Tag Archives: dia festivo

Semana Santa in Spain

One thing I’ve always wanted to do is witness Semana Santa (“Holy Week”) celebrations in Spain. But another year has passed and it still only remains a dream. Here’s hoping that 2011 will be my chance!

Semana Santa is, of course, the week leading up to Easter. It includes Palm Sunday (el Domingo de Ramos), Maundy Thursday (el Jueves Santo), Good Friday (el Viernes Santo), and Easter (la Pascua de Resurrección) itself. In Spain, as well as most other Spanish-speaking countries, this adds up to a celebration and festival season that rivals Christmas.

In particular, the week usually consists of a series of processions through the city. Each procession features incredibly impressive pasos, which are floats with highly realistic sculptures depicting the Passion (the final days and suffering of Jesus of Nazareth) and/or the grief of Saint Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Each procession is organized by a particular brotherhood from a local church. These brotherhoods (hermandades or confradías) are lay organizations that are dedicated to performing acts of religious observance in public. In terms of Semana Santa, this means ritual penance for the Passion and death of Jesus.

A procession usually runs from the brotherhood’s home church to the city’s cathedral and might consist of…

*A large guiding cross (cruz de guía) that leads the procession.

*The nazarenos (more on them below).

*Penitentes (also nazarenos, but without the pointing hats) carrying wooden crosses as part of their public penance.

*Altar boys and acolytes with candles and incense.

*The pasos.

*A band.

All of this means there can be hundreds or more in a procession. And the procession itself can last as long as fourteen hours if the brotherhood is from an outlying neighborhood.

For an outsider, one of the more striking aspects about the processions are the nazarenos, the men (and even a few women) dressed in distinctive robes and conical hats. The nazarenos disguise themselves because they are doing penance and shouldn’t be recognized in public because of it. And the hats probably signify a focusing of energy and spirit pointed at heaven. But most of us folks from the US see their costumes and immediately think of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s unclear if the Klan lifted their design from nazarenos or not. Like the Nazis stealing the swastika from Asia, it would be a sick joke if that were the case. The Klan has always been a highly anti-Catholic movement, and Hispanics and Latinos are viciously targeted in their ideology.


Batallón de San Patricio : Mexico’s Fighting Irish

One of the least known aspects of the Mexican-American War is the story of the San Patricios, a group of mostly Irish-born soldiers who ditched their US military service to go fight for Mexico. Saint Patrick’s Batalion (or Batallón de San Patricio) was organized by Jon Riley, a private in the United States military who, by popular accounts, left his US post for mass one day and never came back. Riley was one of many foreign-born Catholics who left the US military for Mexico, most likely because of mistreatment by their predominantly Protestant superior officers. One can imagine that the Irish in particular felt kinship with the Mexicans both religiously and because of their struggle against an occupying power (Ireland was still part of Great Britain at this time). Rich incentives from the Mexican government—promises of land and citizenship (most San Patricios were not US citizens, even though they served in the army)—probably didn’t hurt either.

Commemorative plague in Mexico City.

Though the San Patricios were renowned fighters during the war, things didn’t end so well for many of them. Quite a few were captured by the US military and tried for treason and desertion. None of those men received legal representation in their trials and most were ultimately executed. The US Army even tried for years afterward to actually cover-up the existence of the Batallón de San Patricio for fear that their story might encourage future desertion. A congressional inquiry in 1915 forced the military to admit its attempted historical rewrite.

In Mexico, however, it’s a much different story. The San Patricios are still remembered as heroes and are celebrated twice a year: September 12 (the recognized date of their execution) and Saint Patrick’s Day. In 1999, a film based on the story of the San Patricios was released called One Man’s Hero. The following is clip from that movie.

La Santa Muerte : a film by Eva S. Aridjis

La Santa Muerte (“Saint Death”) is easily one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in the last couple of years. Santa Muerte is kind of like the personification of death; she’s usually portrayed as a skeleton wearing fine robes and holding a scythe. But she’s a version of death that watches over believers and can intervene on their behalf. The film documents the devotion to this figure in her native Mexico. In particular, the movie focuses on the shrine of La Santísima Muerte (“Most Holy Death”), which a woman named Enriqueta Romero Romero made out of her home. As the shrine has grown, Enriqueta—a featured figure in the documentary—has added a shop that sells Santa Muerte figures, candles, religious tokens, and other items for reverence and worship. She and her family also take meticulous care of the saint, changing her clothes on the first of every month, purifying the shrine with smoke and perfume, and holding a large festival on the anniversary of the site’s founding, November 1. Upwards of 5,000 people crowd the street in front of the shrine on that day, and the movie ends with this festival. It is truly one of the most interesting and unusual events I’ve seen captured on film.

(The following is from a SBS Dateline piece, not the documentary.)

The shrine is located in the Tepito neighborhood in Mexico City, which has a reputation for being one of the largest centers for crime and black market dealings in D.F. Not surprisingly then, the saint is known for being particularly favored by criminals, drug dealers, and the like. In the documentary, the filmmaker goes behind the bars of two prisons to show her popularity. Many of the prisoners in the film have shrines in their cells. One interviewee even paints large Santa Muerte murals for her fellow inmates in order to incur favors and to exchange for goods. But Santa Muerte’s popularity has spread beyond prisons and the criminal world. She’s also popular with the poor and destitute, with a particularly strong following among disenfranchised groups in Mexico such as homosexuals, transvestites, and sex workers. Generally, she’s seen as egalitarian in her favors, and the film makes a point of showing how such beliefs play out in worship. Go rent it.

¡Feliz Año Nuevo! A mixology list of Spanish vocabulary for New Year’s Eve

And don’t make the mistake of calling it ano nuevo. Jaja!

Credit Image: © Xinhua/ZUMA Press

a drink : una bebida

cocktail : el cóctel :: champagne : el champán

wine : el vino :: beer : la cerveza

martini : el martini :: rum & coke : la cuba libre

gin & tonic : el gin tonic :: a shot : un trago

single : sencillo :: double : doble

with ice : con hielo :: without ice : sin hielo

teetotaler : el/la abstemio/a :: non-alcoholic : sin alcohol

Holy Sh*t! Catalonia’s Caganer Christmas Surprise

(Thanks to a new ISP, I’m back in business!)

To outsiders, there are perhaps few things stranger in Catalonia than the popular caganer figurines that have been part of that region’s nativity scenes for over three centuries. Traditionally the caganer (literally “the pooper” in Catalan) is a peasant man in a red hat and country garb, bare bummed and squatting in the act. Nativity sets in Catalonia are generally larger than we are used to in the English-speaking world; they often display whole parts of the city or countryside, not just the manger. So the squatting fellow usually does his business behind a bush and a bit away from Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.

His role in the nativity set has several possible meanings. Some think that he represents fertility, since his defecation fertilizes the land. Some say he represents equality since we all have to go at some time. Many think he just gives the otherwise otherworldly scene of Jesus’ birth a hint of naturalism. Or perhaps his presence suggests that God works on His timetable—whether nature is calling someone close at hand or not. But generally I think most folks can see that the figure is meant to inject a little humor into the season, which has led to a certain change in caganers sold since the 1940s.

Yup, while the traditional red-capped peasant is still available, lots of folks these days prefer a caganer statute of a celebrity, politician, athlete, cultural icon, or even my beloved Pocoyo (who has blue poo!).

¡Feliz Janucá! : Spanish Hanukkah vocabulary

I think non-Jews (like me) have a tendency to think Hanukkah is a more important holiday than it actually is, mostly because it falls so close to Christmas. However, it is festive and fun, and it’s going on right now. So what better reason is there to learn some new vocabulary in Spanish? ¡Vamos!

(There’s a good short description of the story of Hanukkah en español aquí and in English here.)

Festival of Lights : la fiesta de las luces

Greek kings : los reyes griegos :: Maccabees : los macabeos :: victory : la victoria

menorah : la menorá/la menorah :: candles : las velas

oil : el aceite :: eight days : ocho días

(“Ocho Kandelikas”/”Eight Little Candles” : Ladino Hanukkah song)

songs : las canciones :: games : los juegos

latke (potato pancake) : la latke (la tortilla de papas/patatas)

gelt (chocolate money) : el dinero de chocolate

sufganiot (jelly donut) : el buñuelo de jalea

dreidel : el dreidel (in Mexico, the Jewish community uses a toma todo)

La canción de dreidel
Tengo un pequeño dreidel que de barro fabriqué,
cuando esté seco y listo, puedo jugar con él.
Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel que de barro fabriqué,
dreidel, dreidel, dreidel con dreidel jugaré.

The Dreidel Song
I have a little dreidel. I made it out of clay.
When it’s dry and ready, then dreidel I shall play.
Oh dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made it out of clay.
Oh dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, then dreidel I shall play.

Ladino : Spanish’s Jewish Cousin

Most folks have heard of Yiddish, a language that developed in the Ashkenazi community of Central Europe during the Middle Ages. However, many people don’t realize that Yiddish is actually closely related to German. In fact, it originates from a Medieval form of that language, only written in Hebrew letters. Similarly, Spanish has its own language cousin in the Jewish world, Ladino or Judaeo-Spanish, which is spoken by the Sephardic descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella.

A collage of some important Sephardic Jews. Maimonides is in the top left and Hank Azaria is in the bottom right. Click through for the full list.

While Yiddish grew out of Medieval German, it also has linguistic influences from Hebrew and Aramaic. In a similar way, Ladino developed from a Medieval form of Spanish but also shares bits of vocabulary and grammar with Hebrew, Arabic, and even Turkish. For those who know any Spanish, I think you’ll find it sounds familiar…and a little exotic at the same time.

(Grasyas, ceniboy, for posting this and other great Ladino videos.)

Ladino is still spoken by small communities in Israel, Turkey, Greece, and even the United States, but it is in danger of going extinct. Most speakers use it as a second language, and older generations are not passing it along to their children and grandchildren in great numbers. Nonetheless, here’s hoping for a renaissance.