Last Friday was a day of celebration here in Guatemala. Not only was it Kiara’s seventh birthday, which we celebrated with a piñata and cake at our language school, it was also the day that Guatemalans celebrate their independence from colonial rule with the Recorrido de las Antorchas de Independencia (Tour of the Freedom Torches).
I have to confess that my knowledge of Central American history was, and remains, very limited (something I’m excited to change over the next 2.5 years). I did not know, for example, that all five original Central American countries celebrate the same Independence Day (September 15th); nor did I know in what century -never mind what specific year- Central America won its independence from Spain (1821). It was such a joy, then, to learn about and celebrate this history alongside Guatemalans last weekend.
Quick history lesson: In 1821, the leaders of the Kingdom of Guatemala (which was composed of modern-day Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and southern Mexico) declared independence from Spanish colonial rule. Two years later, all of those countries except Mexico came together to form the United Provinces of Central America. Although the nation of Central America did not last even 20 years before splintering into five separate countries, the citizens of those five countries share a sense of pride and joy in their common history of independence.
One of the ways in which Central Americans commemorate their Independence Day is through the running of the torches. All across Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, groups get together to light a torch and run with it from city to city. The torch represents freedom, and people run with it from city to city because that’s just how the news of independence was spread!
Early in the afternoon last Friday (after Kiara and Adelina had thoroughly demolished their unicorn piñata and stuffed themselves with chocolate cake), our family of four joined a large antorcha group from our language school. None of us knew exactly what we had signed up for (I didn’t even realize that we would actually be running until I saw everybody in athletic clothes), but we were excited nonetheless. The energy level when we boarded the language school bus was amazing, and our group of Canadians, Americans, Guatemalans, and one Kiwi sang and danced all the way to our destination: Parramos, a small village 13 km away, high in the verdant mountains that surround Antigua.
There, we lit our torch and ran!
As we wound our way steadily down the mountain, we passed by coffee plantations and villages of cement and tin homes. Villagers crowded outside to cheer us on and – as part of the fun – to throw buckets and baggies of water at us. At one point, Kiara expressed disappointment that people seemed to be specifically trying not to hit her, which, given Guatemalans’ love for children, was almost certainly true. (We finally asked someone from our language school to throw some water at her, just so that she could enjoy the full experience.)
Our bus followed behind our running group, and we could hop on and off for a rest as needed. Kiara and Adelina, always thrilled to do something that would never be allowed in the U.S., were particularly delighted to jump on and off the moving bus. We didn’t spend very much time on the bus, though: Kiara impressed everybody by running nearly all 13 km, and Adelina ran at least half.
Running with the antorchas de independencia was absolutely one of the coolest cultural events I’ve ever experienced. For Kiara, it was an extra-special way to celebrate her seventh birthday. For all of us, it was a fun, energizing, unique adventure that we will never forget!
¡Feliz Día de Independencia!