A big part of the appeal of moving around and living in different places and spaces is the opportunity to experience different events, different environments, different celebrations and different cultures. What I hadn’t given much thought to is how different celebrations and observances can be from city to city within the same country. At least until now.
As a predominantly Catholic country, Easter is a big deal here in Mexico. Big. Huge. Massive. The week leading up to Easter Sunday is called Semana Santa (Holy Week) and the majority of the people in Mexico get the week off work, or take the days off and the whole family heads out for vacation. Many families head to the beach where they spend the week having lots of fun in the sun. But many other families head inland for Semana Santa and a lot of them end up here in Patzcuaro. Having spent the last couple years experiencing Semana Santa with the festive atmosphere of the beach crowds, well while still fun and festive, this year we got an eye-opening cultural and religious experience that won’t soon be forgotten.
I really want to pause here to say that while I’m writing all this, I know not of what I speak. We watched, we asked questions, we did some research, but there are many customs and images and rituals that we saw that I can’t explain. Knowing that religions are hundreds and thousands of years old and knowing they can have regional or environmental influences, well it’s going to take me more than one Semana Santa in Patzcuaro to figure all of this out. So all I can relate is our experience and perspective and ask for forgiveness in advance for anything I might have misunderstood.
But to start with, here’s what I could understand. People. Lots and lots of people that seemed to arrive in Patzcuaro overnight and shut the streets down. Suddenly the town became one big block party.
And what were all these people doing? Well this part I also understood. You can’t have a week long vacation without food. And boy was there lots of it. Food stands selling tortas and tacos and tamales, others selling the delicious regional ice cream of Michoacan. Patzcuaro and our stomachs were definitely not disappointed in the food department.
Food wasn’t the only thing being sold. You could buy anything. I mean anything. I saw furniture, jewelry, soap, hats, herbal remedies and much more. So, so much more available to buy. Like this stuff.
So in addition to the eating and the shopping, the town was full of artistic and cultural experiences every day of the week. There were singers, musical performances, art exhibits and dancing. Lots and lots of dancing.
But, by far, the most important parts of the whole week and the ones that were the most impressive, awe-inspiring and, at times, confusing, were all the religious events. Semana Santa is intended to commemorate the last week of Jesus’ life which culminates in his resurrection on Easter Sunday. Recognition of these events were widely spread throughout the city in a variety of ways including lavish and ornate altars, reenactments and processions. The first procession we attended was the Procesión de los Cristos or the Procession of Christs’. Here’s where I’m probably about to go terribly off the rails but it’s my interpretation of what we saw. Best I can tell, each church from across Patzcuaro, and there are many, brought versions of the Christ, and Virgin Mary, that they have in their church and members of the congregation carried them along the route. They came in all sizes, in a variety of different positions and made of different materials from wood to bronze.
The other procession we witnessed was the Procesión del Silencio or the Silent Procession which was held the night after the Procesión de los Cristos. I’m not going to lie, for those who have any semblance of understanding of the civil rights struggles in the United States, well the robes these processional participants were wearing were initially quite oft-putting. But my understanding is that these robes are a tradition that date back to the Spanish colonial period when penitence and the renewal of faith were encouraged by the monarchy and have nothing to do with that other ugliness (though the monarchy in Spain was responsible for some ugliness of their own). We found this description that goes into even more detail and helps explain way better than I can what the robes represent. Once we got past that kind of shock and confusion, well we were awestruck by the solemnness, gravity and reverence that we were witnessing.
Even if you are not religious, well I think it would be difficult to not be moved by these processions, and the overall Holy Week here in Mexico. The care, the deference to tradition, the respect, it was all on display and was truly an awesome thing to witness. So being a part of Semana Santa in Mexico? Well this is why we travel. I get to experience things that I NEVER would get a chance to see otherwise. And seeing these things, observing them, sometimes even getting to participate in them? Well I’d like to think that makes me a more informed, enlightened and tolerant person. I wish we could bring each and every one of you here to experience Semana Santa for yourself because although I took a bajillion photos, none of those give you the experience of hearing music playing 24 hours a day, the smell of the delicious food that permeates the air, the feeling of camaraderie and excitement that you couldn’t help but get swept up in. It’s something I hope you all get to be a part of at some point, plus you might go home with a really cool tiny guitar.