Today is Quema del Diablo (Burning the Devil) in Guatemala, an intrinsic part of the preparations for Christmas that has the usual unverifiable speculation about “origins” associated with it. But there is obviously a nugget of truth in these speculations. On this date people in cities throughout Guatemala build bonfires and burn effigies of the devil at around 6 pm. Traditionally this marked the beginning of the Christmas season (which climaxes on Christmas Eve – not Christmas Day – as is true throughout Latin America).
The underlying idea seems to be that this is the moment to cleanse everything in preparation for the Christmas season. Tomorrow (December 8) is the feast of the Immaculate Conception which, in much of Latin America signals the beginning of Christmas (or did, at one time). So the eve of the feast is the perfect time to get rid of the old and welcome in the new. I am a little reminded of Mircea Eliade’s Myth of the Eternal Return in which he argues that the turn of the year happens at different times in different cultures, but the underlying principle is the same everywhere whether the turning point is Halloween, Shrovetide, or New Year’s Eve – get rid of all the old stuff that burdens you and welcome in a fresh, clean start. In the Western Christian calendar, the first Sunday in Advent is the start of the new ecclesiastical year. The church colors change from green to purple, the lectionary Bible readings begin a new cycle, and so forth.
The long practice in Guatemala has been to symbolize this cleansing of the old by getting rid of all the clutter and garbage in the house, putting it on the street, and burning it on a big bonfire. People still do this although it is more of a token than an actual cleansing, building fogarones (burning fires) as they are called in dialect. Somewhere along the line, effigies of the devil were added to the mix and this is now the usual custom.
A generation ago the burning of the devil was a very big deal, and older people look back on their childhood memories with great fondness. This website is typical – http://growingupbilingual.com/2012/latino-parenting/la-quema-del-diablo-the-death-or-transformation-of-a-guatemalan-tradition/
Every year, as a child, I would look forward with excitement to December 7th. On that day we would gather old newspapers, magazines and cardboard boxes that we had been collecting in the garage for months and make a big pile on the street next to the curve. We would wait for my father to come home from work and go out to buy a bright red devil piñata, cuetes and ametralladoras (firecrackers and long strings of firecrackers 6 or 8 feet long) from one of the street vendors that had set up wooden stands on Avenida de las Americas and all around the city.
We would then come home and put the devil at the top of the pile of trash, get out the garden hose and an antique hay fork that belonged to my grandfather and wait for 6pm to arrive. As we stood on the sidewalk and looked down and up the street we could see many families gathered outside in front of their piles of trash, some with devils some without.
At six everyone would light up their pile. We would watch as the devil piñata caught fire, sometimes we would strategically place some firecrackers inside of it other times we would just throw firecrackers into the huge bone fire and watched as garbage and devil where consumed by the flames. In December nights are starting to get chilly in Guatemala and the whole family would gather together on the sidewalk, one of us venturing closer to the big fire to throw firecrackers or use the heavy pitch fork to push the trash together into the center of the fire.
Every year we tried to make the pile bigger and it had become somewhat of a competition. We wanted to have the biggest fire on the block and some years my mom would even buy two or three hay bales to add to our pile if we didn’t have enough trash. As the years went by we had our share of what I then considered exciting memories and now look back on as pretty scary situations that could have gone bad. One year we made the fire too close to a tree and the tree caught fire. In Guatemala firemen are only called for life or death emergencies and a tree on fire did not qualify so we quickly got the garden hose and my parents put out the fire while we ran around excitedly screaming and pointing a the poor tree. After that we started making the fire in front of the garage and away from the trees and ever since that day the garden hose was always ready in case of emergencies. Did I mention that my parents would sometimes pour a little gasoline on the pile to get the fire started!?
A few days before December 7th stands and kiosks selling devils and fireworks would appear like magic on every corner of main streets and avenues around the city. The devils of all sizes ranging from one foot to 12 made of paper mache and chicken wire hanging and waiting to be bought and burned. After La Quema del Diablo the stands would remain on the streets until New Year, the devils replaced by more fireworks and sometimes holiday wreaths and other Christmas decorations. Most of these vendors came from small towns or from the poor and marginal areas of the city and they turned these makeshift wooden stands into their homes, sometimes bringing along their families, children and all. They would spend the entire holiday season living on the streets, sleeping surrounded by fireworks. Every year there would be accidents, someone would throw a cigarette butt and the fireworks would quickly catch fire, one little shop setting a row of 10 or 15 similar shops on fire and some of these vendors losing their lives.
Over the years the festivities got a little out of hand in some locations. Some people used the fires to burn car tires, old appliances, and other materials that produced toxic smoke that polluted the cities and endangered the environment. Generally speaking Guatemala is becoming more conscious of the dangers of the festivity in terms of health and safety. In recent years the Ministerio del Medio Ambiente (Ministry of the Environment) has campaigned strongly against the tradition and it has definitely toned down.
In the city of Antigua there is still a very boisterous tradition tinged with political overtones as described here: http://www.perceptivetravel.com/issues/0210/guatemala.html
In front of Antigua, Guatemala’s Devil is a message from him addressed to his “colleagues.” It is strikingly regretful. It begins, “I dreamt last night that everything was beautiful, that there was a Guatemala without violence, without kidnapping, corruptions, gangs, dictators, extortionists, poverty, and drug addicts.” After continuing to describe the happy, ideal society of his dreams, the devil’s message continues, “But when I awoke, I realized that everything was a sad, crude reality. This is why I live below.” He ends by saying that one reaps what he sows, and although he will burn at six, he also “wants the Guatemala that everyone wants.”
I think we all want what Guatemala wants. Meanwhile, let’s consider stuffed peppers cooked in the Guatemalan style. The peppers are mild, but smaller than Western bell peppers, and stuffed with a mix of meat and vegetables, coated in a whipped egg batter and fried. The egg batter is just eggs that are separated and beaten, then combined and used to coat the stuffed peppers. Here’s a video if you are not Spanish challenged.
To supplement, here’s a good recipe. If you look in the video you will see that Guatemalan bell peppers are smaller than the usual Western ones. Don’t use big peppers.
Chiles Rellenos Guatemaltecos
1 cup finely diced cooked carrot
1½ cups finely diced cooked potato
1 cup finely diced green beans
1 onion, finely diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
½ lb minced cooked chicken meat
1 crushed bay leaf
6 eggs, separated
1 tbsp flour (approx)
8 bell peppers
For the salsa
10 tomatoes, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 hot chile pepper, chopped
Start by making the salsa. Put the ingredients in a pot and cover with water. Simmer gently for at least an hour. Then cool and pulse in a food processor. Set aside.
Cut off the tops of the peppers and clean out the seeds and pith without damaging the skin. Place them in boiling water and simmer until they are soft, but not too limp. Drain and cool.
Combine the stuffing ingredients – vegetables, meat, and herbs. Stuff the peppers with the mixture being careful not to pack them too tightly.
Whip the egg whites to soft peaks. Sift in the flour and whip to combine. Beat the yolks and then gently fold them a little at a time into the whites.
Heat oil to the depth of about ½” in a deep wide skillet over medium-high heat.
Thoroughly coat the stuffed peppers with the egg mixture by dipping them in the mix. Place them in the hot oil and sauté on one side until browned, then flip and cook the other side. Do this in batches.
Serve hot with the salsa. They are also good as the filling for crusty buns with some fresh lettuce and onions.