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The Spanish conquest swept across two continents and countless islands, leaving death, destruction and disease in its wake. By the time it was over, everything from Texas to Chile was under Spanish rule: some native populations resisted longer than others, but they all were defeated eventually.

Located up high in the windswept, rocky Cuchumatanes mountain range, in a remote corner of northwestern Guatemala, the tiny village of Todos Santos was one of the ones that held out the longest. Even today, the townspeople believe that the Spanish were able to conquer them for only one reason: the Spanish had horses. Locals are still passionate about the subject, and every November first, they ride horses all day to prove that the Spanish no longer have that equestrian advantage—and that they never would have defeated them in the first place without it.

Despite the rise of tourism in the region, present day Todos Santos remains an extremely closed indigenous community, devoted to ancient traditions. The men and women still wear their traditional, brightly colored clothing and speak Mam, the local language that has not changed since before the arrival of the Spanish. They do not trust outsiders, but have learned to tolerate tourists. The people survive on subsistence farming, tourism and textiles: the men knit finely-made shoulder bags and the women make huipiles (a sort of colorful blouse). There are only about 30,000 members of the community living in town and the surrounding areas.

Every year, thousands of visitors descend upon the village in order to see the famous festival, which begins in late October and culminates on the first and second of November. A big part of the festival is devoted to riding horses. Despite being called a “race,” this portion of the festival really stretches the traditional sense of the word—there is no competition and no winner—just men riding back and forth on the same stretch of road all day. Most of them are drunk and have been for days. It’s part of the ritual. Many fall from their horses and fatalities have been known to occur. The races have religious significance, and if someone dies during the race it is considered an offering to the Mayan spirit world, and the community will have good luck in the coming year. The members of the community save money all year in order to spend it on food and alcohol during the festival.

Another fascinating part of the festival is the “Dance of the Conquistadores” in which local men dress up as Spanish conquistadores, complete with hand-carved wooden masks depicting blond haired, blue eyed men. They dance in the central square in an elaborate, intricate ceremony, depicting the conquest. The Devil even makes an appearance, in a bright red suit and painted mask. The outfits are elaborate and colorful.

But you don’t have to wait for November first to visit Todos Santos: it’s fascinating on any day of the year, and if you’re interested in traditional native culture, you may want to check it out quickly before the modern world makes it to this remote corner of Guatemala. As with the Spanish arrival centuries ago, the town is currently riding out a tumult of cultural currents. In terms of traditional culture the community is sort of going forward and backward at the same time: although more and more people are abandoning traditions—many are eschewing traditional garb in favor of western clothes—there is a new era of religious tolerance in Guatemala, and long-repressed local religions are making a comeback.

Long ago, the people of Todos Santos exhibited bravery in the face of cultural adversity. They steadfastly preserved local traditions and managed to master the very object once used to by the Spanish to defeat them: the horse. Today, this noble beast has become a symbol of their independence and freedom, high in the rocky Guatemalan mountains. The festival itself—with its flamboyant costumes and equestrian flair—places the town firmly in the saddle of tradition, riding into the future steadily grasping the reigns of cultural change.




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