Friday, April 26, 2013


 The San Francisco church, right after its Nazareno blessing

The first time I heard about the madruga processions in Semana Santa was last year in Palencia: a friend mentioned casually that if I thought Easter was intense in the north, I should know that down south processions often went through the night; some even began at 3 am. “But why!?” I asked, puzzled.

“I think it must be the heat,” my friend said, in that way that suggests a person doesn’t actually know the answer to the question you’ve asked. “Sometimes in April it’s already very hot in Sevilla. They want to avoid the heat of the day.” And that was that—we wended our way through our own cold, rainy Easter week, and I didn’t think about late-night processions at all—until I arrived this year in the south.

As I wrote here in my last entry, Semana Santa in southern Spain is more intense on a variety of levels. It occupies a special place in the collective consciousness, and as such it is on everyone’s lips even in the heat of September and the cold of January. From almost the moment of my arrival, people had been talking to me about the wonders of of a Linarense Easter. They mentioned the centuries-old pasos; the special, electric atmosphere; the haunting power of the saetas (the spontaneous flamenco performances I also mentioned last entry.) And almost without exception they recommended the Nazareno, a madruga procession that begins at 3 am on Jueves Santo (Thursday night) and ends in a powerful town-wide blessing in the Plaza San Francisco (madrugar means 'to get up in the middle of the night'.) I knew my parents were coming to visit, and even months before, when we hadn’t made any plans about our travels together, I had already decided we would see the Nazareno together.

In the end, we spent five non-stop-full, gorgeous days in Mallorca, then three more exploring southern Andalucia. We arrived back in Linares in the early evening on Thursday, and despite exhaustion my mother and I managed to get ourselves to Plaza San Francisco to see what all the fuss was about. Despite the fact that I woke up with a terrible stomach bug the next morning, my expectations were more than exceeded. And so here, I present to you a minute-by-minute narration of the unique Linarense madruga: the Nazareno.

10:15 PM: It’s really a carnival atmosphere tonight, although of course outside Carnaval time. Linares feels abuzz, electric—there’s no other word for it. People are running everywhere to and fro, calling to each other “Oye, tio, donde estais?”, buying popcorn from the little mobile snack carts that have materialized around town. People in colored robes, carrying brass instruments or the traditional, eerie coned masks under their arms, cross the road every which way.Walking down the street to catch a couple of processions despite the threatening rain, we say to each other, “Man, this is a weird atmosphere.” and “Have you ever felt anything like this?”

10:30 PM: We end up in the main shopping street, waiting with a chattering mass. The DaVinci café, where I’ve had so many cups of tea, is filled with people, as is La Minera tapas bar across the street (which I have never seen open, let alone full.) Exactly on time, we see a Santa Maria paso come down the main street. The saint is in her raincoat, a thick sheet of plastic, to protect her from the dripping sky. The crowd claps and whoops as the paso passes. I can see the white sneakers scuffing the wet concrete, cut off by hanging material under the platform; the costaleros (men or women who are charged with the holy duty of carrying the paso) call to each other, grunt, make adjustments in their route. I turn and watch them continue into the main plaza, their outline silhouetted against the lit-up green letters of the Cortes Ingles department store. I’ve walked past that store perhaps 50 times; tonight it is transformed into something altogether different.

10:45 PM: The second procession is called on account of two drops of rain. We head home to rest and prepare.

1:15 AM: Lights out, in that strange space of anticipation when you know you will have to wake up very, very soon. My apartment is on the procession route of many brotherhoods; I am not expecting to sleep very well, in any case.

1:45 AM: Just drifting off. The insistent, hard, enormous beat of a drum catapults me out of bed to my window, before I can even remember I’ve gotten up. Below, in a haze, I see blue uniformed bands in epaulets, smudges of maroon with gold braid next to them. They are walking to meet the rest of the procession.

2:10 AM: Roused again by upbeat melodies drifting through my earplugs. I go to the window again and see a group of at least 25 standing in the road by the plaza (not in the plaza, mind you— something I see as indicative of the kind of odd lawlessness that’s taken over the night.) They seem to be talking and hanging around with the band. Maybe they’re warming up?

2:35 AM: Yes, they were warming up. I get out of bed again, more resigned: the insistent beat is back (but not so enormous). Now the band is marching away through the plaza. Outside, more people are walking back and forth than usually do except at the busiest time of the day (when the elementary schools down the street let out.)

3 AM: Try to go back to sleep. Even with earplugs, I’m hallucinating band music. Give up and watch an interview with Amy Poehler online.

3:17 AM: The drums start again. Things must be beginning. I go to wake my mother.

3:27 AM: Hair in bun, shoes on, camera packed, eyes bleary. We walk toward Plaza San Francisco. From all over, people are streaming in.

3:32 AM: We come out in the plaza face to face with another Maria, a gorgeous flower-lined paso fronted with at least 40 3-foot-tall candles, all lit. She’s being lifted out on the street. I stop short. She’s so beautiful.

3:35 AM: We stand, frozen, watching them maneuver Maria. In the process of being lifted onto the costaleros' shoulders, she lists dangerously to the side. I gasp along with everyone else in the crowd.

3:36 AM: Plaza San Francisco is already crowded and filling fast. I can see a second Jesus paso at the far end. They seem to be maneuvering him into position.

3:38 AM: We find a spot in the center of the plaza, facing the church, with the Jesus to the left and Maria up a little hill to the right. A breeze has already blown out several of Maria’s candles and most of Jesus’ as well. People are streaming in, packing tight.

3:40 AM:  Some women in their 30s arrive and settle in a spot a few feet away. They’re talking loudly among themselves, and they have opinions on everything-- who should or should not be taking photos now, how other people should stand etc. I listen to them for awhile and crane my neck toward the church door.

3:52 AM: A few drops of rain start to fall from the cloudy sky. I swear under my breath—if it rains, all this will be cancelled out of concern for the pasos. Umbrellas sprout up immediately, and the crowd around me bursts into complaints. “Ey, paraguas!” they yell; “Put down the umbrella!” Obviously, the women next to me have an opinion on this. When a single umbrella remains up, blocking our view, one yells. “Que fuerte! Pero que fuerte! Poca verguenza!” What little shame you have!

3:56 AM: The sky is holding out. The lone umbrella goes down. The whole crowd around me cheers, and we hear the sound of trumpets. Thirty seconds later, the trumpets sound again-- and all the lights in the plaza go out.

3:58 AM: Waves of silence flood around the plaza, as much quiet as 2000 people can produce, before rolling back into whispers and noise. There’s a slight movement up front, what looks like feathers out the door of the church. I can’t see.

4:01 AM: The people around me are talking about whether this is enough rain to stop the procession. “Is it coming out? Should we wait?” As they talk, we hear more trumpets. People around me are starting to yell some kind of slogan, but I can’t tell what they’re yelling yet.

4:10 AM: The doors open. At first all I can see is candles, then branches attached to those candles, then an enormous paso—probably 25 feet long—filled with glass candelabras and Jesus of Nazareth (El Nazareno). The paso pauses; the whole crowd bursts into applause—maybe 1500 people at 4 am, telegraphing their joy.

4:13 AM: More trumpets, more yelling—this time I can make out what they’re saying. Someone will yell a name, and another group will yell “Viva!” (long live ____!) I deduce that it’s names of Cofradias, brotherhoods that are in charge of parading the saints during Semana Santa. And then people are yelling “Viva el Nazareno!” and the whole crowd is yelling “Viva!” and clapping.

4:19 AM: More trumpets, longer lasting this time. At the end, a true hush goes over the crowd. (Except the group of seemingly drunk 30-somethings next to me. Isn’t it always the way? They’re giggling and chatting and joking. I try to shoot them some dirty looks, but it doesn’t work.)

4:25 AM: They finally shut up, making way for a deep silence and a single ringing note of a triangle. Then a few more notes ping ut in the dark, still, breath-held plaza. A moment more, and clarinets and flutes join, then the whole brass band, and the crowd breaks into the largest cheer yet. A light goes on, illuminating the front of the church. I think we’ve been blessed.

4:27 AM: The Jesus paso starts to move again, with its accompanying band. It moves into position on the road that goes through the plaza. The costaleros lift it, with many preparatory grunts and yells, and a final dramatic jump from knees to standing, with 60 kilos on their backs. I’ll never get used to that; I don’t think it will ever stop being impressive.

4:29 AM: Before they can move out of the plaza, trailing the penitents with the black pointed caps and silver staves, the costaleros stop—a woman is singing a saeta to the saint. In Linares, the costaleros are required to stop any time anyone wants to sing a saeta.

4: 33 AM: It’s a long song and extremely difficult. The woman’s voice is serpentine, undulating, threading in and out of the sounds of the crowd talking in undertone around me. At the most difficult parts, the crowd shouts “Ole!” like we’re at a concert instead of on the street. When she finishes, trailing off, there’s applause. The costaleros jump; the Jesus on the cross moves off around the corner.

4:42 AM: Now focus shifts to the Nazareno Jesus, his candles flickering in light breeze and fine mist. People all around are taking pictures; the band starts to play but again we’re interrupted by another saeta, the woman’s voice strong in the air like cord, sinuous, passionate.

4: 48 AM: To watch the Nazareno be mounted is something truly incredible. The full sculpture and platform must weigh at least a ton, maybe more. I would estimate there are 40 people under there. The paso is trailed by cofradia members dressed in legionnaires outfits, including hats with elaborate white plumes—now I can see what the feathers were before, the cofradia members coming out of the church. The candlelight casts shadows on the dwindling crowd; people are starting to go home to sleep.

4:52 AM: We have more room to move, so we move closer to the Maria. All of the candles in front of her have blown out, but her beauty is unmistakable. The trumpets sound again, followed by gentle processional music. The costaleros jump, grunt, and move out. We linger, watching Maria disappear around the corner after her companions.

5:01 AM: The rain starts again, this time heavier and more insistent. We walk home, feeling truly touched. To see a community come together like this is something powerful. And to see such beauty and magic come to life in a place I think about as a kind of “home” is something extraordinary. Tonight, Jueves Santo, is a night full of “madrugas,” and the same kind of things are happening in Cordoba, in Sevilla, in Jerez, in Granada, on bigger scales—more pasos, more people, more processions.

But to see these streets transformed, to see the places where I walk to go to the post office, to go to school, to get tapas, to drink coffee candle lit, made new—that’s something different. It’s like seeing something ordinary and every day made sacred. Or maybe it was sacred all this time.

The lovely Maria before her candles blew out


Trevor Huxham said...

This post was epic. I really felt like I was there, and I like the play-by-play reporting. It sounds like a rollercoaster of emotions of waiting, sleeping, hearing music, feeling the saetas, and the happiness at congratulating the successful pasos turning & such. I only got to see like 1 paso in Algeciras on Viernes Santo, a small taste of what it would have been like in Linares, but it was still impressive seeing those massive pasos being lowered and carried up a ramp into a church. I now understand why they’re given such positions of honor in churches!

Unknown said...

Love your posts! Keep em coming. As much as I love having roots in NYC its always such a pleasure to imagine putting down roots somewhere else, as you are doing in Spain :)

Linda said...

^ that was me :)