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Clarity through sleepy eyes


As a new Spanish speaker, I often find myself asking for people to repeat themselves in order to understand them. Needless to say, things get lost in translation. Sometimes I can’t tell if I’ve heard the speaker incorrectly, or if he’s actually saying something strange. Most recently, this happened during the week before Holy Week, or Semana Santa.

I was talking to Lorena, one of the Valley staff, about helping the students with the alfombras. These colorful creations are part of the traditional Guatemalan Semana Santa experience. Literally translating to “rug,” an alfombra is made by dyeing sawdust different colors and using the mixture to create a large picture in the middle of the road.

Then, on Good Friday, giant religious processions walk through the streets with alfombras, stopping every so often to pray and sing. Some cities, like Antigua, are so well known for their intricate alfombras that people from all over the world come to visit during Semana Santa to see the artist’s works in the streets.

At Valley, the students are on break for all of Semana Santa, so we celebrate Good Friday a week early with a Via Cruz procession in which the students star. The day before the performance, the middle and high-school girls create the alfombras with the help of the teachers.

“What time should I come to help?” I asked Lorena.

“We start after dinner and will go until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning,” she replied.

Como?” Surely, this was a case of my Spanish skills failing me.

Lorena smiled and repeated herself. I had heard correctly; we would be making alfombras until the early morning.

Outline of an alfom

Outline of an alfombra.

After dinner I walked down the road where the alfombra designs were being sketched out with chalk. By 7:00 it was getting dark quickly and various extension cords were running from the nearby boy’s dorm to power several light bulbs to help illuminate the pavement. My fellow missioner Amanda and I stopped at a particularly intricate alfombra sketch that some of my 6th grade students were helping with.

Time passed and as 9:30 p.m. approached I wondered where the pigmented sawdust was. I asked one of the teachers who was supervising this group. “I’m about to send everyone to bed,” she casually remarked. “We’ll meet back here to fill in the picture at 1:30 a.m. That way we can get four hours of sleep.”


Procession stopping to pray at an alfombra.


This response made no sense to me. The now familiar feeling of cluelessness flooded my mind as I said goodnight and walked back to my apartment. I passed by clusters of girls working on their own alfombras by candlelight, singing songs, and chatting amongst themselves. As instructed, I returned a few hours later and worked on our alfombra until 4:30 a.m. Some groups didn’t finish until 7 a.m. No one that helped slept much.

I remarked to Amanda the other day that I don’t think certain things in Guatemala will ever make sense to me. I find myself saying this when I see things that would not happen in the U.S.: a baby in his mother’s arms on the back of a motorcycle; a trash pile burning on the side of a mountain; a stray dog running into a church during mass.

Reflecting on this, I thought of a quote by the Anglican Rev. Max Warren: “Our first task in approaching another people, another culture, another religion, is to take off our shoes, for the place we are approaching is holy; else we may find ourselves treading on someone’s dreams. More serious still, we may forget that God was there before our arrival.”

I’ve realized that while certain aspects of this culture may not make sense to me—a white North American—they are not mine to change. This school, this culture, and these people have existed long before me and will continue to exist after me.   My job in Guatemala is not to suggest ways to make alfombra-making easier to understand for my American sensibilities. It is to embrace the culture and its children with open arms and love them unconditionally, annoyances and all, as Christ does.

Recreation of the Passion.

Recreation of the Passion.

Maeve Gilheney-Gallagher is a returned lay missioner with Franciscan Mission Service who served for two years at Valley of the Angels orphanage in Guatemala City, Guatemala. She currently serves on the FMS Board and works as the Global Solidarity Coordinator for the Archdiocese of Washington’s Office of Mission. She lives in Washington, DC with her husband, Dan, and three-legged dog, Lola.