(CN) — Santa Lucía festivals wrapped up Friday in El Salvador. The early 4th century saint is said to have pulled out her own eyes during the Diocletian persecution — the last and worst pogrom of the soon-to-be Christianized Roman Empire — but supposedly still saw a Roman soldier plunge his sword into her neck.
Salvadorans believe she was killed for refusing to marry a rich man who craved her. Another version of the story is that she angered her rich father and he sent her to a brothel.
In Suchitoto, a city of 7,000 on the Lempa River in an ancient Mayan market town — the site of the final, hopeless battle of the Lenca and Maya against the Spanish invaders in 1537 — the Santa Lucía celebration lasts for seven days.
At 4 a.m. each day people gather and pray, in each of the seven barrios. They sing and join together to parade to the big church — the Church of Santa Lucía — for a sunrise Mass, then savor hot chocolate and sweet bread.
At 3:30 a.m. each day during the weeklong festival, church staff shoot fireworks to awake the sleepers. The rockets blast off every 5 minutes until Mass begins at dawn. They awake the dogs and the roosters, so everyone wakes up.
The festival begins with the crowning of the queen of peasant villages. Of the 82 villages in Cuscatlán Province, only 13 chose to participate this year. Candidates for the Queen of the Festival used to be called virgins, but most of them now have children now, so the promoters dropped that requirement. Still, the young women must walk in high heels as they use their guiles to influence the judges. Patriarchy dies slowly where the Catholic Church thrives.
The crowd cheers for their favorites, all of whom must face the crowd and describe their villages. They describe the crops — corn and beans — and their cows, how many families live there and the year the towns were born.
Though Suchitoto has just 7,000 residents, at least 18,000 people live in “the communities” around it, as they are known today. The communities are repopulated places where civilians were displaced by the counterinsurgency of the Salvadoran civil war (1980-1992). The U.S. military and CIA officers that President Ronald Reagan sent to “pacify” the peasants suffered a reprise of the Phoenix Program of the Vietnam war: All civilians in targeted villages, if they were not killed, were forced to abandon their homes and possessions.
After Reagan’s vice president, George H.W. Bush, was elevated to the presidency in 1988 and cut off aid to the death squads, virtually ending the Salvadoran civil war at a stroke, things returned to what passes as normal in El Salvador, and peasants dared to return to Suchitoto to celebrate Saint Lucy.
After seven days of religion and parades of young women who no longer need be virgins, the finale is filled with fireworks, beer and dancing. On this saint’s day, ironically, young Salvadoran women are allowed to show some skin.
Thousands of people from the communities arrive in the back of dumptrucks, togged out in their finest clothes and sneakers. Skinny teenage boys, and younger, who work the sugar plantations, rarely leave their hamlets for fear of the gangs. Some arrive with 14-year-old girls holding babies, many more with their male buddies.
Everyone is grasping for a good mood: 4,000 people and no need for police. The Ferris-wheel is full; so is the rusty tilt-a-whirl and the merry-go-round. Fresh french fries galore and white corn on the cob.
At 9 p.m. fireworks explode over the church, setting off a half hour of color and noise. An hour later the big dance begins: $10 admission. El Salvador’s currency today is the U.S. dollar — a hedge against inflation. The right-wing ARENA party President Francisco Flores switched the national currency from the colón (Spanish for Columbus, as in Christopher) to the U.S. dollar in 2001, as a hedge against inflation.
With the bands rocking, the admission charge is waived at midnight and the party rocks on for four more hours. Even the geriatrics join — old warriors from both sides of the war.
People who can afford it rent hotel rooms. Hundreds of others sleep under portals, in case it rains. Drunk men sleep wherever they fall down. With no Porta-Potties, the side streets smell of piss.
But people are happy. Folks say the small city has finally recovered from the scars of the war, from the tortures and beheadings.
One old man has been walking in circles around Suchitoto for 35 years; he won’t tell anyone why. He can barely speak.
El Salvador is a place of scars, wounds, oppression and bad memories. Here on the Lempa River, people suffered unspeakable horrors during the long civil war, but Santa Lucía is persuading folks to get over it — and it seems that they are.