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Semana Santa en Oaxaca 2015

Semana Santa (Holy Week) begins on Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday) and it concludes with Domingo de Pascua (Easter Sunday). Cuaresma (Lent) is forty-day period of penance beginning on Ash Wednesday. During this period there are celebrations every Friday ending with El Viernes de Dolores (Painful Friday). On this trip I arrived a few days before El Viernes de Dolores, as I wanted to photograph the altars that are constructed for the Madre Dolorosa (the Lady of Sorrows) on the last Friday of Lent. These altars are constructed in churches, homes and even businesses. All the altars feature a life size statue of the virgin with tears streaming down her face. Most of these virgins have a tin heart attached to her clothing that is pierced by seven swords. These seven swords represent the sorrows of the Virgin Mary. They are the prophecy of Simeon, the flight into Egypt, Christ lost in the temple, the carrying of the cross, the crucifixion, the descent from the cross and the entombment of Christ.

The tradition of honoring the Madre Dolorosa has existed since the Colonial period when the Spanish arrived in Oaxaca around 1550. These altars are prepared in conjunction with the sowing of corn and the germination of chia grain. The chia seeds are grown in clay flowerpots in the shape of animals. The pots are placed in a row underneath the altar of the Madre Dolorosa. These pots symbolize the resurrection. Also found on these altars of wreaths made from the hearts of maguey, shoots of baby corn in shiny tin cans, flowerpots of wild foliage from the area, stocks of palm, flowers and wild fruits.

A wonderful place to visit for Domingo de Ramos is the village of San Antonino Castillo de Velasco located near Ocotlán. This celebration is unique to this village as none of the other pueblos celebrate Palm Sunday with a procession of this scale that one can experience here. This lively event is full of activites with bands playing music and an artisans fair in front of the church. The event takes place in front of the gates to the cemetery in town. A statue of Christ sitting on a burro is placed on a platform. All the people from the village participate in this event. They bring the best of what they have harvested, raised or manufactured as offerings. There is a wide variety of the most beautiful produce, baked goods, livestock along with clothing and even shoes. The gifts are given to select group of women from the village who log in each respective gift. The men take the produce using it to place around the statue of Christ on the burro. By the time the men have finished decorating the statue the food is up to the elbows of Christ. Once this part is completed the local padre arrives with twelve young men who are representing the apostles. The padre performs a blessing and palms are distributed to the crowd. After this is completed the women gather up the baskets of food that have been donated by placing them on their heads. About twenty men lift up the statue of Christ on the burro and they and the women process to the church.

Once the group has arrived at the church an outdoor mass is held in front of the church. After the mass of the gifts are blessed. They are then sold. The sale of these donations are collected by the mayordomo. He in turns gives the money to the church where the money will be used to help pay for festivities throughout the year.

El Lunes Santo (Holy Monday) is an important day in the Zapotec village of Teotitlán del Valle. The day starts with a mass at seven in the morning and doesn’t conclude until seven that evening. The people from the village have a procession visiting fourteen stops during the day. Little girls and boys under the age of five are angels. They wear white clothing with wings made from gold cardboard or white feathers. They are always accompanied by their parents who hold their hand or carry them as the day goes by. The village women wear dark rebozos. Both the men and women who participate in the procession carry tall beeswax candles. A small boy dressed as a Roman soldier rides a highly decorated horse in the procession. He is usually around eight or nine years old. He is the centurion. In his hand he carries a banner asking for the death of Christ. The statues of Jesus and the Madre Dolorosa from the church are carried on processional floats to the fourteen stops. At each of these stops is a hut that has been constructed out of bamboo poles and a roof made from woven straw. These huts are completely covered with the tapetes (rugs) that are woven in the village. Before the procession reaches each of these huts, an individual throws water into the street and then sprinkles it with bougambilia petals. A local band plays with the procession and two rezadores chant throughout the day at each of the fourteen stops. Once the statues of Christ and the Madre Dolorosa reach each stop, they are placed inside the hut. After the blessings by the rezadores a single line of women and men pay their respects to Christ and the Madre Dolorosa along with making monetary donations. They also place leis made from flor de cacao over the two statues. Copal incense fills the air. After this takes place, horchata, tejate, nieves (ice cream) and tamales are served. The bebidas (drinks) and food vary from stop to stop. From this point, they move on to the next stop. At the end of the day the statues and the faithful return to the church where they started with the morning mass.

Other activities that occur during Semana Santa are visiting the churches on El Jueves Santo (Holy Thursday). People from all over Oaxaca come into town that evening to visit seven churches to see the reenactments of Christ washing the feet of his apostles. On this evening the sermon of the Siete Palabras (Seven Words) is performed. The city is buzzing with activity. Trying to get into the churches is much more difficult than one would image because of the immense crowds that have gathered. Traffic jams are extremely common as cars try to approach the historic district of Oaxaca.

El Viernes Santa (Holy Friday) is full of activity throughout the city and valley of Oaxaca. There are several early morning processions that start between seven and eight o’clock in the morning. Eventually all of the processions end up in front of the cathedral on the zócalo. Later that afternoon El Procesión de Silencio (the Silent Procession) takes place through the historic district in Oaxaca. This procession originated in 1987 by the Sangre de Cristo church. Processions such as these had their origin in Seville, Spain. In Oaxaca these processions are not quite as grandiose as they are in Spain, however they do honor the same tradition of showing the passion of Christ. There are penitentes dressed in hooded purple robes carrying huge crosses through the streets. Each church has their respective group of penitentes wearing different colors of robes that carry processional floats from their respective church in the Silent Procession. The identity of these men is to remain anonymous as they are doing penance for their sins. A solemn intensity fills the air as this procession moves slowly through the streets of Oaxaca accompanied by the steady beat of a drum and the sound of a melancholy pito. The sound of the penitentes dragging the huge crosses through the cobblestone streets creates a surreal environment. It is also interesting that one doesn’t hear the church bells on Good Friday. They have been replaced by a matraca. The church bells are heard again at midnight on El Sabado de Gloria (Saturday of Glory) announcing the resurrection of Christ and that the doors of heaven have been opened. All the purple drop cloths that were covering the main altars of the church have now been removed showing the resurrected Christ on the altar. Most churches shoot off fireworks at midnight too.

The Carmen Alto church has a procession the evening of Easter Sunday. A processional float of the resurrected Christ is carried throughout the streets. There is music and dancing. Everyone who participates in the procession carries a candle and carries a white paper flag. Once the procession returns to the church a huge castillo (firework castle) goes off to celebrate the resurrection of Christ. This is really a great and festive way to conclude the activities of Semana Santa in Oaxaca!
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Movement of Lights
Movement of Lights
Waterfall of Lights
Waterfall of Lights
Swirling lights
Swirling lights
The Grande Finale
The Grande Finale
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