Tales of Semana Santa

Don Harris | May 2012

A 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. 

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”.

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,