Fervor and Fiesta at El Rocio

May 2009

A while back I spent a month or two at a language school in the city of Cádiz, attempting to brush up on my Spanish (a daunting task for me!) My visit coincided with the preparations the townspeople were making for the celebration of their patron saint, Nuestra Señora del Rosario. They were garlanding streets with lights, constructing modest scaffolds for bands and other musical events and assembling an exhibition featuring several floors of religious displays: many golden crowns for the Virgin’s brow, heavy jewel encrusted capes for her to wear, different colors to match the liturgical calendar. 

It was clear to me that people made these items with religious devotion over the centuries, but as a man whose background is largely northern European, and not Mediterranean, I was perplexed by what I was seeing before my eyes. I turned to my Spanish companion and said, “I wonder what this splendor has to do with the simple maiden of Nazareth?” In turn he replied with an incredulous expression on his face, “Nothing directly, I guess. But this is our celebration and the Church exists for fiestas!”

It is this juxtaposition of fervor and fiesta which is so very Spanish. You can see it in baroque and rococo churches, and you can see it on the street. The religious component of celebrating their patron saint is swept into the elemental exuberance and spontaneity of the people. Somber and pious religious expressions and prayers were not the dominant theme of the feast day, although I am sure this was part of it for many and central for some. 

At another time my wife Ruth and I were witnessing a Semana Santa procession in the ancient city of Zamora in Old Castile. Hundreds of men, some with their young sons, were wending their way through the streets of medieval Zamora. Some joined together to carry massive mahogany pasos (floats) depicting the last days of Jesus' life. The five hour long penitential march of the brotherhood cast a somber tone.

But then halfway through their journey they stopped the procession in a park near the cathedral, took off their hoods and enjoyed a picnic with friends who brought some bocadillo sandwiches, a chunk of cheese and bottle of the local wine. Refreshed, they donned their hoods, hoisted the pasos and continued their profound procession! As in Cádiz, the line between the fervor of their faith and their love of life and community was blurred. Secular and sacred were part of a whole piece.

Perhaps the most vivid example of this merger of fervor and fiesta is the Romería de Rocio, an amazing pilgrimage to a marshland village of Almonte where the Virgen del Rocio resides at her Ermita, a remote shrine or hermitage. This massive migration of people each spring stretches into the mists of time, the current annual pilgrimage dates back 800 years. 

Almonte is a very small village most of the year which somehow finds room for nearly one million pilgrims every spring at Pentecost. It is located close to the Atlantic Ocean southeast of Sevilla and adjacent to the wildlife preserve of La Doñana. Every year on the weekend of the feast of Pentecost (late May, early June) the road to the Ermita becomes packed with horses and decorated carriages that travel to the sound of music and drums. Travelers (or "romeros") come from all over Andalucía on foot, on horseback or by cart. No motorized vehicles are allowed. Most of these pilgrims wear traditional clothes, women in bright gypsy-inspired flamenco dresses and men in the unique wide-brimmed "bolero" hats and short-cropped jackets associated with Andalusia. As they get closer to Almonte, the pilgrims camp out in the fields and forests of the surrounding La Doñana National Park.

The town has broad unpaved streets, with hitching posts by many of the houses. The only traffic noise you hear is generated by hoofs. Some of them are classic Andaluz stallions with flowing manes and braided tails. Among the regular horses are even white Lipizzaners, similar to those trained at the Spanish Riding School in neighboring Jerez de la Frontera. Then there are the faithful oxen straining to haul wagons that carry the Madonnas called simpecados - elaborate silver and gold altar pieces.

These are brought from the churches of nearly one hundred Hermandades (brotherhoods) who make up the majority of the pilgrims. They are devoted to the Virgin of El Rocio and make their way to her Ermita, led by the elders of each brotherhood riding ahead four abreast, followed by their town's simpecado, and then a surging throng of faithful, clapping, chanting and beating drums.

While all of this is unfolding, another type of Romero is arriving. Hundreds of tour buses deliver bands of faithful from all walks of life. They come from parishes across Andalucía and beyond. Although these pilgrims become a part of the festive atmosphere, prancing stallions are of secondary interest. Prayerful piety is the focus of their journey. 

On Pentecost Sunday mass is celebrated for the throng of people who have migrated to the miraculous site of the Romería. Later that night the culmination of El Rocío occurs within the Ermita, the resting place of the Virgin, ”La Paloma” – the Dove. As they do every year, the young men of Almonte jump over the iron railing demarcating the sanctuary and hoist the image of the Virgin onto their shoulders. As they process through the village, many ecstatic faithful reach out toward Nuestra Senora del Rocio; some young mothers reach out over the enthusiastic crowd to have their babies touched by the Virgin.

For this brief moment of time, the panorama at Almonte contains elements of a camp out for hikers, a family reunion, a site for fervid devotion and carnival. The crowds sing traditional songs and dance the Sevillana together in the fields. Sometimes you will hear soulful flamenco from a man overcome with emotion. Wedges of Spanish tortilla, slices of jamón serrano, plates of langostinos and other shell fish, sizzling fried peppers - all are sold, accompanied by plenty of refreshing manzanilla sherry and other local wines. Many pilgrims bless themselves by dipping their hats in water and anointing themselves. El Rocío is of one piece, not to be evaluated separately. In a day or so, the crowds will disperse and the fields of El Rocío will become quiet again. 

Traditional Spain is another world, an ancient culture where continuity and variety are one. It is so different from our very young America, (233 years old), formed by waves of disparate people from every corner of the world. Just as with the celebration of Cádiz’ patron saint, and the venerable Semana Santa of Zamora, it is hard for the imagination of Americans to capture the elements of fervor and fiesta which are inextricably combined, unless we are willing to immerse ourselves in the event; or better still, to allow ourselves the freedom of participating in an ancient culture.

Tu amigo,