Last month, when I traveled to Colombia, I learned a new Spanish word that I did not know about. Sillerteros doesn’t have an English translation. But in Medellin, a big city located in the hills in Colombia, everyone talks about them! Specially during the month of August, when one of the largest festivals in the world takes place. For a week, the entire city transforms into a colorful display of flower festivals, parades, concerts and street fairs.
The first Flower Festival in the area was held in 1957, though the tradition of “Silleteros” (flower peasants vendors – saddle carriers) of the township of Santa Elena is centuries old. I learned that since the town was so remote, located on top of the hills, the silleteros were porters who would carry sick people down on crude wooden seats to get medical care. After cable cars and roads were built, there was no more need for the porters. So they would carry fruits and vegetables, until one day the locals decided to create a festival where they would carry flower arrangements on their back instead to continue the tradition. That’s how the Desfile de las Flores (Flower Parade) came about.
Did you know Colombia is the 2nd largest producer of flowers in the world, after The Netherlands?
In this year’s parade, over 550 silleteros ages 7-82 walked in the warm August sun for 3 miles across downtown. All of them come from the surrounding towns with their hand crafted flower arrangements that were spectacular! Most of the flowers are from their own farms. The people spend considerable resources growing many different kinds of flowers only to keep on the traditions. The larger silletas (arrangements) with messaging on are sponsored by companies. A company might pay 23 million pesos (USD 12,600) to commission a large silletas. I even saw a Coca Cola silletas in the parade!
For it to be in the “traditional” category, each “silleta” must include a minimum of 20 varieties of traditional flowers, and the winners are based on the creativity of their arrangements. The wooden structures are lined with pine and/or other natural foliage. Other categories include Emblematic – for social messaging; Monumental for exotic flowers; Artistic for esthetic beauty; and Commercial for corporate messaging.
Some of the flowers most commonly used in “silletas” are bridal tulle, stars of Bethlehem, gladioli, chrysanthemums, pinocchio, lilies, carnations, agapanthus, pansies, sparks, sunflowers and Cattleya Trianae orchids.
You cannot just volunteer to become a flower porter, you have to be born into it. It means that a license to be a silletero has to be passed on from generation to generation.
The parade of the silleteros was one of the most spellbinding things I have seen in my life! There was so much color and energy. There were flowers as far as I could see. I have been to the most beautiful gardens in the world, but had never seen so many flowers. It was hard to watch some of the women and children carrying large wooden plants as much as 200 lbs when I could barely breathe in the hot sun!
I saw several older men and women stumble as the security guards would help them out and crowds would cheer on. They looked so determined and braved on.
On another day, Don Aristides, one of the winners of this year’s festival, showed me how to put on a silleta. I could barely take a few steps with it, let along carry it for hours. And this one was only 40 lbs!
Have you been to the Feria de las Flores in Colombia? How was your experience?