This year’s Medellin flower festival is particularly special for William Atehortua, a local flower grower whose participation in Saturday’s annual flower parade dates back half a century.
In the lead up to the flower parade on the final day of the festival, Colombia Reports spoke with the veteran “silletero,” a carrier of an elaborate flower arrangement called a “silleta,” who will be celebrating his 50th anniversary of participation the flower parade on Sunday .
Atehortua told Colombia Reports that the silletero tradition began in the late 1800s, when farmers from Santa Elena, a rural community set in the mountainous countryside outside Medellin, needed to transport their goods to market in the city, yet the steep slopes and uneven terrain made the use of pack mules impossible.
The term silletero comes from the word “silleta,” literally meaning “little chair;” the wooden structure that farmers used to transport goods and passengers in makeshift “seats” fixed to their backs.
From the age of 13, Atehortua would make the weekly four-hour trek with his father and a group of up to 20 other men from Santa Elena to Medellin to sell flowers at weekend the markets. Carrying a heavy load of freshly picked flowers, the group would start their four-hour journey around 1AM using lanterns to light the way over uneven terrain on their descent into the city.
“It was a lot of fun. Everyone would be making jokes to make the time pass quickly,” said Atehortua.
The flower sellers had to begin their weekly pilgrimage in the middle of the night in order to arrive at dawn to set up their market stalls before the plaza filled up with eager buyers. The bustling marketplace was Plaza Cisneros, which today has a decidedly more modern feel with its permanent display of 300 light columns that simulate the phases of the moon.
Unlike other outlying areas of Medellin where merchants could transports their wares to market using carts, Santa Elena’s isolated location atop the mountainous countryside surrounding Medellin meant the farmers had to rely on silletas to carry their heavy loads of up to 100kg. Thus, the silletero tradition that began in the area more than a century ago will always be identified as distinctly belonging to Santa Elena.
Indeed, not just anyone can carry a silleta in the parade. The families that participate today are descended from the original silletero families of Santa Elena. The right to carry a silleta has been passed down from generation to generation since the first parade in 1957. Most of the families who participate in the parade still earn a living through cultivating flowers, or grazing cattle, or other agriculture-based industries.
“Before I die, I have to decide which of my sons will inherit my contract [to carry a silleta in the parade],” said Atehortua, whose adult sons have been helping him make the silletas since they were children. The contract can only be given to one person, so Atehortua will have to choose which of his children or another relative is most interested in keeping the tradition alive.
Nowadays, Atehortua has a florist store near Medellin’s San Pedro Cemetery, but thanks to modern transportation, Atehortua’s weekly pilgrimage into the city is less than an hour by truck.