In Medellin, Colombia, our biggest festival and celebration is the Festival of Flowers, a yearly festival that celebrates our beautiful variety of flowers. We come together as a people and witness the flower growing families parading their latest designs as they carry them on their backs through the streets. It’s a breathtaking sight and something I’ll never quite forget.
The silleteros have been come a folk symbol for our region of Colombia. Diego Rivera famously painted a silletero during a visit to our region. And even outside of the festival, one often finds flower growers with heavy displays on their back, ready to sell flowers. I asked my grandmother about the history of these flower carriers. Below the verbatim Spanish text, one will find an english translation.
Por qué tienen las flores en su espalda?
“Preciso por que pesan tanto, las flores. las más lindas y lo más grande el silleto, el premio vallé más. Al principio no les daban premios, sólo los aplaudían y los sacaban el el periódico por que antes no había televisión. Decían cuales eran las más lindas y quien había ganado, quien las había cultivado, pero no habían premios en efectivo. Pero ya las producen, las industrian, la gente muy rica patrocinan la feria de las flores. Dan premios muy grandes. Un premio que se puede ganar un silletero es que lo mandan a estudiar las flores al exterior, vez? Entonces les interesa mucho, si? Antes en las ferias eran muy chiquitas las silletas, pero fueron creciendo tanto que ya son kilos y kilos. Para qué la espalda del silletero pueda resistir ay unas medidas para que no se vayan deformando las espaldas de ellos. Entonces por eso la parte que necesita la más fuerza para resistir es la espalda, y por eso las silletas generalmente se ponen en la espalda, son casi como sillas. Es como una silla que ellos asen y la cuelgan en la espalda. Esas silletas las hacen con figuras hermosas. Ya hasta son con historias completas, caracteres grandes. Son de las mismas flores que ellos cultivan. Es algo que se aprende generación en generación. Ósea, los hijos de los silleteros aprended del cultivo, del diseño de la silleta, como cargarla. Ya es una tradición. Ya ay familias con diez, quince premios porque cada año lo hacen mejor.”
Why do the silleteros carry the flowers on their backs?
Precisely because those huge displays of flowers weigh so much. The bigger and more beautiful the display, the bigger a prize the flower grower can get. Before, there were no prizes, they were just applauded and they came out on the newspaper, because before there was no television. They would write about who had had the most beautiful flower displays, who had cultivated the flowers, but there were no real prizes. But now they really cultivate those flowers very scientifically. The very richest in Medellin provide patronage the Festival now and they give incredible prizes. For example, a prize a flower grower might get is to study flowers and cultivation techniques around the world, you see? You see they’re very interested in that. Before the flower displays were very small but year on year they grew and now they’re massive and weight very many kilos. So that the spine of the flower grower doesn’t get deformed during the long festival, they’ve designed a certain device to carry that many flowers without injury. So of course the portion that needs the most reinforcement is the brunt of the back, so the device they use is called a silletera, they are designed almost like a chair that they make themselves and then hang on the back. Those flower holders, they spend so much meticulous time coming up with clever designs for them. They make beautiful art on them with flowers. Now they even have stories, figurative works, symbols for towns. They’re all made with the same flowers that that family cultivates themselves. It’s something that’s learned generation to generation. That is to say, the sons and daughters of the flower growers grow up learning how to cultivate those flowers, how to design the flower displays, how to make the flower holders, how to carry it. It has very much become its own tradition. There are families now that have won the big prizes ten, fifteen times. Every year they are looking for ways to improve, every year they are getting better.
Analysis: This has always been a big question for me before going to the festival and before witnessing it firsthand. This image of the flower carriers is all over our country, in paintings, on murals, in our songs. It’s interesting that this has become such a strong cultural tradition in such a short amount of time, and that it is carried forward by families of flower growers.