March 23, 2024

The Burning of Judas

The Burning of Judas

Holy Week in Guatemala is renowned for the beautiful flower carpets, or alfombras, that adorn all the streets, most spectacularly in Antigua but in other towns as well.

Cajolá’s Easter Celebration is a lot more quiet, however. During Lent there are processions of the faithful Catholics. But everyone in the town observes Holy Week, whatever their religion or lack of same, by baking bread. It is a time to be fanciful, so bread might look like a turtle, a crown, or a turkey. The people might purchase their bread from a bakery, but often they purchase it from one of the many families that have a huge wood burning oven just for that purpose. This time of year it is common for someone to arrive with a 25 pound bag of flour and the remaining ingredients and the “baker” of the house will bake their bread. For those bakers it is almost a 24 hour a day project for the week leading up to Holy Week. Of course, they will also make bread for themselves, their friends and families. 

On Good Friday, Cajolá observes another tradition that is common throughout Guatemala as well as other parts of the world – the Burning of Judas or Quema de Judas. An effigy of Judas, clearly a Ladino (non-indigenous person) sporting a suit, tie, and hat, leads a parade through town with his “supporters” bearing gifts and flowers.

The parade ends in the town center where he is put into a constructed “jail cell” and then burned. In Latin America, the Burning of Judas is interpreted as the burning of a traitor, since Judas, one of the Twelve Apostles, was the one who betrayed Jesus resulting in his crucifixion on the cross. But in Cajolá as well as much of Guatemala, the identity of Judas is conflated with the identities of various heroes of Maya resistance against the Spanish colonizers. Very likely this conflation arose from the Catholic church’s early willingness to permit the Maya people to practice their own beliefs within the practices of the Catholic church. Although the church no longer accommodates this syncretism, it is still quite prevalent in many parts of Guatemala.

And for the Maya people, the burning of Judas became a way to honor their historical resistance to the colonization and on-going discrimination and oppression. Judas represents for them the many people who have resisted the colonization (and continue to resist) such as Kaji’ Imox, a Kaqchikel resistance leader hung by the Spanish in 1524, or two K’iche leaders Oxib’ Kej and B’elejeb’ Tz’I who were burned by the Spanish. And that explains why the ashes of the burned effigy of Judas are treasured. The ashes are collected and distributed among the people so they can scatter them over the corn fields which are just about to be planted.  

While the Burning of Judas is celebrated in many parts of the world, the Guatemalan tradition has taken on unique characteristics that reflect the blending of Maya spirituality with Christian beliefs.