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Festival de Santa Maria

When I return to my homestay, I am surprised to find the kitchen packed with people. Women are lighting candles and stirring an enormous pot, a man with a mullet uncovers an electric piano, my Host Mother waves me inside and ushers me towards a plastic stool near the stairs. She explains to me that this is a celebration, the Festival de Virgin, de Santa Maria. I nod- this explains the people, the statues and crucifixes around the house, the altar full of lights and flowers that has filled the living room for the past two days.

The chatter winds down and the ceremony begins.

The women cover their hair with shawls and kneel before the altar, the mulleted man and two boys settle down in front of the piano, a bass guitar and an electronic drum set. They cross themselves, kiss their palms and lower their eyes.

The woman in front begins to pray. Her voice is a low monotone, soft and reverent as she reads from her worn, gold-embossed bible. I am suddenly aware that what I am witnessing is something holy.

Every few passages, her prayer is interrupted as the band strikes up a catchy song, a hymn, at volumes that reverberate in my chest. Everyone knows the hymns, even the kids, and their harmony fills the room, the house, and spills out like light onto the street. We sit and pray and sing for the better part of two hours, a dozen worn hands working their way through rosaries.

When it’s over the house feels empty.

I am not a religious person.

My loosely Jewish family never sent me to Synagogue or Hebrew school, never insisted on more than holidays and Sabbath dinners.

But as I watch guests talk and laugh as they file from the house, watch the flicker of candles cupped in gloved palms and the slow winding of a parade through cobbled streets, I feel oddly lonely.

It’s Friday, I remember. At home, my family will be praying over candles and challah, giving generous interpretations of the Hebrew as they give thanks.

I stand alone on a rooftop in Guatemala, a piece of bread from the kitchen in my pocket, my only candles the lights of the city.

Below me, the procession weaves through the dark, bearing candles and incense and an enormous illuminated statue of Santa Maria herself. Their songs carry up to the rooftops, humming in my ear before they are swept away by the wind.

I perch myself on a ledge facing the lake and take the bread from my pocket, shaking crumbs from my clothes. The city is silver and night below me, and I begin to pray.

Normally I am reluctant, too embarrassed to sing on the Sabbath. I rush through the words, butcher the Hebrew, finish as quickly as humanly possible.

Tonight I am not rushing. My words lift up, backlit by starlight, accompanied by La Bamba from the band playing on the hill.

Baruch atah adonai…

I have never felt so lonely and alive at the same time.

I turn from the water, swinging back onto the roof and a tiny figure stands illuminated by the doorway.

“What are you doing?”

My host sister Hely looks up at me with the hugest pair of brown eyes I’ve ever seen. She blinks once, twice, before I realize I’m supposed to respond.

“I’m praying,” I tell her. La Bamba is still playing up on the mountain.

“Why? We just did that.” She rolls her doe eyes. “For like two hours.”

She skips over to join me on the edge, her eight-year-old legs struggling to let her hop up with me. She settles for tip-toes and giggles like we’re sharing a secret.

I glance at the still unbroken bread in my hands. How do you explain to a kid who’s known nothing but Church that you’re praying for something entirely different?

“Because…” I stumble. Because I’m jewish, because it’s the Sabbath, because I miss home.

“Because I just need to…”

A small hand presses into mine. “Okay. I understand.”

Then- “Can I pray with you?” “¿Puedo rezar contigo?”

On a rooftop in San Juan la Laguna, I teach a little girl prayers and we giggle over her pronunciation. I attempt to translate Hebrew to Spanish, not really knowing the actual translation at all. She recites her Sunday school prayers, I parrot her words. She tries to teach me to cross myself, which I somehow mess up every time. We laugh and laugh and can’t stop laughing.

We split the bread – one half each –  and say Sabbath prayers over the lights of the city below.