Off the Beaten Path: A Fiesta to Remember in Tonaca

Siguanaba, Headless Priest
and Cipitio
The sun fell low in the sky.  At every turn we were confronted by ghosts and ghouls, devils, screaming women, and headless priests.  She was there...the Siguanaba!  Along with her pitiful little son, Cipitio. 

The legends of Tonacatepeque had come to life as they do every year for the November 1st Fiesta de la Calabiuza.  (Calabiuza is a word which is like the Spanish word calabaza which means "pumpkin" - but in the local vernacular means "skull.")  Characters from imagination and legend wandered the cobbled streets and posed for photos.  Some ran up to us, screaming and acting their roles with great enthusiasm.

As the evening light grew dim, the characters gathered around their hand-drawn carts - some with metal bases, some constructed of wood and bamboo, most with big wooden wheels. Adorned with skulls, coffins, large paper-maché characters, and carved calabiuza skulls, the carts were designed and decorated by different school and community groups.  The competition was stiff.  Who would win the award for most authentic and most frightening?

Preparing to march in the evening parade

Over the years, Salvadoran friends, especially those born and raised in Tonaca, have woven their spooky tales for us late into the night.  These legends hearken back to Nahuat ancestors.  Over the centuries, colonial culture and Christian morality have seeped into some of the stories, but the people of Tonaca proudly claim to have preserved and carried the lore of the indigenous peoples into the modern era.
The Screamer
Despite years of listening to tales, there are many stories we do not fully understand and there always seem to be new characters emerging.  After doing a little digging, I finally learned that the boy with the screaming red face is known as El Gritón (The Screamer) whose cries pierce through the silence of the night out in the countryside and in the mountains.  The tale goes something like this:

As the sun sets and the darkness rises, perhaps some brave souls will venture out beyond Calvary or will remain too late in the hills.  If you are out after dark, beware!  Without your white cadejo (dog) at your side, you will not know where to go.  The heat of the evening will be broken by a rush of cold air, and the leaves above you will rustle violently.  You will turn a corner and it will hit you - a piercing scream like none you have ever heard before!  Suddenly from behind the figure will appear, and then all of a sudden it is in front of you.  You will try to move, but it will be futile.  You will be paralyzed with fright because you have no idea how this gigantic figure was first behind you, and then ahead of you, spreading over you its cold shadow and piercing scream.  For three days you will not know who you are nor whether you are alive or dead as you lie in your bed trembling with fever and fear.  So beware...

It would not be a fiesta
without the light sabers.
Entrepreneurs of all
sorts had a good evening.
We waited in the dark for the parade to begin.  Torches on the sides of the carts were set aflame, and were pulled to and fro along the route as if they were about to crash into the crowd.  Old pieces of corrugated tin dragged along the ground behind the carts, creating an eerie thunder.  The characters screamed and lurched at the spectators.  It was magnificent.

After the parade, we held onto one another and wormed our way through the tight crowd.  "We are headed toward Calvary," Pastor Santiago said.

Calvary after dark.

"Every town has a place called Calvary," he continued.  "It is at the edge of town, and whenever there is a procession or a march, it ends at Calvary."  We passed by a big stage.  The mayor was giving out awards and loud music interspersed with announcements from the local pizza place.  We found friends selling their crafted jewelry.  It was a good night for artisans.

Just before we made it to Calvary, we found friends at the FMLN tent.  The women gave us steaming bowls of ayote (like calabaza or pumpkin) which had been cooked for hours in a sauce made from panela (solid sugar made from boiling cane juice).  Everyone who wanted a big bowl was served.  We sat in plastic chairs, eating our ayote con panela.

At about 8:30 PM we wormed our way back through the crowd.  We wandered through the park.  The statue of Cipitio and the fountain have been enlarged as part of a park beautification project.  We ran into friends from our sister church community along the way, all of whom were pretty surprised to see us.  It was a memorable night of story and fun, in the light and in the dark, with the ghosts and ghouls and families of Tonaca at the Fiesta de la Calabiuza.

A cart - much more scary in person


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