SEMANA SANTA IN LATIN AMERICA : A Poetic – Photographic Journey

One of the most spectacular Semana Santa processions in Quito is that of Good Friday, dedicated to the Señor de Gran Poder. Unlike most penitents who carry heavy crosses, shackles, stinging nettle or some instruments of flagellation, this cucurucho chose to carry a flower. photo © Lorraine Caputo

One of the most spectacular Semana Santa processions in Quito is that of Good Friday, dedicated to the Jesús de Gran Poder. Unlike most penitents who carry heavy crosses, shackles, stinging nettle or some instruments of flagellation, this cucurucho chose to carry a flower. photo © Lorraine Caputo

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.

Fanesca is a dish served in the highlands of Ecuador during Semana Santa. Dating from pre-Conquest times, this heavy “soup” contains 12 grains and beans, which in the Catholic iconography represents the 12 apostles, and dried cod (bacalao), representing Jesus. © Lorraine Caputo

Fanesca is a dish served in the highlands of Ecuador during Semana Santa. Dating from pre-Conquest times, this heavy “soup” contains 12 grains and beans, which in the Catholic iconography represents the 12 apostles, and dried cod (bacalao), representing Jesus. © Lorraine Caputo

 

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.

Safe Journeys!

Woman selling palm ornaments. Quito, Ecuador. photo ©Lorraine Caputo

Woman selling palm ornaments. Quito, Ecuador. photo ©Lorraine Caputo

PALM SUNDAY

(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

 

The Jueves Santo procession in Quito. photo ©Lorraine Caputo

The Jueves Santo procession in Quito. photo © 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

they stop

A woman

waves copal incense in front

A man

says a prayer in Quek’chi

 

The altar boys

in white & red

carry the crucifix & candles

Next come the elders

Then Christ

in red

carrying his cross

upon men’s shoulders

After them walk

the congregation

the priests

& on-lookers

Their voices rise in song

in Spanish, in Quek’chi

 

© Lorraine Caputo

The cucuruchos wear hooded robes. photo © Lorraine Caputo

The cucuruchos wear hooded robes. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Some participants in the Good Friday processions dress as Jesus and are accompanied by friends who act as centurions and may flagellate the penitent. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Some participants in the Good Friday processions dress as Jesus and are accompanied by friends who act as centurions and may flagellate the penitent. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Some cucuruchos wear shackles and chains. © Lorraine Caputo

Some cucuruchos wear shackles and chains. © Lorraine Caputo

A penitent wrapped with barbed wire and carrying a crossbeam covered with ortiga (stinging nettle). photo © Lorraine Caputo

A penitent wrapped with barbed wire and carrying a crossbeam covered with ortiga (stinging nettle). photo © Lorraine Caputo

Some penitents strap cactus to their backs. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Some penitents strap cactus to their backs. photo © 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.

The Verónicas. photo © Lorraine Caputo

The Verónicas. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Quito’s Good Friday procession is dedicated to the Señor de Gran Poder (Lord of Great Power). He is the patron saint of Ecuador’s police forces. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Quito’s Good Friday procession is dedicated to the Señor de Gran Poder (Lord of Great Power). He is the patron saint of Ecuador’s police forces. photo © Lorraine Caputo

The Virgen Dolorosa’s black dress is embroidered with gold thread. Her halo is made of fine silver filigree. photo © Lorraine Caputo

The Virgen Dolorosa’s black dress is embroidered with gold thread. Her halo is made of fine silver filigree. photo © Lorraine Caputo

 

The procession attracts over 100,000 people. photo © Lorraine Caputo

The procession attracts over 100,000 people. photo © Lorraine Caputo

VIERNES SANTO

(Puno, Peru – 2006)

 

During the night

beneath the fulling moon

rising above the sacred lake

beneath the rain

Pilgrims climbed

to the cross atop

Azotoguini hill

 

& come blinding-sun morn

they still zig-zag up

that cerro white

with fallen hail

 

© Lorraine Caputo

 

It is now Sábado de Pascuas, the Saturday between Viernes Santo – when Christ was crucified – and Pascua – Easter Sunday, when he was resurrected. On this day, the Virgen Dolorosa (Virgin of Sorrows) is silently carried through the streets, everyone joining in the mourning of her first-born son. In Guatemalan villages, it is the women who carry the Virgin in any procession. photo © Lorraine Caputo

It is now Sábado de Pascuas, the Saturday between Viernes Santo – when Christ was crucified – and Pascua – Easter Sunday, when he was resurrected. On this day, the Virgen Dolorosa (Virgin of Sorrows) is silently carried through the streets, everyone joining in the mourning of her first-born son. In Guatemalan villages, it is the women who carry the Virgin in any procession. photo © Lorraine Caputo

SORROWS

(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

 

Easter (Resurrection) Sunday is not as important as it is in the Protestant religions. For Catholics, especially in Latin America, Good Friday is much more significant. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Easter (Resurrection) Sunday is not as important as it is in the Protestant religions. For Catholics, especially in Latin America, Good Friday is much more significant. photo © Lorraine Caputo

RESURRECTION DAWN

(San Salvador, El Salvador – 1998)

 

Four-thirty

I crawl out of the hazes of my sleep

Explosions echo through the streets & alleys

 

Where am I?

San Salvador.

The Revolution.

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

those songs?

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

 

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Crosses awaiting the cucuruchos of the Good Friday procession. photo © 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

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