People of all ages, from Guatemala and around the world, are descending upon Antigua this week to see—and sometimes participate in—the grand religious processions. Literally thousands will walk down the cobblestone streets here, bearing on their shoulders heavy floats carrying life-size sculptures of Christ, The Virgin Mary, and other Saints. The activities here, to commemorate Christ’s Passion and Crucifixion, actually began weeks before Ash Wednesday, but the most spectacular and anticipated processions are taking place now during Holy Week (Semana Santa), from Palm Sunday, Domingo de Ramos, to Good Friday, Viernes Santo. This is my second time experiencing Semana Santa in Antigua, and I was fortunate to meet someone who could provide some background on these traditions—where they come from, how the processions are practically carried out year after year, and why they are still practiced. This person is Edgar Luna. Edgar is a member of the Hermandad¸ or brotherhood, of Iglesia La Merced in Antigua, Guatemala. He was born and raised here in Antigua, and moved to the United States many years ago. But he maintained his relationship with La Merced, became part of the Hermandad 3 years ago, and returns every year for three weeks in order to help plan and carry out the festivities for Semana Santa. The Hermandad, made up of 35 men and women at Iglesia La Merced, plans, organizes, and raises funds to carry out the processions of Semana Santa.
In Guatemala, Semana Santa is the most important time of the year, and Good Friday the most important day—it’s the only day of the year when even journalists do not work (no newspaper on Saturday!). Although the state is officially secular, it’s especially clear this week that Catholicism has deeply penetrated all sectors of Guatemalan society. Yet, to understand how Semana Santa and its traditional processions became so important not only in Antigua but throughout Guatemala—to an extent not seen in other Latin American countries—one needs to rewind back to the colonial era.
When the Spaniards came to colonize Guatemala in 1524, they brought not only weapons and soldiers, but also priests and the Catholic religion. Catholicism was deeply embedded into Spanish society and government. It was their way of life. Thus, part of their objective in Guatemala—as in most of the Americas—was to evangelize the indigenous population.
Antigua was one of the first capitals of Guatemala (the first was Tecpán, then Ciudad Vieja) and the Spaniards founded it in the style of their homeland—cobblestone streets and Spanish-style buildings and Churches. At that time, three Catholic orders immigrated here: the Dominicans, the Franciscans, and the Mercederians (The Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy), each of which began building churches throughout the city. In this blog post I focus on the Mercederians, mainly because they have an extremely beautiful church here and it is right across the street from the Posada Don Diego, where I’m currently staying.
One of the main goals of the church since the colonial era has been to teach the gospel, particularly to the indigenous peoples, who were the object of their evangelization. The easiest way to do it was visually, and to concentrate on the key stories that hold together the religion–and this is thus where the amazing sculptures of Jesus, Mary and the Saints come from. The practice of parading these sculptures through the streets was also a Spanish and European tradition.
The Spaniards and criollos—Spanish descendents—constructed the religious sculptures here in Antigua using materials imported from Spain, and wood from the ‘sweet cedar’ tree that is native to Guatemala. This wood smells pleasant, is easy to work with, and hardens over time—which can explain how these nearly 350-year old sculptures, i.e. dating back to the 17th century, have survived so long.
In 1774, damage from earthquakes (there is a big one every 25 years or so) had reached a point where the Spanish Crown declared that Antigua must be cursed; all were instructed to evacuate and settle in what is today Guatemala City, about 30 miles away. Nearly all the city was abandoned—people, possessions, even doors on houses were picked up and carried away. The churches, too, were left empty and damaged. In fact, quite interesting to learn was that the impressive religious sculptures we see in Antigua are actually the “lesser leftovers” from the Colonial period, since the larger and more ornate ones were taken to Guatemala City when Antigua was abandoned. While Antigua attracts many foreign tourists, Guatemalans consider the processions in Guatemala City to be the most magnificent.
When Spain ordered the evacuation of Antigua, a few people refused to leave. Thus the Archbishop assigned a priest here. The Mercederians’ small Capilla de San Jeronimo (St. Jerome’s Chapel) had survived the previous earthquakes and thus remained a functioning church and parish. This was to be the social foundation of today’s La Merced church. Over the years, the parish and Hermandad of this church was moved to another of the Mercederians’ churches in Antigua, San Sebastian, and finally to the large Iglesia La Merced. Although La Merced’s church and rectory had been badly damaged by earthquakes, one of Antigua’s Mayors in the 19th century decided it was time to renovate the building, and soon La Merced again became the Mercederians’ central church in Antigua.
The Hermandad of La Merced was founded on May 20, 1675 (but originally founded at Capilla de San Jeronimo). In order to establish a Hermandad you had to already have sculptures of Jesus and Mary. Thus we know that the sculptures in La Merced church date to 336 years ago—when the Hermandad first paraded them through town during Semana Santa in 1675. But it is possible that they are even older than this.
Today, Semana Santa processions hold both religious and social importance. As Edgar explained, babies and small children here are dressed in the procession robes not so they’ll ‘look cute’, but because people here begin to incorporate children in the Semana Santa culture at a very young age. When boys and girls grow to a certain minimum height, they can begin carrying floats bearing smaller-sized versions of Jesus and Mary. The two photos below were taken on Wednesday night, at the end of La Merced’s day-long children’s procession.
In many ways, participating in the Semana Santa processions seems to reinforce social bonds between people, and at times serves as a sort of social equalizer. As Edgar explained, once you have your tunic on, it doesn’t matter who you are or how much money you have, “we’re all the same, we’re all brothers.” On Palm Sunday, roughly 5400 men and 2000 women carried Jesus and Mary. They were split up into 63 groups of 80 men and 60 women. Each person pays a fee to carry the sculptures for one block. The float carrying Jesus is estimated to weigh 5000 pounds (although no one really knows its exact weight). Forty men carry the float on their shoulder on each side (for a total of 80), while one member of the Hermandad carries the front, and anywhere from 3-5 cover the back end, helping keep the procession on course. Members of the brotherhood will help keep order as the processions proceed down the street, and ensure that transitions of the cucuruchos (the men and women who carry the floats) proceed smoothly at the end of each block. Edgar explained that not only is the float difficult to carry (each man bears approximately 63 pounds on his shoulder), it is also difficult to keep on course. When you are carrying the float, you can’t see much in front of you, and towards the end of the block most people tend to walk faster because they are tired and ready to give up their spot to the next cucurucho. It is the person in front of the float who must ensure that all walk a steady pace down the center of the street.
Those who are not currently carrying the float walk alongside and ahead of the float. Moreover, most people participate in processions not only of their own church but of the other churches, too. For example, La Merced’s processions on Palm Sunday and Good Friday are representations of the Passion of Christ. However, other churches, like the Escuela de Cristo, conduct processions to represent Christ’s crucifixion (see photo below). Almost all the processions, including the one on Palm Sunday, take 12 hours to complete—often leaving and/or returning to the church in the middle of the night—which is why members of the Hermandad, like Edgar, won’t be sleeping very much this week!
Another Semana Santa tradition is the crafting of alfombras—carpets made of colored sawdust, flower petals, and sometimes fruits and vegetables. Most families and local businesses participate in this tradition, helping blanket the streets with bright colors, to welcome the processions.
Domingo de Ramos– Palm Sunday
The following are photos taken of the procession from La Merced on Palm Sunday. Soon I’ll post a link to some video clips.
Returning the sculptures into the church, Sunday night (about 11pm)
Each year, the Hermandad must find funds for the bands that walk with the processions (always playing Chopin funeral music), decorations for the floats, and clothes for Jesus and Mary. The clothes, costing roughly Q20,000 each for Mary and Jesus, are hand-sewn and embroidered each year. The sculptures never wear the same outfit twice—in fact the clothing and decoration of the floats is an object of great anticipation for locals. On Palm Sunday, the floats and clothing are always very ornate because it is a day of celebration, when Jesus came to Jerusalem. Jesus’ crown of thorns is made of gold and dates back to the 18th century. His halo features a 305 carat topaz, 25 yellow sapphires, and 12 aquamarines, which Edgar was able to donate from the United States. The vine decorating his cross is made of sterling silver. The clothes and float will be much simpler on Good Friday, the day Jesus was nailed upon this cross.