A celebration in Mexico carries with it remnants of Aztec pageantry and the belief that blood is the conduit which prayer requires to travel from Earth to the realm of the divine. At the same time it is bound by the Catholic Spanish traditions that wove a tight connection to the Mexican people.
I spent Holy Week in Taxco, a fantastically intact hill town, 200 kilometers south of Mexico City.
Known as a silver mining hot spot, each Semana Santa, the streets take on the air of the Inquisition and it's people partake in one of the most visually and spiritually stunning pageants in all the world. For four days and nights leading up to Easter Sunday, processions of penitentes provide spectacle and assault to pilgrims and visitors.
My traveling party consisted of artists and educators in connection with the Taxco/Canoga Park Sister City International program and the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. Also joining us was my wife Martina and my three year old daughter, Lorelei. We knew that Semana Santa was a remarkable time to visit Taxco, but coming from an American culture that celebrates Easter with jelly beans and marshmallow bunnies, we were to experience a profound jolt.
Taxco itself is picturesque and charming. There is an intimacy and historic richness that washes over visitors, especially in the main town center, or "zocolo". children frolic. Old men dream on benches and women sell baskets beneath the Baroque church of Santa Prisca. Birds chatter in the trees. After a leisurely stroll we were surprised when the Thursday evening penitente procession entered into the main zocolo as bells rang.
The festive balloon sellers and ice cream vendors gave way to make room for a man naked from the waist up, except for a black hood which hid his face from the gawking crowds. Upon his bare shoulders was strapped a 100 pound bundle of thorny zarza branches, causing him to hold his arms out as if crucified. He was followed by groups of men similarly clad, who carry varnished wooden crosses. At points along the route, they stopped to kneel in the streets and flagellate themselves with barbed whip. Bright crimson blood drips steadily from their fresh wounds. A drummer beats a solemn rhythm and a violin scratches a haunting tune from hell.
"Oh my god," I hear myself shout. "It's started." All around me, people rush to line the streets, camera cellphones click. The surreal torturous scene from a Goya Painting unfolds before us...
Then a sweet cluster of children in shimmering satin robes climbs the cobblestone street behind them. Feathered angel wings and smiles, they are the peaceful symbols of hope and redemption before the next group in the procession emerges: scampering black shrouded women, stooped over like animals, carrying long luminous candles. Their bare feet are shackled with chains, which jingle as they shuffle. They move in long twin lines down the lanes.
Then, carried aloft on the shoulders of a dozen men, a platform supporting a ten foot tall carved crucifix seems to float by. it is decorated with miner's hats and silver,along with vibrant roses and sun flowers. It is the first of over seventy carved life size crucifixes that I would see that night. More drums, violins, candlelit angels and hooded penitents. More blood.
It was the following day, Good Friday, that we were to view the procession of penitents in the early evening daylight. Hundreds of participants reenacted Christ's suffering, either for personal reasons of chastisement , family obligation or pure devotion.
The procession ended with a coffin containing a sculpture representing the dead body of Christ, and finally the Virgin.
The respect I have for this passionate celebration of suffering and pain is great. The questions of religion, devotion and spirituality that this event evokes have still yet to be processed by my mind and heart. Which ways point to God best?