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Stories About Spain

Tales of Semana Santa

Written by: Don Harris

Don Harris with Alejandro Rodríguez MuñozA couple of summers ago, Ruth and I welcomed into our home a friendly young man from Córdoba for a few weeks. Alejandro had just graduated from high school and was preparing to begin university studies in Córdoba upon his return from Virginia. He was inquisitive, eager to learn about American ways, so we included him in our family events, in cookouts with the staff of La Tienda, and of course introduced him to the joys of Red Sox baseball (which he truly enjoys!)

He also was interested in different expressions of Christian worship, comparing them to his experience as a traditional Catholic back home in Córdoba. As we attended various church services and compared the differences and similarities, he told me of his dream to be one of the men who carry on their shoulders the extremely heavy mahogany pasos with images of the Passion of Christ during Semana Santa. This year he turned eighteen and his father gave him permission to take on this arduous responsibility.

Each year Semana Santa, or Holy Week, which leads up to Pascua (Easter) is at the heart of the Spanish culture. This dramatic reenactment of the last days of Jesus’s life on earth is woven into the fabric of Spain, and if you happen upon a Semana Santa celebration, you will be affected by it whether or not you are a believer.

If you are from a Roman Catholic background it will all be familiar, and something in which you can participate and enjoy with little effort. Sometimes for uninitiated North American visitors, it is a puzzling event. It even can be an alienating one: anonymous hooded penitents walking barefoot on the streets into the night, life-sized figures of the passion, which are unnervingly real in their portrayal. However, if you suspend your preconceptions and are willing to identify with the emotion and piety of your Spanish companions I think you will find the processions a memorable experience.
paso, or float, at a Holy Week procession
Last month, when we were visiting Alejandro's family in Córdoba, I asked him if he would be willing to share with us what makes Semana Santa meaningful to him. He had just completed training to be a costalero, a man who, with other members of the brotherhood, would be bearing the paso on his shoulders for the first time.

This, unedited, is what he wrote to me in English:

Written by Alejandro Rodríguez Muñoz

La Semana Santa in Spain is a completely different week from the rest in the year: no one is indifferent to it. Every Spaniard takes advantage of this week to enjoy the holidays. However, for most people in Spain these holidays are really special, even a way of life: tradition, passion and strong emotions are the key words this week.

I’m particularly focusing on Semana Santa in Andalucía, specifically in Córdoba.

The previous months before Semana Santa, all the “hermandades” (Brotherhoods) start preparing everything related to this popular week: they select the flowers they’re going to put on the “paso”, they look for a band of trumpets, bugles and drums to play their “marchas”; they design the route they’re following the final day in Semana Santa. Also the “costaleros” start training with the “paso” in order to be ready the final day. (Too many new words? I’m going to explain them later.)

This long preparation is an evidence of the important meaning that Semana Santa has for thousands of people. As I referred before, Semana Santa is a way of life for many “cofrades” who wouldn’t conceive of living without it.

We call somebody a “cofrade” when they’ve got a strong passion to everything related to Semana Santa. These people would know every “marcha” (marchas are the instrumental songs that are played during the procession, normally with trumpets, bugles and drums); every “paso” (“pasos” are the wooden-made figures that represent a part of Christ Passion. They are supported by a base, generally made of mahogany and adorned with, gold or silver leaf). Even the names of every “capataz” (the “capataz” is the person who in the procession guides the “costaleros” who are together under the heavy paso. They’re normally socially recognized).

Generally, in Andalucía it is strange to meet somebody who has not got a special fervor for Semana Santa. Almost every family has got a member who is part of a “hermandad”, and would participate in it as either “nazarenos” - these are the penitents who process before the “paso”), wearing a robe and covering their faces with a “cubrerrostro”; or “Ciriales” (these are four people immediately before the “paso” carrying a high candle); or as “costaleros” (these are the people who carry the “paso”). Regarding the last ones, this emphasizes their passionate involvement with the “hermandad”.
group of men lifting a paso, or float, for a Holy Week procession
The “pasos” and the images they contain were normally built several decades, even centuries ago. The ones of my “cofradía” for example, were built in 1940’s and 1950’s. That’s why they have such a great value, apart from the time required to make them. They are also considerably heavy, up to 4,000 pounds so loads of “costaleros” are needed to carry it. In my paso, the Christ of the Good Death, we are thirty men under the paso at the same time; and there are more “costaleros” walking behind the paso waiting for the changing time, so that no one has to carry it all the hours of the procession.

Anybody can enter on a “hermandad”. They just have to register themselves and pay a donation. Nevertheless, it is not common to belong to many “hermandades”. Normally, someone who wants to enter is really devoted to the image that is carried on the “paso,” or is part of the parish where the “hermandad” comes from. There is a strong feeling that makes you decide to belong to a brotherhood: not only devotion, but also family tradition or special faith.

In Córdoba, the route of the processions is not too long, around 6-8 hours in most cases. However, in Sevilla for example, some of the processions have a 10-12 hour route (hard for penitents). The processions go through the main streets in the city and everybody is outside watching them. Thousands of people in the street are living the Semana Santa with joy, passion, fraternity and penitence; a mix of feelings that characterizes this week.

I hope this explanation will help you. Any further information, please don't hesitate in asking me. I'm proud of writing all of this for you.

I think you can feel that Alejandro is innately proud of his contribution to his community as he joins his brothers in the hermandad. As you can see from his letter, he is proud to be able to tell all of us about how meaningful his Semana Santa experience is – and he is writing us in English, no less.

I hope many of you will take the opportunity in Spain to witness this unique experience, which is a special part of the Latin culture across the world – from Toledo in Spain to Manila in The Philippines.

Su amigo,


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"Dear Don, I was so happy to read Alejandro's account of the procession that takes place on Holy Week. I am originally from Cebu, Philippines, and I was just there this past Holy Week. We do our procession differently but the idea is the same. It is a tradition in our family to have the Mater Dolorosa all dressed and ready for the procession which takes place on Holy Wednesday. In our town we have 30 carros! And it only takes an hour or so to go around the town and back to church as compared to the one that Alejandro and his hermandad do in Spain. Our images are also life size. And according to my Grandfather our family's image of the Mater Dolorosa came from Spain a long long time ago. Members of our family take turns in the preparations. Thank you. Lucille"
May 2012

"Dear Lucille, Thank you for your interesting note, I will forward it to Alejandro, as I'm sure he will be interested. Filipinos, of course, share a rich Christian heritage because of the early presence of the Spanish people and the missionaries. I am glad you get to go back home to your roots, and especially to participate in a Filipino Semana Santa. When I was in the Navy I had the opportunity to live with many young Filipino sailors and I have fond memories of our time together as shipmates. Tu amigo, Don"

"As a child I lived in Sevilla and my parents made a point of taking the family to watch the processions. I hope to someday go back and experience Semana Santa again. It is just an awesome experience."
May 2012

"Hello Linda, thanks for writing. Wasn't it great that your mother took you t0 the Semana Santa processions when you were a kid? Impressions of childhood are lingering. Why don't you plan to return for a few days? It is quite an experience to revisit as an adult. Tu amigo, Don"

"I was very interested in this account because in New Mexico we have a tradition of los hermanos penitentes; called los hermanos. They have been practicing this same tradition in the northern mountains and the western deserts here-probably since the Spanish were here in the 1500s. Las Hermanos were subjected to persecution after the invasion of the United States into the area-which was then a Territory of Mexico but these traditions have durvived right to the present day. In the case of New Mexico,however, the membership is more or less heridatary-probably for protection."
May 2012

"Hi Trisha, I find the rich cross pollonation of the Mexican, Indian, and European Christian culture fascinating. One of the members of the La Tienda family, Tomas Lozano, has immersed himself in this area for years. I wrote about him in my book entitled The Heart of Spain. He grew up in The Pyrenees and learned traditional Spanish songs – especially from his time at the knees of his shepherd uncle, and his grandmother. By a stroke of luck his small band was funded for a modest tour of the United States to sing these traditional songs. When his tour arrived in New Mexico, he was captivated by the culture and lingered for over ten years. He has lectured and performed in Santa Fe and other places many timnes -- so keep your eyes open because I'm sure he will be back. What is particularly nice is that he would go to rural schools so that even the least privileged kids could learn about their heritage. The most interesting thing in my mind was how the music of the native people enriched the sacred music of the Franciscan missionaries so that two cultures became inseparable. I would imagine the hermandad tradition has a similar evolution. Tu amigo, Don "

"If Alejandro is interested,he can find material on Los Hermanos in a book called Tales of Cibola by Abe Pena who is a resident of Grants. The book is available through Amazon. There are other works but they tend to sensationalize."
May 2012

"Thanks for the information, Tricia. I will pass it on to my friend Alejandro. I think he probably will be quite interested. It is a fascinating subject, isn't it? Something about which most people have no idea. Tu amigo, Don"

"I considered myself lucky, because, along with my family we spend Semana Santa in Seville, it is something you have to see in your lifetime."
May 2012

"Dear Afortunada, You were indeed blessed to be able to be a part of the Semana Santa of Sevilla. It is an experience which will be with you always, and one that is hard to describe to others. My wife Ruth and I enjoy them in many different parts of the country, Tu amigo, Don"

"Thank you Don & Alejandro for writing about Semana Santa! I experienced it many years ago (1968) in Sevilla, & was completely stunned by its' richness, passion & complexity. Although I've returned to Spain 16 times since then, I have never been back for Semana Santa, but images related to that experience have reappeared in artwork I've made (my one-person-exhibits have always been titled "Images for Spain"). Thanks again for reminding me of that early experience as a young man, when Spain first started becoming an indelible part of who I am today."
May 2012

"Dear John, Thank you for your very personal note. For an unmatched artistic treat I suggest you return to Semana Santa next year-- this time going to the mountain top city of Cuenca -- an art center a couple of hours from Madrid. The combination of dramatic drums of the penitents during the processions, and the accompanying week-long medieval concert series with boys choirs etc. is amazing. Tu amigo, Don"

"Thank you for sharing this article. Three years ago I was in Andalucia, Seville, Granada, and Cordoba for Semana Santa and it was an indescribable experience! This background and history is wonderful to share along with my pictures and stories. Thanks La Tienda!"
May 2012

"Dear Chris, You had a triple-header of processions!! It is interesting how each one is a little different -- reflecting the people of each town. I am glad Alejandro and I had the opportunity the help you recall that amazing experience. Don "

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Cuentos de la Semana Santa

Don Harris with Alejandro Rodríguez MuñozUn par de veranos atrás Ruth y yo acogimos unas semanas en casa a un joven cordobés de carácter abierto y simpático. Alejandro había acabado el Bachillerato y se preparaba para iniciar sus estudios universitarios a su regreso a Córdoba. Era un joven inquieto y deseoso de aprender sobre las costumbres americanas así que lo incluimos en nuestras reuniones familiares, barbacoas con el personal de La Tienda y por supuesto lo iniciamos en las delicias del béisbol de los Red Sox. (¡Algo de lo que realmente disfruta!)

Demostraba interés a su vez por las diferentes expresiones del culto cristiano, y las comparaba con su experiencia como católico tradicional de allá de Córdoba. Después de asistir a varios servicios en la iglesia y comparar diferencias y similitudes, me habló de su sueño de convertirse en costalero, uno de los hombres que llevan sobre sus hombros los extremadamente pesados pasos de caoba con imágenes de la Pasión de Cristo durante la Semana Santa. Este año cumplió dieciocho años y su padre le dio permiso para que aceptara esa ardua responsabilidad.

Cada año la Semana Santa que culmina con la Pascua resurge en el corazón de la cultura española. Esta impresionante conmemoración de los últimos días de la vida de Jesús en la Tierra forma parte del tejido de España, y si por casualidad viene a toparse con ella, quedará conmovido tanto si es como si no es creyente.

Para los de origen Católico Romano les resultará todo muy familiar y será algo de lo que se sentirán partícipes y disfrutarán a penas se lo propongan. Sin embargo, para los visitantes norteamericanos no iniciados, puede resultar un acontecimiento desconcertante. Quizás pueda llegar hasta distanciarlos de la cultura española: anónimos penitentes de largos capirotes que procesionan descalzos en la noche, imágenes a tamaño natural que representan de manera turbadoramente real escenas de la Pasión. En cambio, si logra dejar a un lado ideas preconcebidas y está dispuesto a identificarse con la emoción y el fervor del pueblo español estoy convencido de que vivirá en las procesiones una experiencia inolvidable.
paso, or float, at a Holy Week procession
El mes pasado, mientras visitábamos a la familia de Alejandro en Córdoba, le pregunté si estaría dispuesto a compartir con nosotros lo que convierte a la Semana Santa en algo tan significativo para él. Acababa de terminar sus ensayos como costalero, como hombre que junto con otros hermanos de la cofradía soporta el peso del paso sobre sus hombros por primera vez.

El texto que sigue, me lo escribió en inglés:

Alejandro Rodríguez Muñoz

La Semana Santa en España es una semana completamente distinta a las del resto del año: a nadie le resulta indiferente. Todos y cada uno de los españoles aprovecha esta semana para disfrutar de unos días libres. No obstante, para la mayoría de la gente estos días son realmente especiales, para algunos representan incluso una forma de vida: tradición, pasión y fuertes emociones son las palabras clave que definen esta semana.

En mi descripción me refiero concretamente a la Semana Santa de Andalucía y más específicamente a la de Córdoba.

En los meses previos a la Semana Santa las hermandades comienzan a preparar todo lo relativo a esta popular semana: eligen las flores que van a colocar en el paso; buscan una banda de trompetas, cornetas y tambores para que interprete sus marchas; planean el recorrido a seguir el día indicado de Semana Santa. A su vez, los costaleros inician sus ensayos con el paso con el fin de prepararse para el gran día. (¿Demasiados nuevos términos? Permítanme que se los explique algo más adelante.)

Esta prolongada preparación es evidencia del profundo significado que la Semana Santa tiene para miles de personas. Tal como mencioné antes, la Semana Santa es una forma de vida para muchos cofrades que no conciben su vida sin ella.

Cuando hablamos de cofrades nos referimos a personas de gran pasión por todo lo relacionado con la Semana Santa. Se conocen cada marcha (marchas son las piezas musicales instrumentales que se interpretan durante la procesión, normalmente con trompetas, cornetas y tambores.); cada paso (grupo escultórico que representa una determinada escena de la Pasión de Cristo elaborado en madera policromada y que está fijado sobre una plataforma generalmente labrada en plata o caoba artesanalmente dorada con pan de oro.); incluso los nombres de cada capataz (persona que en la procesión guía los pasos de la cuadrilla de costaleros y que goza de reconocimiento social).

En general en Andalucía es raro encontrarse con alguien que no profese un fervor especial por la Semana Santa. La gran mayoría de las familias cuentan con algún miembro que pertenece a una hermandad y participa en alguna procesión como nazareno (penitente que procesiona delante del paso vistiendo túnica y cubriendo su rostro con cubrerrostro.), cirial (cada uno de los que inmediatamente delante del paso lo acompañan llevando un cirio sobre un soporte alargado); o costalero (que lleva el paso sobre sus hombros). El cometido de este último pone de relieve su apasionada implicación en la hermandad.
group of men lifting a paso, or float, for a Holy Week procession
Por regla general los pasos y sus imágenes fueron tallados hace decenas de años e incluso siglos. Los de mi cofradía por ejemplo se tallaron entre los años 1940 y 1950. Por ello son de gran valor además de que requieren una larga elaboración. Son considerablemente pesados, hasta unos 2.000 kgs. de peso, por ello precisan de un gran número de costaleros para ser desplazados. Mi paso, El Cristo de la Buena Muerte, requiere de treinta costaleros para procesionar mientras que un grupo de costaleros de refresco camina tras él. Allí esperan cambios de turno de forma que ningún costalero tenga que soportar todo el recorrido de la procesión bajo el paso.

Cualquiera puede unirse a una hermandad. Sólo hay que registrarse y ofrecer un donativo. Sin embargo, no es común pertenecer a muchas hermandades. Normalmente los que desean convertirse en hermanos es porque profesan gran devoción a la Imagen Titular del paso o pertenecen a la parroquia en la que la hermandad se originó. En todos los casos yace un fuerte sentimiento que te decide a pertenecer a una hermandad: no entra en juego sólo la devoción, sino también la tradición familiar o una fe especial.

En Córdoba el recorrido de las procesiones no es demasiado largo, entre seis y ocho horas en la mayoría de los casos. Sin embargo en Sevilla algunas procesiones tienen recorridos de hasta diez y doce horas, lo que es muy duro para los penitentes. Las procesiones pasan por las principales calles de la ciudad y el resto de la ciudad sale a verlas. Miles de personas en las calles viven la Semana Santa con gusto, pasión, hermandad y penitencia: una mezcla de sentimientos que caracteriza esta semana.

Espero que esta explicación le sea de utilidad. Para cualquier otra información, por favor, no dude en preguntarme. Me enorgullece poder escribir sobre el tema para Ud.


De seguro se dan cuenta de que Alejandro se siente orgulloso de forma innata de su contribución a la comunidad al unirse a los hermanos de su cofradía. Es obvio por sus palabras que se enorgullece de poder trasladarnos el inestimable valor de sus vivencias en la Semana Santa, además de que lo hace expresándose en inglés.

Espero que muchos de Uds. tengan la oportunidad de vivir en España esta experiencia, algo único que la cultura hispana aporta al mundo, desde Toledo en España a Manila en las Filipinas.

Su amigo,


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