“The young girls of the barrio come together and from among them is elected the most beautiful. She is named La Maya or the May Girl and is crowned with flowers like a queen.” Rodriguez Caro, Dias Geniales o Ludicos, 1625
The festival known as La Maya is one of Spain’s most beautiful, but most difficult to find.
It’s midmorning on May 2, and we’re in the small central plaza of Colmenar Viejo, a town of 35,000 people about 40 miles northwest of Madrid. One side of the plaza is lined with booths selling handicrafts, toys, local hams, nuts, honeys and flowers. The other side, however, is why we are here.
Against one wall of the church, a group of some 12 men, women and children are building a small altar. Against a far wall, a second group is building another altar. And three more are being constructed on a side street.
We stop and talk to one family. The father, Luis Miguel Brugarolas, explains. Earlier that morning they had gone out into the countryside. First, they cut branches and a dozen varieties of flowers. Now they are attaching a rich embroidered sheet to the wall as a backdrop. Around it they will affix the branches, interwoven with flowers. A table is covered with a tablecloth. On it they place a chair in which La Maya will sit. The surrounding area is strewn with flowers.
One of the girls working on the altar is Luis Miguel’s daughter, Inmaculada or Inma. Now she looks like a normal teenager, but soon she will transform herself into one of the Mayas. Dressed in a long shawl with flowers woven into her hair and an array of necklaces, she will reappear at 4 p.m. and take her place on the throne. Then she and the other four Mayas will sit for two hours, silent and serious. They are not allowed to smile, move or make eye contact during this period. Each Maya has five or six younger attendants who wear long dresses with shawls around their necks and flowers in their hair. They work their way through the crowds with a clothing brush in one hand and a small silver platter in the other. They brush people’s clothing and collect coins to offset the cost of the fiesta.At 6 p.m., the festival ends, the five Mayas descend from their thrones, stretch, sip hot chocolate, smile and break into laughter. Their young attendants gather around them. Next year several of these young attendants will have their turn. They are already talking about their dresses and shawls and what they will wear.
This festival dates back to the 16th century, but seems to be dying out. I first saw it in a remote barrio of Madrid in 1998, but the Madrid tourism office says it no longer exists there. I also found information about a La Maya festival on May 3 in the tiny town of VaIdeobispo, near Plasencia, and probably at least 100 miles from Madrid. Other than that, nothing.
How did it originate? As far as I can tell, it is simply one of the many spring festivals that take place all over Spain, especially in May, when new flowers are in bloom. We are going again this year. The Brugarolas family has invited us to join them in the cutting of branches and flowers. Maybe I can learn of more, similar festivals; maybe I’ll find that it’s not dying out after all. Morgan Smith is a former Aspenite and part-time Barcelona resident. He can he reached at email@example.com.
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