Semana Santa, or Holy Week, is an important time on the calendar of the Catholics of South America and on Good Friday each year there are parades all over the continent to re-enact the introspection and sorrow of the Passion of Christ. Perhaps the most extraordinary is held in Quito, the capital of Ecuador.
Invariably heavy rains sweep across Quito during Easter, which many believers see as a dramatic metaphor of God’s tears for human sin and His Son’s passing. Luckily for us, Good Friday this year dawned clear and bright and the sun shone on the tens of thousands of people who flooded the streets to view this religious spectacle.
The main event is the Jesús del Gran Poder (Jesus Almighty) Procession which begins and ends in the Plaza de San Francisco. This splendid cobblestoned square has Volcán Pichincha as a backdrop and Quito’s oldest church (founded in 1534), the Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco with it’s impressive whitewashed twin bell towers, presides over it.
Preparations began early in the morning as men and women queued at the rear entrance of the church to receive their costumes and an assortment of wooden crosses that would be dragged around the route were heaved off cars and pickups and leant against lamp posts and the church walls.
The crowds arrived to take pictures of themselves beside the crucifixes and to secure a viewing spot behind the police who lined the route.
At 11am from the main door of the church came a stream of “Cucuruchos”, the central figures of the procession, wearing purple tunics and the characteristic cone headdresses. Their faces totally covered to express penitence and sorrow for the Lord.
It is said that the original figure dates back to the Middle Ages when a priest would order wrongdoers to stand outside the church day and night for everyone to see, reminding me of children having to stand in the corner of a classroom wearing a dunces hat and more disturbingly of the Ku Klux Klan.
Cucuruchos are interpreted as penitents who seek anonymity in order to emulate Christ’s humility. Many walked bare foot and some had shackled heavy chains to their bare ankles,
others wore only the trousers of the costume and bound their torso in barbed wire, the spikes cutting into their soft skin.
Two pieces of spiny cactus were strapped across one man’s back in the form of a cross and many others used knotted rope or thorned switches to flog themselves.
It took almost an hour for the entire procession to troop out of the church and on to the street and it would be another 3 hours before they returned. As the procession made its way slowly away from the plaza a priest standing on a stage outside the church spoke the words of Pontius Pilate sentencing Jesus Christ to death.
A couple of hours later, having found a good “front of house” spot on the pavement, we saw the wooden crosses again, now being dragged through the streets by a motley assortment of Jesus impersonators. Some looked comical in brassy, long haired wigs but the grimaces and sweat on their faces clearly portrayed the pain and hardship they were enduring.
Some crosses were so heavy and cumbersome they toppled perilously towards the crowds who lined the streets and required several helpers to keep them upright. Pillows and rolled up jumpers were used as a cushion between the rough wood and the tender shoulders of these struggling penitents,
but nothing could protect skin from the crown of barbed wire that some had chosen to wear.
Some of these sights were disturbing and I would have loved to have known more about the emotional and spiritual reasons behind the acts of these men.
Some women dressed as Cucuruchos, but many more wore the costume of the female counterpart, the veiled Verónicas to personify the biblical woman who washed Jesus’ face as he made his way to Calvary.
Bringing up the rear were two huge litters. One was carried on the shoulders of sturdy men and women the other was so large and heavy it had its own wheeled carriage. They were bedecked with flowers and sitting atop of these were statues of Jesus and Mary.
With clowns entertaining children, balloon sellers,
hawkers offering everything from snacks to gruesome religious pictures,
monks and Cucuruchos speaking on their mobile phones and taking pictures
and many of the un-costumed public joining the procession it felt, at times, more like a festival parade than the somber religious event I had been expecting.
When all the Cucuruchos, Jesus’, Verónicas and statues were safely back in the church all the spectators gathered, shoulder to shoulder in the plaza where it all began over 4 hours earlier. The presiding priest dressed in a brown habit and looking down on us all from the large stage, did his best to rouse us in song and then began a long winded service. The crowd were silent and reverent except for those selling ice-cream, water and trinkets who pushed through the tightly packed crowd shouting about their wares. We too wormed our way out having had our fill of religiosity for one day – the only thing we were hungry for was food. We ducked in to one of the small restaurants, busy with families, police and a monk or two. We sat on plastic chairs at the formica topped table to try the soup which is traditionally made during Easter week. Fanesca is a thick soup made from a selection of 12 beans and grains which represent the 12 apostles. I would have been very happy with this hearty vegetarian option but in order to symbolise Jesus as the ‘fisher of men’ and because meat is prohibited during Holy Week, salt cod is added. Fish is a symbol of good luck and protection and the food of “the fortunate in heaven”, which I tried to keep in mind during each salty mouthful. The priest who had officiated earlier was sitting at the table next to us eating a bowl of this nutritious soup – it seemed that wherever we went that day we were never too far from some form of religious manifestation!