The Madness of Semana Santa

Seville, Spain
April 2006
As I stared at the street in front of me, I couldn’t fathom that there was literally no room to pass. That politely saying discúlpeme (excuse me) to the dozens of people would be a wasted effort. It was as if the people who were blocking my way and making it impossible to move were actually a field of marble. Although modern marvels never cease to happen in Seville, namely when an automobile not only succeeds in driving down one of the city’s notoriously narrow streets, but also manages to not clip pedestrians walking by, this was one marvel that no amount of modern innovation could fix. This was Semana Santa. 

            Semana Santa (Holy Week) celebrations in Seville, Spain are the stuff that legends are made of.  Although all throughout Spain and the Spanish speaking Americas the Easter holiday is celebrated with much reverence and grandiose festivities, Seville is the king and queen of all celebrations. I had experienced my first ever Semana Santa celebrations the year before when studying for the semester in Costa Rica, although at the time I was completely unaware of it. Along with some other people in the program, I had traveled to the region of Arenal, home to a strikingly beautiful (and active) volcano. Sitting in an Internet café on the main street in the village of La Fortuna, busy typing an email, I heard all of a sudden what sounded to be a bass drum being hit. A slow and solemn beat, similar in length and style to what I’ve heard being played during scenes of old style films when someone is about to be executed. Peering out the windows of the café, I saw passing by on the normally empty street a parade of people carrying life-size wooden crosses and garbed in robes similar to those donned by members of the Ku Klux Klan. I would later learn that the Klan had been late adopters of this particular fashion, that actually the nazarenos (penitential robes), tunics, and capirotes (hoods with conical tips) were widely used in the medieval period for penitents who could demonstrate their penance while still masking their identity. Although I didn’t think Costa Ricans were aligned with the Ku Klux Klan movement in any way, shape, or form, it was still a disconcerting sight to see at first. Raised a Protestant in the Presbyterian Church, I had never seen the Passion of Christ recreated. At my church, Easter services usually consisted of the Passion being discussed in the reverend’s sermon and Easter Sunday hymns being sung, not all that I was seeing before my eyes. 

            Back on the streets of Seville, deeply entrenched in the throngs of the Semana Santa madness with nowhere to escape to, what was transpiring in front of me almost seemed surreal.  I had spent the last two days in Seville with my dad, who had journeyed to Spain for my holiday break. His first day there was spent paying homage to the customary touristy attractions including the city’s cathedral and giralda (minaret), two sites in the city’s skyline that never failed to mesmerize me. The other day had been spent day tripping to Córdoba, a city with a magnificent history and only slightly less worthy than Seville in terms of its all around score. On our full and final day in Seville, we had no set plans save for visiting my host family. 

            Although Holy Week celebrations in the United States may be a thing of times past save for special Masses on Good Friday and Easter Sunday, in Spain, specifically in Seville, multiple processions of pasos (floats) take place every day, starting on the Monday before Easter Sunday. Pasos are lifelike wood or plastic structures of individual scenes of the events that happened between Jesus’ arrest and his burial, or images of the Virgin Mary showing grief for the torture and killing of her son. They are richly carved and decorated with flowers and candles. Some are even of great antiquity. Most pasos weigh over a metric ton and require approximately 24-50 men to carry them through the streets. The group of men who do this are known as costaleros (sack men) and they support the beams upon their shoulders and necks. They are all located inside the structure and hidden from external view by a curtain. On a day trip to Jerez de la Frontera, also known as sherry country, a friend and I happened upon a group of costaleros practicing. It is something after all that cannot be done using the fly by night mentality. Having never seen anything like it before, my friend and I were entranced by the group practicing for the longest time, and even chatted with some local women who we assumed to be the wives and girlfriends of the costaleros. 

            I did feel bad about the disruption the Semana Santa celebrations had upon my host brother Miguel. Miguel had severe Down’s syndrome and although my roommate and I never found out how old he was, judging from his baldness and the pronounced lines that were scattered across his face, we estimated his age to be somewhere in the late 30s, early 40s. Miguel didn’t have much of a life outside of the apartment due to the severity of his condition, but every day when the rest of the city was taking a siesta, my host mom Estrella would take him for a walk. It was the only time of the day when the streets were less busy both with people and cars, thus making it safe for him to go out and not feel overwhelmed by other people and traffic.  Since the pasos passed through most areas of the city at some point, Miguel remained indoors that entire week.  While the Semana Santa celebrations brought joy to many people, it also temporarily halted the little joy one person got every day with his little pocket of fresh air. 

            Palm Sunday seemed like any other morning. My dad and I dined at our hotel for breakfast and then made our way across the Guadalquivir to my host family’s house in Triana. After I had introduced my dad to my host parents, the conversation dropped off there as he knew no Spanish beyond hola and adios and my host parents spoke no English. When we arrived back in the Santa Cruz area, groups of people were starting to converge on the Plaza del Triunfo, an area that is surrounded by none other than the famed Catedral, which of course would be taking center stage on today of all days. When we were told that the wait at an Italian restaurant I had been dying to try for the longest time was over two hours, I simply suggested we head to an East Asian restaurant instead. Not only was it a type of cuisine I didn’t see Spanish people eating on the day their Christ lord triumphantly entered Jerusalem days before his Passion, it was also in the opposite direction of the sheer madness that was occurring in the historic quarter. This was perhaps where we went wrong, as our hotel was still located in the midst of the madness. But it seemed like a good idea at the time. 

            Dining on plates of moo shu pork and fried rice amongst an Asian style décor, it was easy to forget about the mobs of people that were present on every corner, not to mention having the place to ourselves was doubly nice. When I traveled outside of the United States for the first time at the age of 16 I was amazed to see a Chinese restaurant in the midst of Queretaro, the Mexican city where I was living for the summer. Not being travel savvy at this point, I just assumed you had Chinese people in China and the United States. I didn’t think any would move to Mexico, and yet I met Spanish speaking Chinese people. Although I often eat cuisines from countries that are not of the country I’m in (Indian food in Paris, Cuban in London), I find that just like people, food has also transcended the globe, and there exist no borders. And it was how I felt that Palm Sunday in Seville. By the time we had finished with our meal, we were no longer the only diners there. From both look and quick sound gauge, they appeared to be Spanish. I thought to myself  that maybe after so many years of experiencing Semana Santa, perhaps Oriental food was their safe haven too, just as it had been ours. 

            Finding your way in Seville on a normal day is not always an easy feat, especially when strolling through the city’s historic quarter. On a day when literally every inch of street space is covered by people, it’s one step below being an impossible feat. Upon arriving at the street we were to turn on to return to our hotel, I saw that there was no room to pass. Not being the savviest of people when it comes to “directions perceptions,” I had us back away to try another street that would hopefully allow us to traverse in order to achieve some progress. Same “blockage.” This went on for easily 20 minutes more. When I finally turned us on a street that was neither blocked nor filled with mobs I thought “score.” That is until we were literally swallowed whole by the paso and mobs of people following it. Never having been a fan of immense crowds, I tried to stifle a mini panic attack I felt on the horizon. Knowing I wasn’t in any real danger, I was able to remain somewhat calm, but it was more to do with the fact that for the first time ever, I was in a situation where I literally had no room to move. Although some people dream about visiting Rio de Janiero for Carneval, New Orleans for Mardi Gras, or being in Times Square for New Years Eve, these are all happenings I have no desire to experience. They are all cities I have been to or want to visit sometime in the future, but for the week before and after those huge events, I will remain safely in my mobless home. The only good thing to come out of being literally trapped in a mob of people was scoring some awesome pictures of the pasos that were being paraded by, because I was literally that up close and personal to them. I guess the belief that in order to see the action you need to experience the action is true and that I indeed did. 

            More than an hour after we had attempted to return to our hotel from our lunch meal, we finally made it back safe and sound. Neither of us had been trampled, save for being stepped on countless times  although I think I was still somewhat in a daze over the whole afternoon’s events. Dinner that night was the first time in a long time that I ate nothing but an article of junk food. The only food establishment that was open and more importantly was able to be accessed was Horno de San Buenaventura (Saint Buenaventura’s Oven), a small café that is known for its rolls and pastries, not hearty dinner fare. And so I had sweet croissant. I supposed you could say I mildly fasted. 

            If I were to ever return to Seville, I would make sure my visit would neither be during the summer months (it’s too damn hot) nor during Semana Santa. It was something I’ll always remember, an event that makes top rated travel experiences lists one in which I can say I’ve done. But I don’t think I need to do it again. I simply don’t think my heart is up for it. But you’ll never know the true meaning of Easter until you’ve experienced it there, in Seville, Spain.

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1 Comment

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    January 17, 2011 at 3:21 pm

    It’s good to know that I might not see the Sevilla I remember if I go back for Semana santa. But I really would love to experience it! I did get to see a smaller procession (Corpus Christi), and it was amazing.

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