Have you ever been to a masquerade ball or a costume party where everyone’s face is covered and you don’t know who’s who? That’s what it’s like on some days at the Festival of San Sebastián in Diriamba, Nicaragua. It takes place every January 17th to the 27th. People take to the streets to celebrate Saint Sebastian, the city’s patron saint, and to watch a theatrical reenactment of Nicaragua’s first literary work, El Güegüense o Macho Ratón. All of the colors are vibrant and the people are very friendly.

I felt bad because I didn’t have a mask on but I soon forgot about it. First, these three indigenous-looking men came down the street playing small, woodwind instruments. They were followed by a little boy playing a wooden drum. I think the little boy could have been one man’s son because they looked alike. The small band contained the only people that were unmasked. Then around 20 men in horse masks with brightly colored manes came galloping down the street in neat rows with no shoes on. Barefoot on the street! Behind the horses were around 20 men in colonial Spanish dress and Christopher Columbus-style masks. They danced around each other for a few minutes, then around 20 of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen came through the rows of holding their gorgeous fan dresses. It was definitely telling a story, and thankfully I knew what the story was.

gueguense-diriamba
I did my homework before we came to the festival: El Güeguense or Macho Ratón is a story that was originally told in Nahuatl. It’s like pioneer stories of the United States that were told orally, then written down generations later. This story, however, is not a happy one. It all started when the Spanish conquistadors came to Diriamba. They asked to speak to the indigenous leaders, who agreed to a meeting. During the meeting the conquistadors told the people of Diriamba to surrender to their rule. The leaders went back to think about it and ultimately declined, at which time they boldly attacked the Spaniards. Pretty brave, huh? This led to a revolt, in which the Spaniards proved too powerful for people of Diriamba. Unfortunately, many of the indigenous population were killed and the survivors were forced to live under corrupt Spanish rule.

A short time later, an anonymous writer created a theatrical play called El Güeguense or Macho Ratón, mocking the Spanish rulers’ style of oppression and greed following their victory over the people of Diriamba. It was passed orally though the generations until one day in 1942 it was written down and published in a book.

So every year, during the Festival of San Sebastián, people dance to the same beat and portray this time of oppression for the people of Diriamba. It seems sad to think about, but the people are celebrating. They’re celebrating the bravery of their ancestors, celebrating Nicaragua’s first literary works, and the advancements the people have made since that dark time in history. I was glad I was able to celebrate with them.

Activities:

  1. Go to Google Maps (https://www.google.es/maps) and find Diriamba. Describe where in Nicaragua it is located. Zoom in to see the satellite image and some of the photos that were taken around the town. What can you infer about this town?
  2. What is the sad story behind El Güeguense or Macho Ratón?
  3. Do you know any US celebrations that pay homage to a historical event? Name a few.