La Noche de San Juan

La Noche de San Juan

by Ariela Martin, Greenheart Travel Language Student in Salamanca, Spain

At 11:30, I got a knock on my door. Thirty minutes after my curfew, I was getting ready for bed after a long yet relaxing Sunday, and preparing myself for another busy week at the language institute. Luisa, my host mom, opened my door. “Put on some warm clothing—we’re going to a special festival, La Noche de San Juan.” Her 
enthusiasm brimmed from ear to ear. “Oh, and you might want to bring a camera.”

I dressed in a hoody and jeans, and walked to the dining area, where Rocio and Alba, my two host sisters, were seated. They were silently scribbling on small pieces of paper. “Isn’t school over?” I jokingly asked (their school had ended on Friday). The girls laughed. “We’re writing down our dreams. Here, write yours,” Alba said in Spanish, as she handed me a pen and paper.

She explained that among the many traditions of La Noche de San Juan, one of the most common traditions is to make an enormous bonfire. The fires are built in pueblos throughout countries in Europe and Latin America, though in Salamanca, all of the people contribute to make one big fire. People contribute their old furniture to the fire, and the bonfire is often followed by a party, with fireworks, drinks, food, music, and more. When the furniture is lit and the fire picks up, people throw their papers into the fire, as a metaphorical representation of “burning” their evils, and asking for a brighter future full of hopes and desires, that one writes on the paper. As we finished writing on our papers, we joked of what we’d written, for example, “to have three more wishes”, or, “to marry Abram Mateo (a famous Spanish musician).” 

At 11:40 pm, we left the house, and huddled into their small van, which they mainly used to transport food to their fruit shop. Luisa rolled down all of the windows, and blasted her favorite music, a mix between “pop and flamenco”. I still had so many questions about the celebrations, but decided to hold off until I saw it for myself. As we drove toward the destination of the bonfire, more cars became noticeable, until all alleys and sidewalks were filled with them. I eyed from the window as a steady stream of people made their way toward the fire.

After ten agonizing minutes, we finally found a parking spot, two blocks away from the fire pit. The fire was below a giant hill that stretched down to the bottom for what seemed miles. At the bottom, a big pile of furniture lay precariously stacked on one another, waiting to be lit and burned by the heavy flames. Along the entire sidewalk of the hill, yellow caution tape was put up to ensure that no one passed it. Hundreds of people lined up on the sidewalk, eagerly waiting for it to be lit. Everyone clutched tightly to their loved ones
—arms on shoulders, babies on hips, and children playing together.

As we waited together for the fire to be lit, I felt a connection to the people, because although this was a very new experience to me and surely not to them, I felt an equal sense of purpose. I knew that I needed to capture my feelings, the feelings of others, and the feelings of the atmosphere, in the best way I knew how—my photographs. The street lamps were dim, so the only real source of light was the fire itself. Although it proved itself to be challenging, I was able to adjust my camera to the darkness, by creating grainy, yet sharp images of the fire, and the faces of people looking at it in wonder. The red and orange hues from the fires cast onto the faces of the many people that gathered, young and old, to be a part of the old tradition and its deep meaning.

That night, I noticed much more than people gathering to look at a big bonfire, or to celebrate—I noticed a community, united by a single message, of hope, strength, and rejuvenation. And in that moment, I, like everyone else, felt proud to be human.

*All dialogue has been translated from Spanish to English

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