A Guatemalan Tradition
evils prowl the streets of Ciudad Vieja every December in search of corrupted souls to take down into the fiery pits of Hell, but rather than locking themselves inside their homes, town residents come out to watch and cheer these red-clad fiends. They are the stars of the Baile de los 24 Diablos (Dance of the 24 Devils), a theatrical street dance that dates back more than 400 years and is unique to Ciudad Vieja, that lesser-known neighbor of La Antigua Guatemala which in its own right boasts a rich cultural legacy.
The actors portraying the devils wear fiery-red outfits, blond wigs and ghoulish wooden masks, the oldest of which were made in 1835.
Los 24 Diablos is widely recognized as the masterpiece of several theatrical dances that remain faithful to the versions introduced by Franciscan monks in the 16th century as vehicles for spreading their evangelical message, according to historian Marcial Armas Lara. These dances-Los Toritos (The Bulls), La Conquista (The Conquest) and Las Siete Virtudes (The Seven Virtues) and others-are performed one week out of the year, starting on Thursday, December 8, in honor of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception.
Clear in its moralizing message, Los 24 Diablos warns of the price to be paid for transgressing God’s commands. The play, according to popular lore, comes from the pen of a Franciscan monk whose sinful ways landed him in prison. If so, the author’s own remorse and fear of eternal damnation may explain the enduring strength of the drama.
The three-hour play begins with the Chief Devil, a once beautiful being now transformed into a fierce monster, lamenting his fall from grace. Quickly, though, he turns his rage to humans and orders his subordinate devils to
Bring quickly those souls Which you have led astray Because I wait for them With bonfires set ablaze
The subordinates, each of whom represents a sinful trait such as hypocrisy, avarice and drunkenness, appear one at a time and recite in verse their devilish work.
The actors portraying the devils wear fiery-red outfits, blond wigs and ghoulish wooden masks, the oldest of which were made in 1835 by a master wood carver named José Fermín Ordóñez. There are only 20 devils in the play, despite what the title suggests, as the other four characters are Death, The Monkey, The Angel and The Soul.
With the devils’ recitations over, a struggle between Good and Evil ensues, with The Angel coming to aid The Soul. But Evil prevails in the end, and the disobedient Soul descends into Hell, shrieking in pain as sparks fly out of her eyes.
As they take turns reciting their verses, the actors accompany their performances with music and dance. Many of the instruments used, such as the marimba and the chirimía (a type of flute), are not of Spanish but of native origin and were incorporated by the Franciscans as a way for the play to gain acceptance, according to Lara. Although the dance follows a general choreography, the actors freely improvise their steps within the overall pattern.
The curtain nearly closed on Los 24 Diablos in the 18th century, when the Spanish Crown banned devil dances and similar practices throughout its dominions. But Ciudad Vieja’s residents secretly continued to perform the dance, managing to preserve a tradition that recently was declared part of Guatemala’s cultural patrimony by the Ministry of Culture and Sports.
Despite its age, Los 24 Diablos’s message remains relevant to this day, says Hugo Vásquez, Ciudad Vieja’s judge for municipal affairs. He notes that the moral transgressions dramatized in the play, corruption and ill-treatment of workers, for example, continue to plague Guatemalan society.
One place to observe Los 24 Diablos is in front of the Franciscan church of Parroquia Purísima Concepción on December 8 during the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Described by some as “the place where Hell, Heaven and Earth meet,” the front of the church that day hosts two processions, Masses, music, numerous dances, not just traditional ones like Los 24 Diablos but also recent ones that betray the influence of television and movies, and the non-stop rattling of fireworks.
The celebrations, however, actually begin the night before, during the Convite, which is itself a centuries-old tradition. This carnival-like event, as its name implies, serves as an invitation to the week’s festivities.
On the days following the Feast, four different troupes will perform Los 24 Diablos throughout the streets of Ciudad Vieja. Information regarding times and places can be obtained from the municipality.