Festivals, Indigenous Culture, Oaxaca life

Semana Santa: Silence and Celebration in Oaxaca

I always enjoy being in Oaxaca during times of holiday, and Semana Santa was no exception. The week of Easter is one of the most important on the Mexican calendar, and Oaxaca is one of the most special places to experience it.

On Good Friday, it seemed that the entire population of the town and more was in the plaza and streets surrounding Santo Domingo church. I joined them, expecting a parade. And sure enough, a group of women and men began walking purposely towards us. They braced heavy satin banners against their bodies; the colours were of rich reds and greens and embroidered with gold.

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Gilded altars, depicting Jesus in the moments of crucifixion, swayed on the shoulders of persons cloaked in billowing purple, yellow and white.

Behind them, young people walked with their hands held solemnly behind their backs, without exchanging a single look.

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I was fascinated, and altogether surprised. But why? There is a gathering in the street here just about every other day. Banners and flags and costumes are nothing new. So what was so different about this particular event? It was the silence.

There was no music; not a single tuba or guitar to be found. There was no singing or raised voices, nor a drop of mescal in miles. There was hardly a footfall heard as the procession passed, barefooted on the road. The crowd was silent too, except for the click of cameras and the soft shuffle of bodies trying to find a better place to see.

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The covered faces startled me at first. I wondered what they were thinking and feeling as they walked by, mute, and almost blind. For a moment, a man carrying a large wooden cross stopped to rest close to me. His eyes did not meet mine or anyone else’s. I could hear the slight movement of his purple cloak falling against his skin, and see the detail of the face of Christ tattooed onto his chest.

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When he began walking, I was startled by the sudden thunder produced by his and another dozen wooden crosses being dragged over cobblestone. It rattled in me, that noise, even after it had passed.

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That was Friday. Sunday of course took on a very different tone…

On Easter Sunday, in the evening, I ran into some friends hanging about on the corner. I saw some neighbours sitting on the steps. Families were blowing soap bubbles. Lovers were leaning against walls. Little kids were playing a great game that involved darting about between everyone’s legs.

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I love rubbing shoulders with the people of this town on days like this. Everyone is welcome, whether you were born here or have just stepped into the street for your first stroll and discovery.

People carried great sprigs of rosemary tied with string as well as small white cotton flags. I leaned out intentionally into the path and some of the fresh herbs tickled my nose as they passed.

Rosemary is sacred to the Virgin Mary. They say she once draped her blue coat over a rosemary bush to save it from getting dirty on the ground, and ever since then, the flower has been a shade of bluish white. It has long been an herb of remembrance, and on this day, the people were remembering something very important.

All day Sunday, starting at 6 in the morning, I had heard a steady battery of rockets coming from the church. Now, standing in the plaza looking up, I could see the sudden shadows of the men on the highest ledge as they leapt back from the light and sound.

The tubas and guitars arrived then, and they delivered song after booming song. As if in response, plastic cups were thrown into the crowd from the back of someone’s pick-up truck to be assumedly filled with mescal or some other celebratory drink.

 The street turned a different colour as the fireworks ran and raged over the castillo structure. I took a moment to relish the sensations. My chest was reverberating with every bang and spark. The acrid sweet smell of the burning powder, admittedly one of my favourites, was in my hair and on my clothes.

At the pinnacle of the structure the words burned red, white and green.

VIVA LA RESURRECCION DE CRISTO.

There was not a single person that was silent then, I assure you.  

Though I preferred the lights, music and the loud rejoicing of the people on that Easter night, I also appreciated the time spent on Good Friday in quiet thought and reflection. They were two different parts of the same remembrance and reverence, and no matter your belief or conviction, everybody was welcome to participate and celebrate in the gift of spring and new life. 

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By Kim Groves
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