This is my last post on 2017 Holy Week, I promise. But as my first “Semana Santa,” there is much to absorb and share.
After two weeks of watching from the sidelines in Guanajuato as the Easter story plays out, the routes, costumes, statues, and backdrop have all become familiar. As we approach the “Grand Finale” of Easter Sunday, I am curious to know what the celebration is like in nearby San Miguel de Allende, known for its vibrant color and culture.
With frequent bus schedules between Guanajuato and San Miguel, a day trip is an easy hour ride away. I send my friend Holly, San Miguel resident of 26 years, an email to ask her advice. “Should I come on Good Friday, or Easter Sunday? Which will give me the most bang for my buck?” Holly writes back to say “Why not come for both? We do a bang-up job of Easter pageantry!” Holly offers up her guest bedroom along with the promise of a few tempting treats. Before you can say “Holly is a former chef,” my bus ticket is booked!
While on the bus, I get an email from another friend, Val, saying “The processions are starting NOW!” I worry that even though I am on the 10am bus, I may be too late. I grab a cab from the bus station, stop by Holly’s house in the suburb of San Antonio long enough to say hello and drop my bags. It’s hot in San Miguel. The forecast is predicting temperatures could reach 90 degrees. Worse yet, the crowd forecast is predicted to reach one hundred…..100,000, that is. It’s the pinnacle of the tourist season in Conde Nast’s “World’s Best City.” It’s going to take some fortitude to face the festivities. Armed with Holly’s favorite “cooling neck scarf,” a large bottle of water, and my camera, I take off at a brisk pace bound for the Oratorio, reported to be the epicenter of pomp and circumstance for the weekend.
At first, I’m a little disappointed, as the streets seem deserted, a rarity for San Miguel these days. I expected decorations everywhere, but with the exception of a few purple ribbons and bunting hanging from balconies, it’s a bit of a bust. I catch the tail end of a small parade, just as it is re-entering the Oratorio. I hope I haven’t missed the best part.
I stop by the Oratorio, and there are “human-powered floats” all over the church, each one surrounded by a group of people busily stuffing fresh flowers into every possible nook and cranny. The church is a beehive of activity, with many women clad in all black, tending to the flower-covered platforms that will carry saints through the streets. The largest of these platforms to be carried on the shoulders of the mourners in the cortege is a glass coffin holding a life-sized statue of Jesus. I am seeing signs that maybe I haven’t missed it after all, and in fact, the best is yet to come. A gentleman tells me the main “funeral procession” will take place at 6:00pm, with more than 1,000 parade participants.
Meanwhile, there is a smaller parade beginning at noon. This ceremony represents the sentencing of Jesus by Pontious Pilot. There are Roman soldiers on horseback. Men and women carrying crosses are adorned in purple cloth according to scripture. And there is even public flogging of the thieves. This smaller mid-day parade culminates with a large statue of Jesus bearing a cross, symbolizing his journey toward crucifixion.
By 4:00pm, people are already lining the streets with their lawn chairs in prep for the Grand Finale of a funeral, La Procesión del Santo Entierro, or the Holy Burial. Two hours is too long for me to wait, but I come back an hour later to find a “hole” along the rope line in front of the Oratorio. It’s now around 5pm, so I decide to test my endurance at standing in one crowded spot, shifting my weight from one foot to the other for an hour. Luckily, the people-watching provides a welcome distraction, as hundreds of “mourners” enter the church to queue up for the parade. Men in suits, young boys in suits, young girls with feathered wings and flowers in their hair. And then there are the “black widows,” over a hundred women dressed from head to high heels in black, their long black mantillas elevated high on their heads by a peineta, or comb, with lace cascading over their shoulders.
The funeral procession starts promptly at 6:00pm. The sidewalks are packed with spectators. Being near the Oratorio, I have the benefit of a continuous soundtrack, as the full marching orchestra plays as it waits its turn to exit the church. At least a dozen statues of saints are carried out one by one by the mourning women, all wearing white gloves. Interspersed among this parade of saint statues are young girls dressed in white strewing chamomile and flower pedals on the street, young choir members singing haunting hymns, and a full blown strolling orchestra, complete with a couple of cellists. This parade with its candle-lit lanterns, will continue at a snails pace through the streets of San Miguel until darkness falls.
Saturday is a solemn day following the mother of all funerals, as mourners await the resurrection. I spend the day running errands and shopping in the gringo section of the local La Comer market for a few items I can’t seem to locate in Guanajuato, and hanging out with Holly and her lovable pooches.
Sunday brings the final day of Semana Santa…the grand finale of Easter Sunday. After a phenomenal brunch with Holly at AguaMiel, I make a mad dash for the Jardin for the final act of the two week celebration, the tradition known as “Evil on Fire,” also known as the “Burning of the Judas.” A dozen life-sized paper mache’ effigies of evil are strung from the balcony of the Old City Hall to be “burned” (exploded with fireworks) one by one. There is the token devil and witch, a few politicians and public enemies.
But they will save the best for last….a pouty-lipped, pale effigy wearing a suit with a straw thatch on his head, wearing a sign that says “Donald….pero no el pato.” Donald, but not the duck. As each of the effigies are lowered for their fuses to be ignited, the crowd chants, “Doh-nold! Doh-nold! Doh-nold!” There are just as many gringos chanting in the crowd, and the Mexicans seem to get a kick out of their enthusiasm.
The blue-suited effigy spins and twirls and spews and fizzes around and around in circles until finally, the long awaited moment comes…BLAM!!! As paper bits go flying through the air, the crowd goes wild, and young children run to retrieve the remnants as souvenirs. But heads of the effigies will be sold by the artisans, the price depending on what’s left. Alas, the only thing that remains of poor Donald is his thatch of straw hair, dangling from the rope above.
The “Burning of the Judases” is now complete, symbolizing the triumph of Jesus over Judas, good over evil. If only it were that easy…