SANTA ELENA, Colombia – In the mountains of the northwestern Colombian province of Antioquia, peasants young and old carry chairs covered with big flower arrangements on their backs in a more than 50-year-old tradition that celebrates their culture at the annual Festival of the Flowers with art and color.
They are the “silleteros,” descendants of the old-time porters or “faquines,” who made a living transporting people and products on chairs tied to their heads and shoulders, trekking over the rough mountains of northwestern Colombia, a job that became a folk tradition spawning artistic flourishes.
Santa Elena is located outside Medellin, known as “The City of Eternal Spring” because of its temperate climate and also as the “City of the Mountain” due to the landscape, and home to the silleteros, the peasants who grow flowers year-round and from late July to early August come down from their farms to parade across the big city carrying floral displays on their backs.
The tradition, declared part of Colombia’s intangible cultural heritage, ties into the Flower Fair, the main festival in Medellin, lasting 10 days and attracting tens of thousands of visitors.
“To be a silletero is the greatest thing in our ancestors’ legacy,” Luis Fernando Sanchez, one of the porter-artists, told EFE during a visit to his El Pensamiento farm in Santa Elena’s hills.
“To transmit the art, those scenes made of flowers and to show it to all the world, is a commitment to the tradition,” Sanchez said.
The wood-frame chairs are classified as “traditional,” “emblematic” or “monumental” based on their size and design, although there are also “children’s” and “commercial” chairs.
The most elaborate flower arrangements depict artists, athletes, politicians and celebrities, as well as patriotic symbols, scenes of daily life and messages related to Colombian culture.