Tomorrow—Easter—marks the end of Semana Santa in Mexico. The week is a lively combination of the secular (balloons, cotton candy, vendors of all kinds, street food, bands at night in the plazas) and the sacred (altars outside homes, church services, and a variety of rituals that I don’t understand).
This is the second time we’ve been in Mexico for Easter. The first time, two years ago, I hid in our house because of the crowds that pack the centre of Guanajuato. It’s a tourist destination for Mexicans during this week, and it’s hard to even walk though the always-tight city centre. The crush of humanity leaves me feeling—well—crushed, but this year, I braved it several times.
The week begins a few days early in Guanajuato, with Dia de los Flores, or Dia de la Virgen, a celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint. It’s a celebration specific to this city and attracts—yup—a zillion tourists. The Thursday before Palm Sunday, the downtown is filled with people selling various (mostly plastic) trinkets and flowers.
The next day, the Friday before Palm Sunday, private homes, churches, and some businesses erect altars to the Virgin of Guadalupe. These altars include an image of the Virgin, candles, flowers, and fruit and drinks that are offered as gifts to passers-by. Some are quite spectacular, like this one (from the web, in Mexico City).
This year, we were determined to take an “altar tour” of the city, but it turned rainy in the afternoon, so we didn’t. There were a couple of small alters on our own little Callejon—typical, I think, of the modest home ones. Paper banners strung above the street, small tables with a picture of the Virgin surrounded by flowers and fruit. They were pulled in out of the rain before we could get photos.
Day before yesterday, Thursday, I walked through crowds to my little writing group, which meets for coffee in a serene outdoor restaurant known more for its garden than its food, so we are usually alone there. Even this week, which must say something profound about the place’s culinary offerings! On this day, the crowds en route were participating in the Day of Seven Cathedrals, when the faithful visit seven churches to mark the seven stations of the cross.
Semana Santa supposedly culminates in an amazing parade on Good Friday. We’d heard that it includes re-enactments of the crucifixion, passion plays, statues of Jesus and Mary carried through the streets, a sense of being thrown back in time. A spectacle not to be missed. You’ve got to experience it, said a friend.
We asked around and learned that the procession would begin “when it gets dark”. We pushed our way through the chaos and found seats at an outdoor restaurant close to the parade route. We arrived around 6:45; sunset was at 7:00. We had a glass of wine. We ordered some nibbles. A second glass. More nibbles. Around 9:00, we left the restaurant and found a spot right on the route where we could sit/crouch and wait. It was fully night. The crowd thickened. People walked back and forth. The people-watching was great, but no parade.
Occasionally someone shouted, “They’re coming!” But they weren’t. People walked up and down selling stuff. We heard drums in the distance, but then they stopped. It was our bedtime; our elderly bottoms, backs, and legs were aching, perched as we were on the low roadside ledge with our knees almost to our chins. No one else seemed perturbed or surprised by the late hour.
Babies slept in strollers, children played along the roadside, couples used the opportunity to cuddle. The crowd continued to thicken.
At last, just before 11:00, a double line of white-clad, bare-footed, priestly-looking men came along, some hooded, followed by lines of small children, some clad in white and some dressed as soldiers; trumpeters, drummers, hooded figures in red, everyone barefoot, most wearing robes and hoods (I’m afraid images of KKK kept popping into my head).
Finally, several floats with flowers and shrines, carried high on the shoulders of women in black. From our vantage point, we couldn’t see clearly what was on top. And then, apparently at the very end of the parade, two rows of more women in black–maybe the understudies for the carriers, on hand for when the originals got tired.
I say apparently because, though it was a spectacle, it was far less spectacular than I expected, lasting no more than half an hour. Where were the effigies of Christ and Mary? Where was the heavy cross on the shoulders of a penitent wearing a crown of thorns, the self-flagellation, the re-enactments of the crucifixion, the eerie sense of being thrust into another century?
Just as I was about to post this, I got this note from the friend who had told me what to expect:
I have no idea what happened to the bigger parade I described. We went too and actually walked in the procession behind the three floats until we got to our house. It used to be huge. I would love to discover what happened and I suspect it is money based. Sorry you missed what I had described. Sorry we did too.
Semana Santa ends tomorrow. We’re having an Easter supper with friends, and then we begin our last couple of weeks in Mexico for this year.