Hooded penitents march in a Semana Santa processions outside the cathedral in Jerez de la Frontera
After experiencing it last year in Palencia, I thought I knew from Semana Santa. Castilla y Leon (the Spanish state that contains Palencia) is known as an area with amazing Easter festivities. It's true: the processions, in which enormous pasos (statues of bible scenes, sometimes hundreds of years old) roll through town, followed by penitants in eerie hooded costumes and accompanied by complete silence, are affecting and impressive. People come from all over to see Easter in Salamanca, Burgos, and Leon, and I understand why. Something powerful and unique is at play there.When I moved south, people kept telling me: “Semana Santa in Andalucia is different.” They insisted it was both more passionate and less serious, which was a hard combination for me to imagine. In the end, though, that is exactly what I found.
The biggest difference is immediately obvious in any Andaluz Semana Santa parade: the costaleros. Andaluz pasos are similar to their northern brethren in that they are enormous platforms topped with statues, although these tend to be images of saints and Jesus’ last days and beautiful renderings of Mary (well, Maria) on top. Instead of being rolled by the penitents, they are carried by teams of “costaleros” (the ones who carry), between 15 and 40 people depending on the size and weight of their burden. For the weeks leading up to Easter, the costaleros practiced in my neighborhood, training like marathon runners--and it’s a good thing, too, the pasos can weigh more than 1000 kilos.
I would come upon them suddenly, rounding a corner to find them moving slowly, almost silently, along the street. The clues to their presence were the soft thud-thud of their sneakers moving in under an enormous but as yet empty platform, a borrowed police light on top warning drivers to stay away, the ding of a triangle keeping rhythm. A week before Semana Santa, they added weight, building the metal skeletons of their saints on top to simulate the distribution of weight. Later, though, in the processions themselves, the costaleros were almost invisible behind a curtain of cloth, only their sneakers visible, always moving in unison. They'd move a hundred meters, then stop to rest and put the paso down. Then, with grunts and yells from hidden places, they'd jump up, suddenly, landing dramatically with knees bent and the paso on their backs again.
In the course of a few days, I saw processions in Jerez de la Frontera, Cadiz, and here in Linares, and it’s true that by and large the atmosphere was light, funny, social. People chatted with neighbors, penitants texted on their phones as they marched, mobile stands sold snacks and plastic trumpets for the young ones-- all behavior that would never be permitted up north. It felt like a big street party, crowds of people dressed up in their best dresses and slacks, bows in the kids’ hair, gossip and salty snacks on everyone’s lips. There was never a moment of silence, even as the costaleros shuffled by.... but it all stopped for the saetas. These long, intense, deeply-felt and often improvised flamenco songs are sung for the saints as they are paraded through the streets, and they are unique to southern Spain. I heard three saetas during Andaluz semana santa, and each time I was struck by their vocal acrobatics, pure emotion, and the silence and stillness that would sweep over the scene for just a moment.
That’s where the passion comes in, I think—no, Easter may not be a silent, serious time here in the south, but people certainly feel very intensely about it. Some hate it ("A bunch of hypocrites, they don’t go to church the rest of the year," one friend commented to me); others look forward to it all year with mounting excitement. The costaleros go through enormous pain and suffering in the name of the holiday and their savior. The saeta singers pour their hearts out in front of crowds who turn out from all over town and at all hours (more on that next entry.) And when it rains and the pasos can’t go out (most are considered priceless works of art due to their age and provenance), the people hold each other and cry—real tears.
It was a rainy Semana Santa all over Spain, especially in Andalucia, and ESPECIALLY in Linares (I read in an article today that up to 4 times the normal amount of rain fell in March. In some places up to 6 times!) so there was a lot of crying this year. But one particular, particularly impressive procession took place at 4 am on Thursday night, and I was there to witness it. Stay tuned for my next blog entry to read all about it.
A late-night procession, bringing a paso home to its church in Jerez de la Frontera