This morning we went to mass at 6:00am. We decided to go to mass early because right afterwards there was going to be a ceremony to celebrate the “Fiesta del Maíz” (Corn Festival) in Berlín. The ladies were excited because there are Fiestas de Maíz in some of the cities near Berlín, like Lolotique and San Miguel, but this was to be the first one ever in Berlín. The festivals are typically held during the second or third week of August.
I tried to find some information about the Fiesta del Maíz because I know there are more corn festivals held in various places around the country. From what I was able to find, the Fiesta del Maíz is about giving thanks for the harvest season and asking God to bless it. It is a time when the community gathers to give thanks together. The festival is also held to preserve, promote, and protect the culture of corn. Various dishes made from corn are prepared for the corn festival including pupusas, tamales, riguas, atol, and elote (corn on the cob). Even a special drink, called chicha, is made from corn.
What’s really neat is that this event was sponsored by the Catholic Church as it is in many other communities. It was sponsored by the indigenous commission of the Church. Catholicism in El Salvador, and maybe all of Latin American, is unique in that really makes an effort to connect to indigenous roots. I find that amazing since there is very little indigenous culture left in El Salvador, especially in comparison to neighboring Guatemala. When the Spanish came in 1524 they destroyed a lot of the indigenous customs in El Salvador. Then a massacre in 1932 wiped out nearly all of the rest of the indigenous people, culture, and traditions. Those who spoke an indigenous language or wore indigenous clothes were killed so people had to deliberately forget their native culture in order to survive.
So I woke up this morning at 5:30am so I’d be ready to leave at 5:50am. I’d never been to the 6:00am mass so I was excited to see how it differed from the 9:00am and 5:30pm masses. There were definitely fewer people at the 6:00am mass than the other two masses on Sunday. The chorus was also much different. At the 9:00am mass a group of people from one of the communities sings, usually accompanied by a guitar. The 5:30pm mass has several instruments and singers. This morning it was three women singing a cappella; different but still beautiful. Overall, it was a typical mass though it seemed more informal than the other two.
After mass we all walked outside for the short ceremony. I had no idea what it was going to be like. When we exited the church we saw that people had created a huge design in a circle on the ground in front of church made from corn and other foods. People from all over had brought offerings to give thanks for the harvest season. There were beans, flowers, squash, yucca, and tons of corn. Different colored candles had been placed at four points around the circle to represent north, east, south, and west. In the middle of the circle design was another circle and inside that was statue of Jesus. On either side of him was a blue candle to represent the sky and a green candle to represent the earth. A young woman was standing inside the circle swinging a thurible to disperse incense over everything.
Once everyone was outside Father Cándido told us that we were going to face each direction (west, east, north, then south) and a prayer would be said followed by the “Our Father” and “Hail Mary.” As we faced west for the first prayer I turned to Kathy and said, “This is very pagan.” I’m not sure what exactly made me think that. I guess because, with the exception of saying the “Our Father” and “Hail Mary,” everything else about the ceremony seemed to come from indigenous roots or other traditions that some Christians consider “pagan.” Blanca later told me that the reason we faced each direction to pray was because it was the tradition of the Mayans and related to the Mayan Calendar. I thought it was a beautiful ceremony and I loved being a part of it.
The celebration kind of reminded me of the Day of the Cross which is May 3. That holiday is also a mix of Spanish Catholicism and indigenous tradition. The purpose of the worship on the Day of the Cross is to celebrate the beginning of the rainy season. It’s the time when people start planting and asking God to bless their crops for a good harvest. A wooden cross is constructed by families, churches, schools, and other organizations. Then people bring special offerings to place around the cross such as mangoes, bananas, plantains, mamones, oranges, olives, and flowers in hopes of having good crops. It was originally an indigenous custom but was Christianized when the Spanish arrived.
Right after the mass
Jesus in the center of the circle
A beautiful site
Corn and squash
The red candle and flowers
The yellow part of the circle
Recently harvested beans
Yucca, elote, and black corn
Elote and red corn
The entire circle
Afterwards we walked around to all the different stands to see what kind of foods from corn people were selling. People from all the cantons surrounding Berlín gave corn (called elote; sweet corn) for the festival. Each canton had made their own special dish to sell. There were tortillas, pupusas, riguas, elote, several different kinds of atol, many kinds of tamales, and chicha. I’d made a promise to myself that today, at least for breakfast and lunch, I would only eat corn products.
Kristi and I went around looking for what would be our first snack. I saw some atol that was purple so I went to buy some. It was atol chuco made from black corn, which I’d had once before when I was here last year. This kind of atol is not “sweet” but is “salty” and many people don’t like it. I remembered not liking it last year but I decided to try it anyway. It was a little better than I remembered and had some beans in the bottom of the cup. It was also served cold. I drank it all but decided I probably wouldn’t get it again unless it was offered to me in one of the communities.
Instead of getting the atol chuco Kristi opted for the atol de maíz tostado. This kind of atol is made from the regular corn that people use to make tortillas (it’s hard and similar to what we’d consider feed corn). After the corn has been cooked it is toasted. Then you add water, milk, cinnamon, sugar, and sometimes vanilla to make the atol. It is delicious and probably my favorite kind of atol. It’s thick, just like the other kinds of atol, but is much sweeter. It is also served hot. After I’d finished off my atol chuco I also decided to have some atol de maíz tostado.
Then Kristi bought some tamales de elote for us to share. Those tamales are made from sweet corn and wrapped inside corn husks. I’ve actually made them before. They’re very delicious and probably my favorite kind of tamale. When we’d finished dining on those we decided to make a quick stop at the house. Kristi bought some tamales de pisques to take home. Those tamales are made from maíz, not elote, and have beans inside them. They are similar to the tamales de gallina which have chicken inside. They’re okay but I still prefer the tamales de elote.
We soon returned to the festival to eat some more corn. Kathy joined us and we went in search of chicha. I’d heard there was going to be chicha at this event and was excited to try some. There are a number of regional varieties of chicha depending on where you are. Here’s Wikipedia’s definition of chicha: “Chicha is a term used in some regions of Latin America for several varieties of fermented and non-fermented beverages, rather often to those derived from maize and similar non-alcoholic beverages. Chicha may also be made from manioc root (also called yuca or cassava), maize, grape, apple, or other fruits.” The chicha here in El Salvador is homemade from corn.
Since I thought we all needed to try some I told Kathy and Kristi that I would be buying for the three of us. We weren’t for sure if the chicha was fermented or not so we asked. Niña Luz, the woman who made the chicha, told us that it fermented in the clay pot for 3 months. She scooped out chicha for each of us and served it to us in hollowed out, dried morro gourd. We toasted, had our picture taken, and all took a drink. I’m not sure how to describe the taste. It wasn’t fruity and it didn’t taste like alcohol. The first taste was better than the aftertaste. The aftertaste wasn’t bad, just weird. It was definitely unlike anything else I’d tasted before. It wasn’t super delicious but I’m glad I tried it.
[Side note: what I really want to do is go to the places in Peru where instead of germinating all of the grain to release the starches, the maíz is milled, then chewed/moistened in the chicha-makers mouths, and finally formed into small cakes which are flattened and laid out to dry. That sounds like an adventure to me!]
After our chicha Kathy wanted atol and we also wanted to get riguas. Kathy got atol de elote and bought each of us a cup. The atol de elote is sweet corn that’s been liquefied and combined with milk, sugar, cinnamon, and sometimes vanilla. It is also served hot. Every atol has its own flavor and the taste varies between households. It was my third cup of atol that day but very enjoyable. I’m not sure I could ever get tired of drinking atol.
Next we bought riguas with cheese. Riguas is sweet corn that’s been liquefied and then fried into patties that are kind of like pancakes. We each ordered one and sat down to eat. It was wonderful. It reminds me of potato pancakes made out of corn instead of potatoes. Very tasty. When we’d finished I realized that I probably couldn’t fit anything else into my stomach. Kathy said she hoped none of us got sick from eating so much corn. And with that we walked home from the corn festival.
Recap: Vowing to consume only corn products for breakfast and lunch I ate…
Atol chuco (maíz negrito)
Atol de elote tostado
Atol de elote
Tamales de elote
Very fun Fiesta del Maíz!
Atol chuco served from a cantaro
My purple atol chuco
A small band playing at the festival
Tubs of tamales
Pouring atol de elote
Kristi with atol and a tamale de elote
Tamales de pisques
Nina Luz serving us chicha
Riguas con queso
This is good food
Something called chancacas that we didn't try
Fresh elote for Kathy
Goodbye Corn Festival!