In today’s globalized society, it is getting more and more difficult to notice and appreciate the value of small, local holidays and festivals. One of such less known events is “La Fiesta de Las Mayas” held in Colmenar Viejo, depicted in the works of photojournalist Carlos González Ximénez.

Colmenar Viejo is a small city located 30 km north of Madrid, where every year at the beginning of May “La Fiesta de Las Mayas” takes place. This unique event is one of the traditional customs of this region.

The Mayas from Colmenar Viejo

Las Mayas is a festival during which young girls don garlands and special, ornate outfits, and quietly sit on richly decorated altars. Usually about five to seven altars are set up around the main city square. The chosen girls, who are usually between six and fifteen years old, are given the privilege to participate in Las Mayas based on their popularity and beauty. Their role is to sit still for a few hours on a finely created altar – cheerfully, gravely and quietly, while the participants of the holiday walk from altar to altar and admire the beautiful “Mayas”. Each of the chosen girls has a group of assistants at their altar – girls dressed in white, who in exchange for cleaning the passersby’s jackets, ask them for small coins.
After leaving their posts, the girls take part in a parade and the ceremony of flower offering, celebrating nature waking up to life and announcing new crops.This remarkable tradition dates back to the Middle Ages and combines the features of pagan rituals celebrating Spring, fertility and youthfulness with religious concepts of the Virgin Mary. Las Mayas has been preserved in the culture of the citizens from the province of Madrid thanks to the centuries-old oral tradition. It is presumed that the name of the festival comes from the Roman goddess Mai, identified with the birth and fertility of Mother Earth.

Portrait in a garland

Carlos Gonzáleza Ximéneza’s photographs portraying this tradition seem to be stage-managed – but the truth is that the artist captured an already directed, silent performance. Each girl presented in the picture is situated in the centre of composition, with their piercing gaze penetrating the eyes of the person looking at the photograph. Cleanliness, symmetry and scheme of each arrangement, as well as the colour or
details, make the photographs astonishing to the recipient. The photograph’s compositions, which bring to mind the colourful self-portraits of Frida Kahlo, stylized ikons, folklore figurines or rural paintings of the Mother of God, play with our perceptions and memory image.