Semana Santa – Holy Week – is one of the most important holidays in Latin America, both religiously and secularly. Wherever you may be wending in the region, you will experience the festivities.
From Palm Sunday (marking the end of the 40 days of fasting during Lent) through Easter Sunday, the days will be filled with masses, processions and other special ceremonies. Some towns, like Antigua (Guatemala), San Salvador (El Salvador) and Ayacucho (Peru) adorn their streets with intricate carpets made of flowers or sawdust. Other places – Querétaro (Mexico) and Quito (Ecuador), among others – have fervent Good Friday processions. But even in the smallest of villages, the faithful wend the lanes, carrying statues of Jesus and Mary.
Semana Santa isn’t only a high holy season. It is also vacation time for many Latin Americans. The beaches will be super-crowded, and prices for transport, lodging and food will skyrocket.
This season is also celebrated with traditional foods, especially fish, bacalao (salt cod) and seafood. Mexico serves up romeritos, a type of seaweed (Suaeda torreyana), often prepared with mole. In Argentina and Uruguay, folks will be enjoying tarta pascualina (Swiss chard or spinach and ricotta quiche). In Ecuador, the entire extended family gathers for fanesca, a heavy soup made with 12 grains and bacalao.
Let us, then, embark on a photographic-poetic excursion of Latin America to celebrate Semana Santa.
For our photographic part of the journey, we shall see scenes from Quito. This capital of Ecuador has two weeks full of very traditional Easter processions and traditions, as well as a Festival of Sacred Music.
For our poetic sojourn, we shall witness the religious life in the cities and villages of Central and South America.
(Quito, Ecuador – 2004)
Barefoot, skin the color of cloves
a man walks down the center
of Calle Cuenca
Gunny sack slung over
his left shoulder
He leads five mongrels
on a fraying blue rope
Up on the open-air atrium
of the Franciscan church
the traditional market has returned
Woven bouquets of palm fronds, flowers
bucklets of choclo con habas, of salchipapas
This day the police
don’t push the vendors off
At the toll of seven-morn mass
an officer shoves a drunk
down this street
© Lorraine Caputo
A POEM FOR JUEVES SANTO
(El Estor, Guatemala – 1994)
Under the full moon
a procession wends
through the village
At 14 altars
the 14 stations of the cross
decorated with flowers & candles
waves copal incense in front
says a prayer in Quek’chi
The altar boys
in white & red
carry the crucifix & candles
Next come the elders
carrying his cross
upon men’s shoulders
After them walk
Their voices rise in song
in Spanish, in Quek’chi
© Lorraine Caputo
Viernes Santo (Good Friday) is the day of the crucifixion. Quiteños have a very traditional and spiritually powerful procession on this day.
The cucuruchos – the hooded ones – are fulfilling penitence. In Quito, they walk through the historic center of town, from San Francisco church, uphill to the Basilica, and back – a total of about three kilometers (1.8 miles). Often they do this barefoot, at times with shackles and chains. Some wear a barbed-wire crown of thorns, or wrap barbed wire, stinging nettles (ortiga) or cactus around their torsos. Friends accompany a penitent, to help him hoist the cross upon his shoulders, or to relieve the weight for a block or two. Other friends may dress as Roman centurions to “guard” him on the way of the cross – or even to whip him.
Behind them are the Verónicas, veiled women dressed in purple, representing the woman who wiped the sweat from Jesus’ brow after he fell. After this come the Virgen Dolorosa (Virgen of Sorrows) and Jesús de Gran Poder (Jesus of Great Power), to whom the procession is dedicated. Both are richly adorned with silver.
It draws over 100,000 faithful – and notoriously several dozen pickpockets. The event begins at noon and lasts until about 3 p.m.
(Puno, Peru – 2006)
During the night
beneath the fulling moon
rising above the sacred lake
beneath the rain
to the cross atop
& come blinding-sun morn
they still zig-zag up
that cerro white
with fallen hail
© Lorraine Caputo
(Arequipa, Peru – 2012)
On this Santo Saturday
the Virgin of Sorrows wends
through the narrow streets
of this white-stone city
In this cool night
her podium sways
atop the shoulders
of two dozen men
At her feet, a carpet of
thick tapers flutters—
the scent of beeswax & sweet white flowers,
of pungent palo santo incense
In that light gleam
the embroidered gold threads
the encrusted gems
of her black-velvet cape & canopy
Her crown & gold halo
of fine rays, fine jewels
sway in rhythm to
the brass & drum band
Surrounded by hundreds
of faithful grasping candles,
flickering flames illuminating
their lips silently praying
© Lorraine Caputo
(San Salvador, El Salvador – 1998)
I crawl out of the hazes of my sleep
Explosions echo through the streets & alleys
Where am I?
The city is under attack?
I walk out to the back patio
where the resounding is clearer
The volcano is lost in the dusty haze
of the nearing end of this dry season
Only the brightest of stars are visible
Blast follows rocket blast
The early morning traffic hums
Singing fills the darkness
It is Easter Sunday
& I wonder during those 10, 12 years of war
when a curfew blanketed the night
How could these people celebrate the Resurrection?
Could they have those fireworks
Could their procession wind
down these full-moon streets?
& I wonder of those deep in their sleep
What do they feel they fear
with each rocket exploding?
Do their dreams
turn to nightmares?
The pre-dawn sky lightens
with the tolling of church bells
The gunshots of firecrackers pop-pop
through the alleys & streets
© Lorraine Caputo
BEST PLACES TO EXPERIENCE SEMANA SANTA (in Latin America)
No matter in which country you are at this moment, you’ll find processions from Holy Wednesday through Resurrection (Easter) Sunday. The most sincere ones are in smaller towns or villages. These are some of the places with the biggest, most spectacular Holy Week celebrations in the region:
Mexico – Taxco, San Luis Potosí and Querétaro (traditional ceremonies and on Good Friday, the penitents’ procession); Iztapalapa
Guatemala – Antigua (with floral carpets)
El Salvador – San Salvador (with sawdust carpets)
Honduras – Comayagua (with sawdust carpets)
Nicaragua – Matagalpa, Granada, León
Costa Rica – Heredia, San Rafael de Oreamuno
Venezuela – Tacarigua de Mamporal, Guatire, Villa de Cura
Colombia – Mompox, Popayán, Pamplona
Ecuador – Quito (with very traditional masses – including the arrastre de caudas, and processions, especially of penitents on Good Friday)
Perú – Ayacucho (with floral carpets)
TIPS FOR TRAVELERS
- Because many families head to the beach or other popular national destinations during the holiday, hotel and food prices in those places triple or even quadruple. If you are on a tight budget or looking for peace, for tranquility – avoid these destinations!
- As well, because many travel during this time, bus and other transportation prices also dramatically increase across the board – especially in countries like Peru.
- Hotel rooms will be exceptionally scarce in popular vacation destinations and in the towns with the most famous celebrations, like Antigua, Mompox, Popayán and Ayacucho.
- Check on availability of transportation – and whether markets, restaurants and other businesses will be open, especially from Wednesday to Saturday.
- The processions draw a lot of observers – and many pickpockets. Watch your belongings in large crowds.
- These are religious observances. Please dress and behave respectfully.
- Practice respectful photography ethics.
- Be prepared for long hours in the sun: use protection (sun screen, hat) and drink plenty of fluids.
- Evenings can be cool; be sure to take along a shawl, sweater or other wrap.
CIPHERING SEMANA SANTA
When you’re off travelling, how can you know when Semana Santa – and even Carnaval will be?
It isn’t too difficult. This is how Western Christianity sets the dates for these religious observances:
- Easter (Resurrection) Sunday (Domingo de Resurreción) is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the March equinox (which can occur 20-22 March).
- Palm Sunday (Domingo de Ramos) is the Sunday prior to Easter Sunday.
- The forty days before Palm Sunday is Lent (Cuaresma), which begins on Ash Wednesday (Miércoles de Cenizas).
- Carnaval is fêted in the weeks before Lent begins.
photos and article © Lorraine Caputo