Faroles: A festival of lights
“Long live patriotism! Long live liberty!”
Faroles is Spanish for lanterns – more specifically, handmade lanterns made of colorful cardboard or paper with a dainty little candle set inside. Each year in September, these lamps become the single most important symbol of sovereignty and freedom in all of Central America. But why?
To answer that question, first a bit of history. Back in colonial times, the present-day countries of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala were joined together in a huge Spanish-controlled territory known as the Captaincy General of Guatemala. Craving sovereignty (but without all the bloody battles), the region cleverly jumped on Mexico’s freedom train just a few months after Mexico won its own war of independence against Spain in 1821. On September 15th, the Captaincy firmly declared its autonomy. Problem solved.
According to legend, a revolutionary named Maria Dolores Bedoya ran far and wide shouting the good news for everyone to hear. “Long live patriotism! long live liberty!” she cried. There were no streetlights back then (remember, this was nearly 60 years before the common light bulb was even invented); so during the wee hours of the night, she had nothing but a single lantern illuminating her path southward.
Eager townspeople along the way followed her lead, taking to the streets with their own faroles. The news was passed along from one person to another, like fireflies – all the way from Guatemala down to Costa Rica. It took an entire month for the message of freedom to arrive.
These days, Central American Independence Day festivities mostly revolve around community schools. The week before the 15th, children try to outdo each other making homemade faroles, competing for who can come up with the most intricate and impressive designs. (Of course sometimes parents step in to help, and it becomes more of a family project.) Students perform age-old dances in front of their peers – all gussied up in traditional clothing. Girls wear flowing bell-dresses in vivid colors and braids in their hair, while boys wear don typical rancho outfits and bright hankerchiefs.
Come September 14, the night before the official Independence Day, the kids organize a nighttime faroles parade for the entire community to watch and/or participate in. Everyone turns up to show their national pride by waving flags in the air, singing patriotic anthems and marching with lanterns.
As another unique way to honor their independence, students throughout Central America coordinate a symbolic running of the torch ceremony. Known as “the Torch of Peace and Liberty,” a flame is passed a few hundred meters at a time for several days, connecting Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Roughly 20,000 of Costa Rica’s superlative high school students are chosen to represent this country, covering 386 kilometers in total (240 miles) – an average of about 200 meters per student.