“¡Cuando un silletero pasa, es Antioquia la que pasa!”
– Crowd chant at the 2019 Medellín Parade of Silleteros
It means: “When a silletero passes, it’s Antioquia that passes!” The silletero is one of the most potent symbols of Antioquia, the huge Colombian province that includes Medellín as its largest city. Sillateros and their burdens are central players in the biggest event on the Medellín calendar, the Feria de las Flores, held every year in early August.
So what’s a silletero, you ask?
To answer that question, here’s a bit of Antioquian history. The first thing you should know is that “silla” is the Spanish word for chair. So a “silletero” literally means someone who carries a chair on his or her back.
The sillatero tradition has its roots in Santa Elena, one of the pretty towns in the Andes heights overlooking Medellín. Santa Elena is also a huge flower-growing region, which has a big bearing on this story. Going back to colonial times, silleteros were men who carried sick and elderly people – and sometimes, extremely lazy noblemen and dignitaries – down from the mountains in chairs on their backs. Early silleteros were thought to be slaves and indigenous folk who had little choice but to take up this (literally) back-breaking labor.
As time went on and the flower trade grew, the silleteros’ role evolved to transport fresh-cut flowers, not people, down into the markets in Medellín. In the 1950s, Medellín civic leaders created the Feria de las Flores to honor the sillateros and the growing flower trade, which today is a huge part of the Colombian economy. The world buys about $1.35 billion worth of Colombian flowers every year, making the country the world’s second-largest producer of cut flowers after The Netherlands.
This year’s Feria de las Flores was the biggest ever, a 12-day extravaganza with more than 400 events of all sizes held all over the Medellin area. Huge parades! Street fairs! Musical performances! Beauty queens! Stunning floral displays! As a true celebration of the Paisa culture (Paisas being folks from Antioquia), the Feria literally offers something for everyone.
Since this was our first Feria, we were determined to participate as much as possible. Here were our top three events.
The Desfile de Autos Classicos
This sprawling parade of classic cars drew an estimated crowd of a million people (!) and covered a bigger route than even the grand-finale Desfile de los Silleteros. More than 500 vehicles participated this year, complete with drivers and riders in period dress. There were some real gems!
Orquideas Flores y Artesanias
No Medellin Flower Festival would be complete without a celebration of orchids, the national flower of Colombia. This spectacular exposition took over the Medellín Botanical Garden with one of the most stunning displays of orchids and other exotic flowers that we’ve ever seen. It absolutely knocked our socks off!
The Desfile de los Sillateros
This spectacular parade is the grand finale of the Feria de las Flores and is always held on the final Sunday. This year’s parade featured more than 550 sillateros and other participants and drew well over a million on-site spectators as well as a massive TV audience. The sillateros were judged in five different categories for their silletas, the flower displays they carried on their backs. Each silleta is a work of art, and some are astonishingly HUGE and elaborate.
Our bleacher seats were very near the end of the parade route, and one thing that struck us was how tired many of the sillateros were after carrying the heavy silletas for such a long distance. Some of the sillateros are quite elderly, but it seemed a huge matter of pride that they could persevere until the end. Fortunately, teams of scouts walked with them to lend a helping hand if necessary.