Friday, August 26, 2011

The Guatemalan Feria

What happens when Guatemalans get together to celebrate their patron saints? Fireworks lit off within 10 meters of their 450-year-old church, that's what happens. (As an aside, when the first shell went off, I nearly hit the ground, certain that some sort of gang warfare had just broken out. The man next to me commented, "Don't worry! It's just fireworks." I might have pointed out that in New York, we rarely light fireworks 30 feet away from a crowd of 400 people. But no need to get into all the complexities of cultural differences in risk perception, or we'll be here all night.)

My reaction to feria last year might be chalked up to cultural differences. The whole thing struck me as crowded, uninteresting, and mildly grungy. The streets were filled with rigged carnival games, marimba bands, "costume dances" where grown men gyrate their hips for hours on end while dressed as Xena Princess Warrior, ladies selling peanuts and bland biscuits in ring shapes. Impromptu cantinas covered in Gallo beer advertisements, food stands selling lots of exotic stuff that scream trouble for the digestive tract, strange drunk men, carnival rides ready to break apart in mid-air and throw their riders to certain death. In case you don't get the idea, space is rented to the vendors in units of 1 square meter. A Guatemalan feria is a US county fair or street festival on steroids.

Now that I've come to know the feria, I could talk about it from the perspective of the town and its significance in local culture, for better or for worse. I could talk about the human need for community and collective ritual and holidays centered around those things. I could... But instead, feria comes to mind this year more from own perspective. This year I realized my need for community; my need for collective ritual; my need for a holiday I could participate in. This year the feria struck me differently.

It might be that this was my first feria living in the center of town, away from my Evangelical host family, my first feria free to experience the Catholic culture here. My first feria since I've made good friends here. My first feria where there were people I was excited to run into on the street and pass time with. My first feria where I had someone to drink a beer with, watch fireworks with, eat cheese-filled tortillas with.

It might be that this was my first feria where rather than being surrounded by strangers, rather than feeling isolated by fright or indignation or indifference, rather than being the unwanted foreigner, I was finally invited to participate among friends.

It might be that this was my first feria where it felt like my town, and not just someplace I was living.

It might be that I was finally home.

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