A FEAST DAY IN THE COUNTRY – AND THE CITY : Fêting San Antonio in Latin America

San Antonio. La Recoleta Church (Quito, Ecuador). photo © Lorraine Caputo

On this rainy night, the eve of the feast day of San Antonio de Padúa, hundreds of kilometers from Los Crepúsculos, I imagine I hear the strains of his serenade.

¡Ay, mi padre San Antonio

Donde está que no lo veo

Que vine a cantar con él

Y me voy con los deseos!

 

Qué queréis con San Antonio

Que lo ‘tas  llamando tanto

San Antonio  está en el cielo

Junto con los otros santos

 

Señores los bailadores

No se vayan a pegar

Los remedios ‘tan  muy lejos

No hay quien los vaya a buscar

 

Adorar y adorar y adorar a mi padre San Antonio

Adorar y adorar y adorar a mi padre San Antonio

 

Ay, my father San Antonio

Where are you, I don’t see you

I’ve come to sing with him

And I’ll be leaving with my dreams!

 

What is it you want with San Antonio

That you’re calling upon him so much?

San Antonio is in heaven,

Along with the other Saints.

 

It is the eve of the feast day of San Antonio – Saint Anthony of Padua. In the middle of the street of a neighborhood of Barquisimeto, Venezuela, musicians are seated in front of a statue of San Antonio. As they sing their honoring song honoring to this saint, bottles of cocuy (homebrew liquor) are being passed.

This serenade will continue until the wee hours of the morn, when then the all-day procession commences with a mass, and ends with an evening of seven dances…

Iglesia Nuestra Señora de Guápulo (Quito, Ecuador). photo © Lorraine Caputo

 

Even many years after that night in Los Crepúsculos, the serenade sounds through my mind. Every time I encounter a statue of San Antonio – no matter the season – I mouth the words and sway, dancing to this great saint.

 

Iglesia de Sn Antonio (M’burucuyá, Argentina). photo © Lorraine Caputo

The feast day of Saint Anthony of Padua is celebrated on 13 June. San Antonio was born Fernando Martins de Bulhões, in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1195. He was contemporary of Saint Francis of Assisi (San Francisco de Asís), founder of the Franciscan order. Saint Anthony became a monk of this order, and was famous for his knowledge of scripture, being able to teach them through simple words and deeds. Thus he holds the title of Doctor of the Church. He died 13 June 1231.

San Antonio is represented by the infant Jesus cradled in one arm. Sometimes he also holds a book or a lily blossom. He is the patron saint of lost causes, lost (or stolen) items, lost people and of the poor. In France, Italy, Spain and his native Portugal, Saint Anthony is the patron saint of sailors and fishermen. In other countries, he is the patron of travelers. On his saint’s day, small loaves of bread are passed out after the mass. This symbolizes San Antonio’s devotion to the marginalized peoples of these lands.

San Antonio is fêted throughout the Americas, from Mexico to Argentina. Today, we shall witness the traditions in two distinct parts of this region: in the deep countryside of Nicaragua, and in the barrios of the city of Barquisimeto, in Venezuela.

 

Iglesia San Francisco (Quito, Ecuador). photo © Lorraine Caputo

 

Many moons ago, when I stayed a mighty spell in Estelí, I was invited to accompany Padre Juan and some of the Rugama family to Terrero, a small settlement in the mountains of northern Nicaragua.

 

A FEAST DAY IN THE COUNTRY

 

Campesinos climb the rocky road

up to the brick chapel

With four guitars & two basses

their song fills the  valley

of these greened hills

Rockets fire into the air

 

In his glass case carried

in two men’s work-worn hands

San Antonio sways

Mothers & children enter the church

Fathers gather outside

smoking cigarettes

talking about crops & cattle

The Saint rests to one side of the altar

in front of the moss-covered apse

studded with plastic-petalled carnations

made by women of this parish

A large cloth-covered basket

of fresh-baked bread

is placed atop him

 

On horseback       on foot

the late arrive

One tethers his mare

to a guanacaste tree

Tattered curtains of Spanish moss

floating the blue-white sun breeze

In the distance two women

comedown the camino

They hold the hands of their children´

a baby in arms

 

Outside Padre Juan confers

with the mass assistants

&the musicians

 

More & more ascend the slope

to the sanctuary

Another rocket rises into the sky

where light clouds move & form swiftly

The white line of its smoke

the pop of its explosion

 

The priest & the choir enter the chapel

Men put their discussions aside

&pack into the back

 

Faces of those unable to fit inside

peer into the open doors & windows

 

Some compadres remain perched

on the scattered lava boulders

cowboy hats, baseball caps on knees

One holds his daughter on his thigh

The bow of her yellow voile dress

flutters in the soft wind

 

As the mass unfolds

with the reading of the scripture

the music

with the sermon

& the testimonies of the community

with the celebration of the Eucharist

More families near the temple

children in hand tottering along

children in arms

Men hastily remove their hats

 

The wafers are placed on tongues

Outside a man lights the fuse

of the rockets with his cigarette

The swooshes       the cracks

of each fill the late morning

 

The last song is being sung

Two women carry the basket of bread

All within & outside this crowded

church are fed

 

Amid cries bounding from one another

¡Viva San Antonio!

                                                ¡Viva!

                  ¡Viva San Antonio!

                                                ¡Viva!

The Saint is carried away

in his glass case

the handles held by those

two sets of work-worn hands

Down the hill

down the winding road

up the next rise

into the distance

Rocket blasts reverberate

throughout the valley

 

published in: Baobab (2000)

 

Iglesia San Francisco (Puerto Ayora, Isla Santa Cruz, Galapagos). photo © Lorraine Caputo

 

In further south climes, this popular Saint is also being fêted. One of his largest strong hold is in Venezuela’s state of Lara, where he is the patron saint. The tamunangue music and dances of these celebrations have their roots deep in Africa. It is said to have originated with San Antonio himself, during his missionary work in northern Africa.

My first visit to Venezuela coincided with the fiestas of San Antonio. Friends around the country urged me to get to Barquisimeto, capital of Lara. Yakarí offered to be my guide through the two days of celebrations in the Los Crepúsculos neighborhood. This is home of one of the most traditional troupes, Grupo de Tamunangue Uyama.

The evening of June 12 is the velorio (vigil) to San Antonio, a serenade on the eve of his saint’s day. The next day, mass is said at the parish church in La Unión. The procession then wends through the streets, with dancing and drumming until dusk. At night, the round of dances is performed.

 

A FEAST DAY IN THE CITY

 

  1. El Velorio / Los Crepúsculos

 

The warning rockets are fired

one two three & four

with the butt of a cigarette

 

San Antonio stands in his case

near the door of a house

His wooden capilla

is backdropped by fan-

shaped palm leaves

Two vases of flowers

perch at the front corners

Their carnations scent the evening

a single candle flickers

 

People gather in the cul-de-sac

awaiting this velorio to begin

Many come & touch his head

his back       & then cross themselves

 

The strumming of cuatros

& guitarra marruna

                  begins before this saint

Of a septet standing before him

the strains of Ave María Purísima

A rocket fired

&a second

rocket tras rocket

 

After the song

one troubadour

prays aloud

The standing people repeat

¡Viva San Antonio!

                  ¡Viva San Antonio!

 

Everyone sits in silver

wrought-iron seats set

in a semi-circle before the Saint

Two troubadours in the front row

sing to San Antonio

 

Playing kids roam

young teen women gossip—

their mothers & grandmothers, too

 

Two floodlights brighten

the street, the scenario

 

A brindis of cocuy

is left for San Antonio

& after a coffee break

the serenade continues

More men join with

cuatros, voice and cincos

Between songs more

cocuy is poured

 

A grey-rooted, red haired woman

in a bright green shirt

claps with the music

swaying in rhythm

Her palms redden

song after song

 

These men, their eyes reddening

sing leaning into a compañero

or closes his eyes

They praise San Antonio

la-la-ing with heart & smile

or eyes wide, brows twisted with feeling

 

As the evening grows older

people move the chairs

into tight circles around the music

 

And when the velorio

ends at midnight

The musicians suit their instruments

until the next morn,

San Antonio’s feast

 

 

poem © Lorraine Caputo

 

On San Antonio’s feast day, the biggest celebration is in Barrio La Unión. After the morning mass at the parish church, tamunangueros dance through the streets, carrying the beloved saint from house to house. This procession with its accompanying drumming (and copious amounts of cocuy) continues until dusk. After the sun sets, the seven sones (rhythms) of tamunangue are danced by couples armed with garrotes (sticks).

Yakarí and I spent the day being one with the procession. That night, we returned to Los Crepúsculos. For hours we sat on the blacktop street while he explained the intricacies of each dance.

The tamunangue not only honors San Antonio on his feast day, but it is also performed to fulfill a promise (promesa) to him for granting a good harvest, a family request (for wishes of healing, a new home, studies, etc.) or for love conquered.

The tamunangue consists of the Dedicatorio or Serenade to San Antonio, which includes the Batalla (Battle), performed by two men. This is to ask the Saint for permission to present the dances promised to him.

This is then followed by a round of seven dances performed by couples:

  • El Yiyevamos – The opening dance, with the singer directing the dancers with his calls
  • La Bella – An honoring of women
  • La Juruminga – Based rhythms and forgotten African words
  • La Perrendenga – A dance between woman and man, with garrotes
  • El Poco a PocoThree humorous passes compose this dance
  • El Galerón – The couples dance holding hands
  • El Seis Figurado (Seis Corrido) – Three men and three women dance a total of 32 movements, acting out the picaresque calls of the singer

 

These are just two of the ways San Antonio is fêted in Latin America, in the countryside and in the city, by campesinos and by African descendants. The pueblos of this region wear many other faces, including indigenous. Many roads, there are, yet to wend to continue honoring this saint.

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FÊTING THE SUN: The Andean Raymi Festivals

FÊTING THE SUN: The Andean Raymi Festivals

The equatorial sun on the June solstice. photo © Lorraine Caputo

The equatorial sun on the June solstice. photo © Lorraine Caputo

The solstices and equinoxes are important times of the year, especially for peoples with earth-based religions. At these seasons, they gather across the globe to welcome a new year, or prepare for the sowing or the harvest season. From the northern hemisphere to the southern, in Europe and Asia, in Africa and the Americas, the people honor the sun and Mother Earth.

Throughout the America, these solar events are celebrated. In the Yucatán of Mexico, Maya descendants and New Age practitioners descend on Chichén Itzá. Throughout South America’s Andean region, from southern Colombia to northern Chile and Argentina, indigenous nations mark the solstices with raymi, or festivals. The most famous of these celebrations is the Inti Raymi, celebrated on or near the June solstice. In the Patagonia, traditional Mapuche celebrate the June solstice with Tripuinta, their New Year.

Traditions – of indigenous, migrant and other populations – also exist near the poles, where the solstices mark the shortest and longest nights of the year. Above the Arctic Circle in June and below the Antarctic Circle in December, the sun never sets. Instead, it inscribes a circle on the edge of the horizon.

Ushuaia (Argentina), 1309 kilometers (814 miles) from the Antarctic Circle, at the December solstice. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Ushuaia (Argentina), 1309 kilometers (814 miles) from the Antarctic Circle, at the June solstice. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Interlude : Celebrating near the Poles

In Alaska, my co-workers anxiously awaited that day. As it approached, the car would be outfitted with supplies and a group would pile in to make the 400-kilometer (250-mile) trek up to the Arctic Circle. North of Fairbanks, the Dalton Highway was unpaved. Dangers included getting stuck in mud, bottoming out the car and ripping the oil pan out, and accidents. The risks, though, were outweighed by the excitement of seeing the Midnight Sun and having a break from the grind of scrubbing toilets and attending guests in a national park.

In Ushuaia, the longest night is celebrated in June. During the short day, races take place on a ski run constructed on the main street. At dusk, a group of us headed out to watch the Marcha de Antorchas (Torch Parade). A hard snow was spitting across the darkening sky. Down at the Town Hall, people were dancing at the live music hosted there. That event closed the night with a massive fireworks display.

But my interest was up at Parque Yatana, Ushuaia’s last stand of native forest where the native Yaghan people have a cultural center (25 de Mayo and Magallanes). We huddled around a blazing bonfire, listening to traditional legends, singing and drumming until the pale winter dawn began to paint the sky.

The solar calendar at Monquirá, near Villa de Leyva, Colombia. photo © Lorraine Caputo

The solar calendar at Monquirá, near Villa de Leyva, Colombia. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Marking Time

The solstice is when the earth is at its closest (summer) or furthest (winter) tilt from the sun. It is a time when the sun appears to stand still. The longest day and longest night occur at this time. The further north (or south) you go, the longer the time of light or darkness. Upon passing the Arctic and Antarctic Circles, you’ll experience over two months of pure light in summer, and pure night and twilight in winter.

The equinox occur midways between the two solstices, in March and September. As its Latin roots imply (æquus = equal + nox = night), the day / night ratio at all corners of the Earth is 12 hours / 12 hours. Only at the equator are days and nights equal all year long.

Naturally, the dates vary of when the equinoxes and solstices may occur: 19 – 21 March, 20 – 22 June, 21 – 24 September, and 20 – 23 December.

To calculate the date of the solstices and equinoxes, ancient societies constructed henges or stone calendars to show the sun’s movements. A particularly spectacular one is at Parque Arqueológico de Monquirá, called “El Infiernito” by locals. This ancient Muisca site near Villa de Leyva in Colombia has two parts. The first is a calendar of 36 stones in parallel lines that marks the sun’s movements, showing the time when the earth (and the women) would be most fertile and planting should begin. The second is a phallic forest where Muisca women performed fertility ceremonies.

Raymi ceremonies are usually held at places of historical important, like archaeological sites. In Quito, Inti Raymi is celebrated on Plaza San Francisco, where some claim Inca Atahualpa’s palace once stood. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Raymi ceremonies are usually held at places of historical important, like archaeological sites. In Quito, Inti Raymi is celebrated on Plaza San Francisco, where some claim Inca Atahualpa’s palace once stood. photo © Lorraine Caputo

The Raymi

Although the raymi solar festivals are associated with the Inca Empire, they are, in fact, millennia-old traditions. even. These ceremonies show veneration and respect to the sun, Pachamama (Mother Earth), the moon and stars, and celebrate the planting or harvest seasons. Rituals include baths, purification and healing ceremonies, as well as thanks giving to the powers of the Cosmos.

After the arrival of the Spaniards, the Raymi and other celebrations took on a Catholic façade. In this way, the indigenous could maintain their traditions in the face of the Inquisition and other deadly threats. This meant moving the dates of celebrations to that of a particular saint or other holy day, or incorporating it into the nine-day novena preceding the saint’s days. The same phenomenon probably explains European traditions like Midsummer’s Eve, which coincides with John the Baptist’s feast day.

The Andean indigenous cosmovision has four festivals or raymi: Inti, Kulla, Kapak and Pawkar. all include dancing, disguises or costumes, and special foods.

If you are traveling at any of these seasons, your best chance of seeing (and perhaps joining in) on the festivities are in areas with a strong indigenous sense of pride, especially in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Remember to be respectful of the ceremonies – and, please, ask beforehand if photos are allowed to be taken.

Inti Raymi

  • June solstice
  • Catholic façade: Saint John the Baptist (San Juan Bautista), whose feast day is 24 June

Inti Raymi (Sun Festival) is the most famous of the Andean sun festivals. For communities south of the equator, this marks the longest night and the coldest time of the year. Like Northern Europe’s Winter Solstice or Yule celebrations, it is a beseeching to the Sun that he return, bringing life back to Earth.

Inti Raymi was banned by the Catholic Church in 1572. It continued to survive, though, in secret or hidden under the guise of San Juan Bautista.

The most renowned Inti Raymi is held on Saint John the Baptist’s day. This is the full-out, theatrical performance held every 24 June in Saqsayhuaman, near Cusco, Peru. It recreates the grandiose ceremonies designed by Inca Pachacútec and described by the chronicler, Inca Garcilaso de la Vega. Entry to the event is free; but if you want a seat during the five-hour ceremony, expect to pay top dollar.

In Bolivia, the June solstice is a national holiday: Año Nuevo Aymara, or the Aymara New Year.

Kulla Raymi

  • September equinox
  • Catholic façade: Virgin of Mercy (Virgen de la Merced), whose feast day is 24 September

Kulla Raymi (Planting Festival), called Coya Raymi in Quechua-speaking areas, is dedicated to the moon (Quilla) and to women. Pachamama is fertile and thus, it is time to plant the year’s crops. As well as being a fertility ceremony, a purification ritual is performed to drive away negative energies and spirits.

 

Kapak Raymi

  • December solstice
  • Catholic façade: Christmas, which is 25 December

At Kapak Raymi (the Great Festival), the female energy of the Universe is at her peak. It is the time of the release of potentials: in politics, and in family, personal and community relationships. It is also an important time for children and their growth. Now is when spiritual and political leaders are celebrated and the baton of power is passed on.

Pawkar Raymi

  • March equinox
  • Catholic façade: Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin (Anunciación), which is 25 March, or with Carnaval

Pawkar Raymi (Flowering Festival) is when thanks are given for the fruits of Pachamama. Water is another honored element (and commonly used in Andean carnaval celebrations). This raymi also involves a purification ceremony as well as a communal meal that includes potato, mote (hominy), cuy (guinea pig), chicha and other foods.

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

GAUCHITO GIL : A Home-Grown Saint for Travelers and Justice

A roadside shrine to Gauchito Gil near RíoTurbio, in Argentina’s southern Patagonia. © Lorraine Caputo

A roadside shrine to Gauchito Gil near Río Turbio, in Argentina’s southern Patagonia. © Lorraine Caputo

From the Bolivian border to the Beagle Channel, from the Andes along the Chilean frontier to the Atlantic Ocean, I have seen red flags fluttering at the side of roads. What are these small shrines so boldly decorated?

I am told they are to Gauchito Gil.

But who is he?

My curiosity finally piqued me like a tábano horsefly. I began to search for his history, his mark in the Argentine consciousness.

Pilgrims touch Gauchito Gil’s cross. photo © Lorraine CaputoPilgrims touch Gauchito Gil’s cross. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Pilgrims touch Gauchito Gil’s cross. photo © Lorraine Caputo

The Legends of Gauchito Gil

Gauchito Gil was born in the 1840s in Pay Ubre, approximately eight kilometers (5 miles) from Mercedes, in Argentina’s Corrientes Province. His given name was Antonio Mamerto Gil Núñez. He was of the gaucho peon class, working on a large estancia (ranch) as his father had done. He was assassinated 8 January 1878. During his life, it is said, he was recognized for his healing abilities and known as a devoteé of San La Muerte.

There are three main tales about the life and deeds of Antonio Mamerto Gil Núñez, who came to be known as Gauchito Gil. Some include the story line that he was in love with the widow owner of the estancia (ranch) where he worked – who also throbbed the heart of the local chief of police. (Of course, there ALWAYS has to be a love angle to a tale, no?)

The most common tale is that to escape the love triangle and accusations of robbery (by, of course, his love rival), Gauchito Gil fled to join the army in the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-1870) against Paraguay. He returned a hero, but immediately was drafted into the civil wars (1814-1880) raging through the region. He went AWOL and was later captured and executed as a deserter.

The second version of the tale recounts that he was drafted into the Colorado forces to fight against the Liberales in the civil wars. He fled, and when recaptured, declared: “Why am I going to fight my brother and spill his blood if he did nothing against me?” On the way to Goya for his trial, he was executed “while escaping.”

The third variation paints Gauchito Gil as a Robin Hood, stealing from the wealthy land-holding class who sponsored the civil war, to give to the poor of the region who were suffering from the inter-rich fighting.

But all these legends end the same way:

Upon being captured, Gauchito Gil declared his innocence and said the letter with his pardon was on the way. Of course, his jailer did not believe him.

Gauchito Gil also warned his captor that upon returning to Mercedes, he would find his son was dying. If the jailer prayed to Gauchito Gil, the son would be cured.

It happened exactly as Gauchito Gil foretold. The jailer prayed to the renegade gaucho, and his son was cured. To honor the saint and pay for his crime of murdering an innocent man, the executioner walked to Pay Ubre with a large wooden cross. He erected it at the site of the murder.

And the rest is history. The shrine quickly grew, as well as Gauchito Gil’s renown as a saint who could intercede in matters of health, work and safe journeys.

The Santuatio (sanctuary) of Gauchito Gil at Pay Ubre, approximately eight kilometers (5 miles) from Mercedes. photo © LorraineCaputo

The Santuatio (sanctuary) of Gauchito Gil at Pay Ubre, approximately eight kilometers (5 miles) from Mercedes. photo © Lorraine Caputo

In Search of Gauchito Gil

I arrive in Mercedes, in the center of Corrientes Province in northern Argentina. I ask the workers at the hostel how I might be able to arrive at the shrine of Gauchito Gil. Very simple, I am told. Just catch the green Línea 2 city bus at Plaza 25 de Mayo.

As we approach the roadside shrine, red flags dance on the day’s light breeze.

And the bus stops in from of the Santuario de Gauchito Gil. Several others and I debark. Other passengers hop off for a few minutes to make a quick request to the Gauchito. This is customary, I am told. All passing buses pause to allow people to visit this saint.

The many stalls sell everything you need to pay respects to Gauchito Gil at this sanctuary and at home. photo © Lorraine Caputo

The many stalls sell everything you need to pay respects to Gauchito Gil at this sanctuary and at home. photo © Lorraine Caputo

I stroll past dozens of stalls offer all sorts of wares for the faithful: statues and portraits to take home, scapulars and prayer cards to protect them on the road. Red streamers and flags to hang upon his massive statue in the center of the crowded compound and red candles to light the way of their requests to this popular saint.

And I enter the tin-roofed chapels where smaller versions of Gauchito Gil stand, surrounded by candles with flames dancing in a barely perceptible breeze. The walls are covered with plaques, photos, handwritten notes – all thanking this renegade saint for his intersession.

The chapels’ walls are covered with photos, plaques and gifts thanking Gauchito Gil for his intercession on matters of health, justice and journeys. photo © Lorraine Caputo

The chapels’ walls are covered with photos, plaques and gifts thanking Gauchito Gil for his intercession on matters of health, justice and journeys. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Modern Argentina isn’t a particularly religious country. What is it, then, that drives such fervor passed down through generations? What draws hundreds of pilgrims to come here every week? Why do so many thousands come and camp along this highway every 8 January, his feast day?

But in the holiness of this space, I feel uncomfortable to ask probing questions about their faith to a saint the Catholic Church (let alone any other) would adopt as its own.

Statue to chamamé music. Santuario de Gauchito Gil, Pay Ubre. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Statue to chamamé music. Santuario de Gauchito Gil, Pay Ubre. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Chamamé

I cross the highway to a roadside eatery to sit down to a typical Argentine parrillada (barbecue). A small band – guitar, violin and accordion – is playing chamamé music.

This sad music is native to northern Corrientes Province. For a pair of days in early January, after Gauchito Gil’s feast Day, Pay Ubre hosts a chamamé music festival. Dozens of artists, like Nélida Zenón and Julián Zini, pay tribute to this saint. The capital, Corrientes city, has its Fiesta Nacional de Chamamé, also at the beginning of January. Other towns in northern Argentina, too, host chamamé festivals during the austral summer months.

But the cradle of this song is M’burucuyá (155 kilometers / 93 miles southeast of Corrientes city). Here is the home where chamamé pioneer Eustaquio Miño once lived (Calle Cabral, east of Plaza Mitre) and the Museo de Chamamé (Calle Moreno, between Calle Cabral and Calle Astrada). The Festival del Auténtico Chamamé Tradicional (Authentic Traditional Chamamé Festival) occurs in February.

A Gauchito Gil prayer card. photo © Lorraine Caputo

A Gauchito Gil prayer card. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Prayer to Gauchito Gil

Te pido humildemente se cumpla por tu intermedio ante Dios el milagro que te pido y te prometo que cumpliré mi promesa, y ante Dios te haré ver y te brindaré mi fiel agradecimiento y demonstración de fe en Dios y en vos, Gauchito Gil. Amén.

I humbly ask you, through your intercession with God, the miracle that I request and I promise you that I shall fulfill my promise, and before God I shall make you seen and I shall grant you my faithful thanksgiving and demonstrate my faith in God and in you, Gauchito Gil. Amen.

Before I leave Pay Ubre, I cross the road again and am guided by some force to those chapels. A sanctity flows through this space like incense, a sanctity unsanctified by any official church. This is a holiness that blossoms from the roots of the earth – and is common throughout Latin America. Gauchito Gil is found not only throughout his matria¸ but also in neighboring Paraguay, Uruguay and southern Brazil. Other countries have their santos populares. Venezuela has strong cults of popular saints like José Gregorio and María Lionza. And in cemeteries in both small towns and large cities throughout the Americas, you’ll see a tomb with flowers, candles and offerings to some local, home-grown santo. None sanctified by the Catholic Church – but rather sanctified by the pueblo.

Before leaving to return to Mercedes, I stop at these stalls of Santuario de Gauchito Gil. I buy a few travel talismans for my coworkers in the guidebook office.

And, of course, I have mine which I keep with my faithful Rocinanate, ever ready to hit the open road ….

My faithful traveling companion, Rocinante, with Gauchito Gil. photo © Lorraine Caputo

My faithful traveling companion, Rocinante, with Gauchito Gil. photo © Lorraine Caputo

CHRISTMAS IN LATIN AMERICA : A Poetic – Photographic Journey

Navidad procession in El Cocuy, Colombia. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Navidad procession in El Cocuy, Colombia. photo © Lorraine Caputo

The streets are crowded with people rushing from shop to shop, buying gifts. Vendors call, Wrapping paper, five sheets for a dollar! Barely heard above the ruckus are the greetings of the jolly fat man dressed in red, perhaps accompanied by two curvaceous elves dressed in micro-minis. At schools and workplaces, partiers are dressed in costume, and bags of candies or large boxes of viveres (dry goods) gifted.

Pase de Niño. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Pase de Niño. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Processions wind through narrow streets. From before Christmas through the Feast of Epiphany, city traffic will be stopped for the Pase del Niño. Schoolchildren dress as José, María, the three Wise Men, shepherds (pastores) and angels to accompany the baby Christ. And, of course, in the novena leading up to Christmas Day, the pre-dawn prayers and song of the faithful softly echo down the cobblestone lanes.

Large manger scenes decorate the churches, homes and even hilltops. In living rooms, families read the novena in front of the nativity scene. On Nochebuena (Christmas Eve), they go to the special mass where the baby Jesus is presented, kissed by all, then placed in the manger scene. The midnight sky is painted by the bursts of hundreds of fireworks, celebrating the birth of the Lord Savior. After the mass, families retire home for a big feast and to exchange gifts. (In few places do they keep the custom of gift-giving on the Feast of Epiphany, the Day of the Three Magi – 6 January.)

Christmas-season dinners differ from country to country. There may be turkey or tamales (a.k.a. hallacas). A Mexican side dish is ensalada de Nochebuena (Christmas Eve Salad), made of apple, celery and walnuts dressed with heavy cream. In Argentina, they’ll be sitting down to a parrillada (barbecue). A common desert is pan de Pascua or panetón, similar to the Italian delicacy, panettone (a sweet bread with dried fruits and nuts). Rompope, a drink very much like eggnog, will be spiked with rum; this typical drink is called cola de mono in Chile.

Every year, Quito (Ecuador) erects a manger scene atop the Panecillo, on the south side of the Centro Histórico. The city claims this is the highest nativity scene in the world. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Every year, Quito (Ecuador) erects a manger scene atop the Panecillo, on the south side of the Centro Histórico. The city claims this is the highest nativity scene in the world. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Everywhere, villancicos are sung. Some of these Christmas carols are familiar, like Noche de Paz (Silent Night). Others are unique to Latin America, such as El Burrito Sabanero. Unlike northern European (including US) traditions, caroling from house to house is not common.

In Latin America, the weeks leading up to 25 December are like much elsewhere. But each country, each place also has its traditions.

In Mexico, are the posadas, nine days of processions through neighborhoods, topped off with tamales and hot atole drink. Also in Mexico – specifically Oaxaca – is the Noche de Rábanos, or Night of the Radishes, celebrated on 23 December with a popular competition of the best-carved giant radishes.

In Trujillo, on Honduras’ Caribbean coast, the Indio Bárbaro accosts people for donations to community projects. If you happen to be out on the street when he passes by, and you refuse to give him a “tip,” he will bear-hug you with his grease-covered body! Another Garífuna tradition in these Black Caribe towns, is Hüngühüngü (also called Fedu), the women-oriented processions of the singing, dancing grandmas.

Cousin Its in Málaga, Colombia. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Cousin Its in Málaga, Colombia. photo © Lorraine Caputo

During the Christmas novena (16-24 December) in the small mountain village of Málaga (Colombia), teens dress up as Matachines (masked, Cousin-It-looking creatures). They prowl the streets, brandishing gaily painted, inflated cow’s bladders. Money collected from would-be wallop victims is used to fund the carrazo floats in the parades at the beginning of January.

Everyone heads to the beach during the Christmas-New Year holiday, if they can. Prices rise – for transport, lodging and food – and the strand is über-crowded with lots of drinking people blaring music. This is definitely a time to witness Latin American partying at its finest. (If you prefer your beach scene to be, well, rather saner, I recommend you wait. Leave the beaches to the locals during holidays – you can go any time.) And some folk, in order to finance these family vacations, resort to petty thievery in the weeks leading up to the holiday: Keep an eye on your belongings!


Since 1988, I have spent most northern winters travelling in Latin America. I have passed the Christmas season in large cities and small towns in Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Argentina.

I have witnessed and celebrated many of these traditions. My encounter with the Indio Bárbaro in Trujillo (me, barefoot, recuperating from a broken toe, returning from the beach with nary a centavito in my shorts, is one of the culturally most embarrassing moments I’ve ever, well, enacted …) In Estelí (Nicaragua), I shared a meal with a Quebecois, of whatever special things we could find in the market ($1 US for an apple!). In Chile, I took a train on Christmas Eve, arriving in the capital like the Virgin Mary: no room at the inns.

Today, let’s take a poetic-photographic trip through the sights and sounds of Navidad in Latin America.

And however and wherever you are celebrating this holiday, may your season be bright, and the New Year be full of wishes come true.

Safe Journeys!

This beautiful pesebre in Iglesia Señora del Carmen (Pamplona, Colombia) extends half-ways down the nave. photo © Lorraine Caputo

This beautiful pesebre in Iglesia Señora del Carmen (Pamplona, Colombia) extends half-ways down the nave. photo © Lorraine Caputo

For the past few weeks, Catholic churches and public spaces throughout Latin America have displayed crèches, These Nativity scenes – called belén (Bethlehem), nacimiento or pesebre in Spanish – display Mary (María), Joseph (José) and the three Kings (Tres Magos or Tres Reyes Magos) along with shepherds and angels.

Beyond the usual cast of characters, though, is a motley assembly of animals: Among the expected sheep, camels and burros are farm animals – chickens, pigs, cows, etc. – and local fauna, like llama. The animals and humans are of a variety of sizes. It is not unusual to see a cock towering over a Magi.

MÉRIDA MAGI

(Mérida, Mexico)

In the oldest cathedral

on the American continent

built of Maya temple stones

On the day the Three Kings

visited the manger

in this side chapel

Mary tenderly places the Christ child in his cradle

Joseph presents him with out-stretched hand

Slowly the Magi approach

passing by a giant cow

by a giant tapir

Yellow lights drape the plastic pine boughs

& dried palm fronds hung

with colorful glass ornaments

They wink in electronic rhythm to

 

Oh, All ye faithful coming

shepherds     magi     & others

Hark! Do you hear the herald angels singing

with the jingling bells?

Even Santa Claus is coming to this town

on this silent night

when joy has entered the world

Frosty the Snowman watches

those who come a-wassailing

 

Through the open windows

wrought-iron-grilled

the sound & smell of traffic passes

The chapel begins to resound

with the cathedral bells pealing

for five-o-clock mass

 

poem © Lorraine Caputo

Iglesia San Sebastián, located on the eastern flank of the Panecillo (Calle Loja and Calle Borerro) reflects the barrio’s indigenous heritage: José and María are from the Shuar nation. The three Magi are from Otavalo, Esmeraldas and Tsáchila. The scene also includes the fathers and nuns of the Oblate order doing missionary work among Ecuador’s other indigenous nations. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Iglesia San Sebastián, located on the eastern flank of the Panecillo, reflects the barrio’s indigenous heritage: José and María are from the Shuar nation. The three Magi are from Otavalo, Esmeraldas and Tsáchila. The scene also includes the fathers and nuns of the Oblate order doing missionary work among Ecuador’s other indigenous nations. photo © Lorraine Caputo

The infant Jesus is not added to the Nativity scene until tonight, 24 December. At the night mass, the infant is presented to the congregation. Each devotee shall kiss him, before he is tenderly placed in the straw-filled cradle in the center of the pesebre.

The Latin American custom is for the family to attend mass together (however, the Misa de Gallos, or Midnight Mass is quite rare these days), and then break fast with a huge family meal.

NATIVITY

(Valladolid, Mexico)

Near midnight       on Christmas Eve

Within the aged church

A line of people slowly passes to the front

 

Each stoops to kiss

the Christ child nestled

in the arms of a woman

A nun stands next to her

handkerchief in hand

ready to wipe away lipstick

 

Fathers with their young sons and daughters

stop in front of the manger

framed in winking lights

to ponder the miracle

of the still-empty cradle

 

After the last mother, the last child

has welcomed that baby

He is laid into the straw-bedded cradle

his hands wide open to this world

his fat legs kicking the air

 

& the families step into the streets

washed clean by the rain

the sunset lightning had forebode

 

poem © Lorraine Caputo

In many Catholic homes, families also present a manger scene. In the evenings, they gather around it to say the novena and sing villencicos (Christmas carols). It is not uncommon for the manger cradle to hold more than one infant Jesus. They are the personal Christs of several generations of the family: mother, daughters, aunts, grandmother. photo © Lorraine Caputo

In many Catholic homes, families also present a manger scene. In the evenings, they gather around it to say the novena and sing villancicos (Christmas carols). It is not uncommon for the manger cradle to hold more than one infant Jesus. They are the personal Christs of several generations of the family: mother, daughters, aunts, grandmother. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Nativity scenes aren’t just relegated to churches. Many homes and businesses will also have one set up – like this inn in northern Mexico.

COURTYARD CRÈCHE

(San Fernando, Mexico)

The moon is almost full

sometimes visible through

the swift heavy clouds

 

Beneath, within the black of this night

Mary recently full, now illuminated

stares down upon her child

Her hands are crossed

against her full breasts

Joseph looks plaintively

upon her child

They are framed

in winking multi-color lights

Each strand alit for just a moment

then still in the gusty night

 

The courtyard is dark and quiet

Puddles from the days of passing rains

glisten in the holy lights of this chilled night

 

poem © Lorraine Caputo

The crèche in Iglesia La Merced, in the Historic Center of Lima, Peru, occupies one large side chapel of the church, and includes scenes of the Peruvian life in the countryside and the city. photo © Lorraine Caputo

The crèche in Iglesia La Merced, in the Historic Center of Lima, Peru, occupies one large side chapel of the church, and includes scenes of the Peruvian life in the countryside and the city. photo © Lorraine Caputo

We grow up with the tale of ghosts of Christmas past. In Northern European indigenous traditions, ghost stories are told around the Yule log. This season, it is believed, is one of the times of year when the veils between the World of the Living and the World of the Dead part, allowing families and friends to once again reunite.

One year in Buenos Aires, I could sense those spirits and I thought about relatives who had immigrated to that port city almost a century earlier.

MIDNIGHT NAVIDAD

(Buenos Aires, Argentina)

In these narrow streets

of San Telmo

lit by a nearly

full moon

Midnight Navidad

erupts with the burst

of fireworks

set by boys & men

The sparkles reflect

in windows of

Gardel’s day

The cracks splinter the

mourning song

of bandoneón

In the shadows

of doorways stand

families shawled in

the cool of summer’s eve

& the spirits perished

from cholera & yellow fever,

of immigrants surviving

in cramped conventillos

 

poem © Lorraine Caputo

Iglesia Santo Domingo (Quito, Ecuador). photo © Lorraine Caputo

Iglesia Santo Domingo (Quito, Ecuador). photo © Lorraine Caputo

One thing – especially for travelers from the Northern Hemisphere – that is much different about Navidad in Latin America is that a White Christmas exists only in song. Only in the extreme north of Mexico (perhaps, depending on the year) and the highest of mountains will you find snow. Most of the region is located in the tropics, and it is summer south of the equator.

RESISTENCIA CHRISTMAS EVE

(Resistencia, Argentina)

All day
the heat, the humidity
strummed sultry,
multi-grey cumulus mounding
high into the heavens

until late afternoon
when its crescendo
erupted into thunder
pulsed by lightning

a rain washing
the blistered streets raw
& the clouds
into a uniform tone

Near midnight
the cathedral is dark
A man eats cake
before resting
on his blanket
upon the steps

A few kiosks are yet
grilling sandwiches, serving beer
to customers
at sidewalk tables

All else is closed
(save a pharmacy)
security guards murmur

Festive lights pulsate
in darkened windows
The laughter, the music
of a party drifts
down a deserted street

As that twelve o’clock hour nears
the crescendo of rockets
mounts, pulsed by sprays of
multi-colored sparks across
the heavens, clouds of gunpowder
drifting skywards
Resting birds startle
from a tree

The hotel watchman
sits in a lawn chair
on the front walk,
sipping sidra &
listening to chamamé
on his radio

 

poem © Lorraine Caputo

The scene in Quito’s most luxurious church, La Compañía, has a classic air to it, in harmony with the temple’s Baroque interior. photo © Lorraine Caputo

The scene in Quito’s most luxurious church, La Compañía, has a classic air to it, in harmony with the temple’s Baroque interior. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Semana Santa in Latin America

Today is Palm Sunday, the first day of Easter week, called Semana Santa in Latin America.

Semana Santa is observed with multitudes of processions, special foods like fanesca in the Ecuadorian Andes, and exceptional art exhibits and religious music festivals, all with a synchronization of indigenous and Christian beliefs.

However, not only is this one of the most important religious observances in the region, it is also one of the biggest vacation times. Many families head to the beach or other popular national destinations to enjoy a few days off.

Palm Sunday in Cartagena (Colombia). Photo by Lorraine Caputo

Palm Sunday in Cartagena (Colombia).
Photo by Lorraine Caputo

Palm Sunday (Domingo de Ramos)

According to Christian tradition, Palm Sunday marks the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. He was greeted by the people laying palm fronds in the path of him and his donkey.

On this day, large open-air masses are held. Latin American faithful bring ornaments made of palm to be blessed which they then will keep in their homes, to protect their families. Because palma de cera is a threatened species, other species of palm or other plants are now used in many areas.

Semana Santa -- Good Friday -- procession -- Cartagena

Semana Santa processions wend through the narrow streets of Latin America towns, drawing hundreds of faithful. These processions happen – day and night – from Wednesday through Friday of Holy Week. (Cartagena, Colombia) © Lorraine Caputo

Processions occur from Holy Wednesday (Miércoles Santo) through Good Friday (Viernes Santo). One of the best I ever witnessed was in Matagalpa, Nicaragua, with several processions each day (and night).

Holy Wednesday (Miércoles Santo)

Quito is now the only city in the world where the arrastre de caudas – a funerary ritual dating from the Roman Empire – is performed on Holy Wednesday. Large black flags with crimson crosses are waved through the nave of the Cathedral and over the black cloth-covered bodies lying on the floor.

In Quito, the large stone crosses in front of the colonial churches are dressed with floral rosaries. © Lorraine Caputo

In Quito, the large stone crosses in front of the colonial churches are dressed with floral rosaries.
© Lorraine Caputo

Maundy Thursday (Jueves Santo)

Maundy Thursday is the day when tradition says Jesus and his disciples met for their Passover seder – a meal Christians call the Last Supper. This is also the night when Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus to the Roman government.

On this evening, the ritual of is the washing of the feet (usually in a town’s main church) is done, recreating Jesus washing the feet of his disciples before the seder.

Again, processions will wend through narrow cobblestone streets. In Quito, seven churches will be bedecked with beautiful crosses made of flowers. These temples are open during the evening so the faithful may pray.

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On Good Friday, an effigy of Judas Iscariot is burned in Yanahuara, near Arequipa (Peru). © Lorraine Caputo

Good Friday (Viernes Santo)

Good Friday marks the crucifixion of Jesus. This is the major religious observance, with large processions. In some places – like Yanahuara (Peru), effigies of Judas Iscariot are burned.

In several cities, large, colorful carpets made of flowers or sawdust are created on the streets where the processions will pass. You may see these beautiful works of art in Antigua, Comayagua, San Salvador and Ayacucho.

Good Friday procession in Cartagena (Colombia). © Lorraine Caputo

Good Friday procession in Cartagena (Colombia).
© Lorraine Caputo

In other places, penitents don hooded robes and walk barefoot, carrying large crosses, wearing barbed-wire crown of thorns and stinging nettle – and perhaps being whipped. Several Mexican towns and Quito practice this tradition.

Semana Santa -- Quito -- Good Friday

Good Friday procession in Quito (Ecuador). © Lorraine Caputo

This same night, processions silently march through the streets, mourning Jesus’ death. In some villages – especially indigenous ones – you may see dancing devils and fire ceremonies.

Holy Saturday (Sábado Santo)

On Saturday, the procession features the Virgen Dolorosa, the Virgin Mary in mourning for her son. Traditionally, after sunset is when new converts to Catholicism are baptized.

Easter Sunday (Domingo de Resurrección)

Easter Sunday is when the resurrection of Christ is celebrated with a high mass in many cathedrals.

Semana Santa -- Festival Música Sacra -- Quito

Before and during Semana Santa, Quito hosts the Festival de Música Sacra (Sacred Music Festival), which attracts international artists like Petra Magoni and Ilaria Fantin from Italy. © 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. Some of 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 (which also opens the vaults of the Museo de Arte Religioso to exhibit its most precious pieces), Pamplona

Ecuador – Quito (with very traditional masses – including the arrastre de caudas, and processions, especially of penitents on Good Friday, as well as a sacred music festival)

Perú – Ayacucho (with floral carpets)

Semana Santa – Cerro Baúl – Moquegua, Peru

During Semana Santa, you may witness synchronizations of the indigenous and Christian beliefs. Peruvians make pilgrimages to Cerro Baúl, a butte in the mountainous countryside surrounding Moquegua.This hill was a major ceremonial site of the Wari (600 – 1100 AD) and Tiwanaku (300 – 1000 AD) empires. Cerro Baúl is still an important spiritual site, where rituals are performed to the apús (spirits of the mountains). © Lorraine Caputo

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 this week!
  • 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 – especially 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 gear 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