánchez’s home municipality. On top of the candles and her rounded headdress, the woman has a sobre huipil, worn over her daily huipil. This garment was used by the cofradías, religious fraternities that are Maya representatives of the Catholic Church.
Selected annually, cofradías are usually couples or families in charge of organizing and financing the ceremonies for the town’s patron saint day. It’s a powerful social position to be in, but due to the modern rise of fundamentalist denominations challenging the Catholic Church in Guatemala, as well as increased migration of Indigenous people out of their hometowns, cofradías have become less popular.
In the 1990s, many newly established fundamentalist churches in Guatemala ordered their Indigenous parishes to get rid of their woven sacred indumentaria by burning or selling them. Now, these traditions are kept alive and visible through museum collections and depictions in alfombras.
3. A Maya Reminder
Under the cofradía is a large, rounded image depicting El Cargador del Tiempo (The Carrier of Time), a Maya deity who carries the weight of the whole year on his back. This specific cargador carries Ajaw, the twentieth and last glyph of the tzolk’in Maya divinatory calendar. Meaning “lord” or “ruler,” it’s a common glyph in Maya art, signifying the start of the calendar year.
The cargador is surrounded by a series of nineteen glyphs representing the Haab’, a 365-day Maya solar calendar with eighteen months of twenty days each, as well as an additional period of five nameless days known as the Wayeb’. The first month, Pop, can be seen centrally located at the top, representing by a regal mat, with Wayeb’to the left of it, and the calendar continues clockwise. These glyphs also contain markers for the four cardinal directions.
By creating an alfombra that depicts la Virgen de Guadalupe, a contemporary Indigenous cofradía, and an ancient Maya Cargador del Tiempo, Guate-Maya DC developed a visual syncretism through the sawdust, connecting three levels of identity into one.
After three days of working on the second alfombra, the group concluded with another ceremony, this time accompanied by Mariachi de Aztlán, a high school mariachi ensemble from Tucson, Arizona. Leading the procession down the alfombra was the Guate-Maya DC team and Alcorta wearing huipiles, burning copal, and blowing into a conch, followed by fellow participants including the Esparza family of altaristas, myself, and program assistant Vicky Mogollón Montagne. Afterward, the mariachi and guests were invited to walk over the alfombra, destroying it and closing out the first week of the Festival.
As I compared these two creations with previous alfombras at the Festival, it seemed to be a deliberate choice to highlight women: Ixchel, la Virgen de Guadalupe, the backstrap-loom weaver, and the cofradía. Alcorta explained that their intent this year was to feature religious syncretism through the ceremonial indumentaria and, therefore, highlight Indigenous Maya womanhood. The idea of women serving as maintainers of life and family had already existed in Maya society long before la Virgen de Guadalupe, including several of their goddesses such as Ixchel. These similarities were exploited which allowed for the initial violent conquest, but now they also allow for contemporary Indigenous groups to reclaim and reform these traditions as their own.
As someone who witnessed this craft taking shape during the Festival, I see alfombra making as an extension of the self, similar to backstrap-loom weaving. For many Indigenous Latin American art forms, the making serves a higher purpose, with an added layer of meaning through the embodiment of the process. Whether it’s expertly opening your fist to pour sand and sawdust or using your body to add tension to a loom, the final product is a celebration of culture, faith, and community labor—all in an effort to increase visibility.
“Ephemeral is hard to sell,” Alcorta told me. Within a Western culture that highly values art as a commodity, its often hard for us to imagine the worth of something that is made to disappear. But it’s the act of making that is ultimately more important to the artists.
In many ways, the Festival can be seen as ephemeral. So much work is put into these two weeks that can never be replicated. But that’s exactly why visitors come back year after year, expecting something similar yet unique to that year’s programs. As each year becomes another theme documented in the archives, we always look forward to what the next Festival can bring.
Luis Guevara-Flores is an intern in U.S. Latinx expressive culture for the Folklife Festival program Creative Encounters: Living Religions in the U.S. He is a Mexican American undergraduate student at Yale University double-majoring in art history and Latin American studies.