Peace and passion: Holy Week in a Latina community

A political rebel sits against a tree in an olive orchard in Jerusalem. He knows he is hunted. He has spoken out in the streets. This is a tense time. An imperial power on one side, and a party of religious conservatives on another, find him a threat — because he tells people they are people.

Around him in the darkness, his companions have fallen asleep among the tree roots. He knows the soldiers will find him. This is his last night. So he stays awake alone, scuffing the soft dust, watching the moon between dry branches, and thinking of the flashing warmth, the aliveness, that comes when he holds a sick man or speaks to an audience and feels them listening.

On a night in spring across the world, people will remember this story. It is commemorated on Maundy Thursday, the holiday of the last supper, and the fifth day of La Semana Santa, of the Holy Week leading to Easter Sunday. And across Central and South America, communities will re-create Jesus’ vigil in the garden of Gesthemane, cerro de los olivos, on the night before he died.

Maria Soria from Ambato in Ecuador, Lucia Quizhpi from Deleg in Ecuador, and Gabriela Cruz from Oaxaca in Mexico, came to Multicultural Bridge in Housatonic to talk about La Semana Santa in the places where they were born. Soria lives in Lee now, Quizhpi in Great Barrington and Cruz in Sheffield.

Bridge co-founding director Gwendolyn Van Sant translated as they explained in Spanish how they remember this central holiday in their families’ year as they were growing up.

“People go to church every night to pray,” Cruz said.

It is a time of respect and peace, she said. People do not dance or listen to music; they don’t fight or watch television. Families gather and prepare meals that take days.

In Mexico, Cruz’s family served a shrimp cake wth cactus and potatoes.

In Ecuador, they make a soup, La Fanesca, with 12 kinds of beans and seeds — lentils, hominy, lupin seed, garbanzo beans and more, representing the 12 apostles — and also bacalao, dried smoked codfish. It takes a long time to make, because they soak some grains for several days, Soria said. For dessert, they cook down ripe figs with brown sugar and cinnamon and serve them with cheese.

“It is a beautiful time,” Cruz said. The family comes together, from the grandparents to the youngest grandchild. People take time to reflect on their lives.

They are living the story. From Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem, on Palm Sunday, through Judas’ betrayal, to Jesus’ capture and public execution, they play the scenes and feel the tension, the grief and the relief in them.

In Quizhpi’s small village, people dress as soldiers. A group of carefully chosen men are the apostles, santos varones, dressed in white and wearing crowns. The man who acts as Jesus carries the cross in procession, and the soldiers cuff him to it.

“It is very real,” she said. “It’s more than a pageant.”

The actors are chosen a year ahead, and it is an honor.

“They do it happily,” she said.

On that night in Oaxaca, the priest leads a re-enactment of the last supper. Twelve men play the apostles. And the priest washes their feet, as Jesus washed friends’ feet that night in the New Testament.

On Friday morning, Cruz said, the whole town goes to church. Families bring images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary from home. They parade through the streets on carpets of brightly colored designs in flower petals, colored sand and wood dust.

They visit the prisons to talk with prisoners. And in the afternoon, they re-enact the death and burial of Jesus.

At night, after Mass, they cleanse the streets with water.

In Ecuador, Saturday is a day of silence, hope and waiting, Soria said. The church covers images of Jesus with cloth, and Saturday is an all-night vigil, waiting for the resurrection. And on Sunday, they celebrate.

In the Berkshires, Soria spends the holiday with her sister; they get as many of the grains as they can and make la Fanesca.

Here in the Berkshires, the celebration of la semana santa doesn’t exist, Cruz said. Her family goes to church on Palm Sunday and on Easter, because there are no other celebrations.

In their countries, this week is a holiday, and shops and government services close at least on Friday and Saturday. Here it is hard, they said, because they have to work.

“Today, in these days we live in, a lot of people forget the significance of Holy Week,” Soria said. “It becomes a diversion, a trip, when we should dedicate ourselves to prayer and reflection.”

In a land like this, she said, away from home, people maintian unity through religion and culture.

Here, el señor Romero Guerrero of Pittsfield helps them to maintain their faith, Soria said. Though not a priest, he has studied, and he helps with communions and baptisms.

They preserve what they can. And Quizhpi, telling her stories, preserves the processions through the village she left at 18; Soria and Cruz came from cities, but Quizhpi’s home village no longer exists. Everyone has emigrated to the United States, she said, or died.

“Lamentably, I lived this religion as a child,” she said. She too feels distanced from it here, with work. Her mother pushes for a connection to that faith and that experience, she said — and her children are missing it.

Quizhpi’s daughter sat be side her, listening. And as the evening drew in, they offered a warm bowl of la Fenesca in a dish patterned with sunflowers. 

This story first ran in the Berkshire Eagle on April 5, 2012, in my time as Berkshires Week editor there, and the story and photo run here with their permission. My thanks to VP of News Kevin Moran.

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