Palm Sunday with the gypsies

In Norway, Easter is synonymous with spring skiing, while in Canada it seems to be all about bunnies and egg hunts. Nothing wrong with chocolate and skiing, of course, but Spanish Easter is certainly more spiritual.

Yesterday was Domingo de Ramos or Palm Sunday and the holiest week in the Catholic calendar has begun. Andalucía’s Easter processions are said to be the most beautiful in the country. Sevilla and Malaga are especially known for their processions (the latter aided by Antonio Bandera’s participation), though our little town is also gaining fame for ‘our’ touching processions.

Ronda’s citizens, young and old, have been preparing for Semana Santa for months. Each neighbourhood has their hermandades or cofradías (religious brotherhoods) to which almost everyone belongs. Young men have practiced their roles as costaleros, carrying the enormous  ‘floats’ with lifelike wooden religious statues, some weighing more than 500 kgs. The processions wind their way through the city and last for hours. It is considered a great honor to help carry the floats, partly because of the pain involved – the suffering likened to that experienced by Christ.

The nazarenos (literally meaning people from Nazareth) who follow along the procession have embroidered and ironed their traditional costumes, ready for the biggest spectacle of the year. Their robes consist of a tunic and a hood with conical hat or capirote, concealing the face of the wearer. These hoods were used already in the medieval time, allowing the wearer to demonstrate their penance while masking their identity.

As this is our first Easter in Ronda, we wanted to see all processions yesterday. The first was in the neigbourhood of La Dehesa. Hundreds of people were gathered in front of the church where the procession was to take off. Parents hurried along their young nazarenos, looking rather like midget members of KKK, if it weren’t for their flower baskets and braided palm leaves. Manolas, women dressed in black lace and the traditional Spanish hair combs, paraded the street. With a light drizzle and spectators finding shelter under umbrellas or orange trees, the church bells finally chimed elven. The bands played, but no procession emerged. Rather anti-climatically, we were allowed into the church to see the floats and were told that the statues, rich brocade fabrics and gilded thrones were too valuable and fragile to bring out in the rain.

At the second procession in the San Cristóbal neighbourhood, the sidewalks were filled to the very edge with residents, as well as local TV crews, precariously balancing their equipment on a table and on the roof of their camera van. Enjoying the people watching, we waited more than an hour after the procession was supposed to take off. I realized that the teenage girls of this barrio are the ones who buy the sluttish ‘Made in China’ 8″ heel imitation leather shoes they sell in town. Finally we gave up and ran across town to catch the last floats of the day, later discovering that the procession actually did take off, just 1.5 hour late…

The last procession was organized by the hermandad de los gitanos, the gypsies. As we arrived, the nazarenos entered the church in tall burgundy velvet hats, looking more like characters in a Harry Potter movie than the KKKs of the earlier processions. A gentleman came up to us, seeing we were the only people waiting outside in the rain. As patron of the brotherhood, him and his wife had two extra invitations to enter the church, which they kindly offered us. Nobody but members and special supporters get to enter, so it was a true privilege for us to observe the hermandad preparing for their procession, both excited and somber at the same time.

The heads of the gitanos brotherhood, themselves actually brothers, finally had to announce that the procession could not go out due to rain and we noticed that several of the participants were trying to hide their tears. Yet the show was just about to begin. Drums were hit and the candle- and flower-enveloped floats were lifted and walked to the front of the altar with two bands playing the eerie Easter music from either side. When the statue of the virgin was raised, people around us shouted out spontaneously, as though she was as live as them. Regardless of what church, synagogue, mosque or temple one happen to belong to, even a plain old heathen like myself had to be touched by this experience. WIthout accompaniment and all of a sudden one of the men sang a saetas, a heart wrenching flamenco.

At last the church doors were opened for the public to enter. We were already sneaking out the side door, after having shared the most momorable experience with Ronda’s gypsy families in the Semana Santa and hearing them praising their very own virgin of tears.

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