The Juan Valdez of Colombia’s Flower Industry: Meet the Face of Santa Elena’s 19th Century Silletero Tradition

Don Aristedes. Photo: Anna-Cat Brigida for Remezcla

On the top of a hill overlooking the Colombian town of Santa Elena, Don Aristides Rios bends down to tenderly stroke a budding Estrella de Belen, or Star of Bethlehem. It’s his favorite flower because of the delicate white petals and their healing benefits, but he treats all of his flowers with the same cariño. 70-year-old Don Aristides is a silletero in Santa Elena, a town outside of Medellin known for its flower-arranging tradition. The silleteros are flower cultivators who showcase their decades-old culture by carrying flower displays on their backs in an annual August parade.

“The flower is my way of living,” said Don Aristides. “For me it has always been about flowers. I have a great debt of gratitude for the flower.”

Colombia is one of the largest flower producers in the world, second only to the Netherlands. This Valentine’s Day, about 75 percent of the flowers sold in the U.S. will come from the South American country. But these flowers don’t come from Don Aristides’ estate El Chagualo, which pales in comparison to the massive plantations outside of Bogota that churn out flowers by the thousands.

Photo: Anna-Cat Brigida for Remezcla

Don Aristides mainly sells his flowers to locals for weddings, anniversaries and birthdays, instead of competing with large Colombian exporters. For him, flowers are not meant for mass production. They are part of the silletero tradition, which is now threatened by big exporters, changing technology and a lack of government funding.

Don Aristides has earned the title “Juan Valdez of Flowers”, because he acts as the unofficial silletero spokesperson. Juan Valdez was a marketing personality invented by Colombia’s National Federation of Coffee Workers to represent the coffee industry. Similarly, Don Aristides embodies the typical silletero with sun-weathered hands, a traditional cowhide satchel and a wide-brimmed hat.

“Being called the Juan Valdez of Flowers is an honor, but I never wanted to be Juan Valdez,” Don Aristides said at his estate on a recent Saturday morning. “The most important thing has always been the flowers.” His main goal is not personal fame, but to spread the message of Santa Elena’s silleteros.

Photo: Anna-Cat Brigida for Remezcla

Since the mid-19th century, farmers from Santa Elena used silletas, handmade open-face backpacks in the shape of a chair, to transport flowers to markets in nearby Medellin. The person carrying these goods is called a silletero, and is typically an estate owner or worker. Since the age of nine, Don Aristides carried flowers from his father’s estate to sell at the market. It was a simpler time: no highways, no transportation trucks and certainly no smartphones.

“Now it’s ‘send me a Whatsapp’ and all of that stuff on the internet,” said Don Aristides, as his son and grandson laugh.

When the family bought the farm in 1928, they were able to make money just from selling their flower arrangements. As the flower export industry in Colombia began to boom in the late 1960s, huge plantations began to outproduce the modest silletero estates and drive down flower prices. So, the estates in Santa Elena began to grow other crops for profit, such as potatoes, strawberries and blackberries. But in a modernizing Colombia, this business model has become hard to sustain. About three years ago, Don Aristides built a dining hall on his estate to accommodate tourists, a new source of income for silleteros.

The silleta that lends silleteros their name. Photo: Anna-Cat Brigida for Remezcla

“We’ve received a lot of tourists and… Man, I can’t think of the word,” says the veteran silletero, whose sharp but aging mind sometimes lags behind his fast-talking tongue. “Foreigners! Foreigners from all over: Mexico, USA, and Italy.”

The tourists come searching for the Juan Valdez of flowers after hearing the urban legend of Don Aristides. He has marched in every silletero parade since it started in 1957, when a local politician decided to showcase the creations of local flower growers. The parade has evolved into an annual traditional that attracts thousands of international tourists each year. Don Aristides carries a traditional-style silleta on his back each year to compete for the grand prize, which he has never won.

Don Aristedes. Photo: Anna-Cat Brigida for Remezcla

But his grandson, one of the many heirs to Don Aristides’ legacy, placed in the junior category three years ago. All of Don Aristides’ five children work on his estate in different ways, a responsibility they have eagerly taken on, particularly his son Freddy who cultivates the flowers.

“The most important thing is the love and care for the fields and the flowers,” Freddy said. “This is what we want to transfer to our children and the world. This is the example he sets, along with his fight for all these years for the silletero culture to survive.”

The Silleteros of Santa Elena were declared an intangible cultural monument in 2014. This provided an extra layer of protection, mainly in the form of funding, for a way of life threatened by a modernizing Colombia. Losing the silletero culture would mean losing part of Colombia’s history.

“The culture is not going to die,” said Don Aristides. He won’t let it.