The language and many of the traditions of the Lenca have been lost over the past four and a half centuries. One Lenca ritual still celebrated on certain days in the southern and western highlands is the guancascos, a bilateral ceremony between two towns, often neighboring. The guancascos is a sort of peace ritual, marking the friendship between the two communities. Many guancascos are thought to commemorate a past agreement over the division of farming land or hunting grounds.
In the colonial era, and up to the present day in more remote areas, the guancascos is the single most important event of the year, marking the time when new village leaders take office and a day of many weddings and baptisms. Although originally a pre-Columbian ritual, since colonial times the guancascos has incorporated elements of Catholicism, particularly the use of saints, in the ritual exchange between the communities.
The specific dances and format of the guancascos varies widely from town to town, but the general outlines are usually similar. In the days running up to the principal celebration, the townsfolk hold several preliminary ceremonies, such as the Traída de la Pólvora, the bringing of the gunpowder, when the all-important fireworks bought with communal money are brought into the village and divided up among the mayordomos (neighborhood leaders).
In certain towns, locals hold the Danza de las Escobas, the Broom Dance, so named because the newly elected village leader hands a flowered broom to the previous leader and in return receives La Vara Alta, the Tall Staff. In colonial times, the staff marked the individual responsible for mediating between the community and the Spanish authorities.
On the “big day” of the guancascos, festivities begin with the townsfolk parading their patron saint through the streets and then out of town to a designated spot, where the procession meets a second parade from the partner community. Lengthy greetings ensue, punctuated with much fireworks and music, and the two saint icons are exchanged. The two groups then walk together to the church of the main town, which has been decorated with pine branches and filled with copal incense smoke. Representatives of both towns give special speeches in the church, followed by a party of dancing and drinking.
Formerly, the culminating dance of the guancascos in many towns was the Danza del Gorrobo, or Dance of the Black Iguana, performed with elaborate costumes, and with musical accompaniment provided by chirimía, a type of flute, caramba, a stringed bow, and sacabuche, a gourd drum. This dance is no longer widespread — these days, the processions and saint exchange continue, but the elaborate dances have devolved into more unstructured parties.
The few anthropologists who have researched the guancascos believe that some three dozen communities in southern and western Honduras still hold the ceremony in one form or another. Both La Campa and Belén, in the department of Lempira, are well known for their festivals, usually held on February 14 and October 10, respectively. In Gracias, the neighborhoods of San Sebastián and Mexicapa (by the church of Santa Lucía) reenact this encounter, with San Sebastián hosting on January 20 and Santa Lucía hosting on December 13. Yamaranguila, in the department of Intibucá, also hosts a celebration on December 8. Other towns include Ojojona in Francisco Morazán, Santa Cruz in Lempira, Lejamani in Comayagua, and Ilama, Chinda, and Gualala in Santa Bárbara.
Although the guancascos are meant to be celebrated on certain days, the chosen day seems a bit flexible, and the festival may not be held at all in certain years, depending in large part on whether the townsfolk have enough money for the festivities or not. In a way, it works out perfectly, as the only foreigners who ever get to the festivals are the rare ones who hang out in these villages and get to know the inhabitants, and thus find out. And all in all, those are the sorts of folks who should witness these ceremonies, rather than the video camera–toting package-tour crowd. Almost all guancascos are held in January and February, during the dry season, but beyond that, you just have to head to the hills and start asking around.
© Chris Humphrey and Amy E. Robertson from Moon Honduras, 5th Edition