Cultural Anthropology: Semana Santa in Mexico

“It may be in the cultural particularities of people — in their oddities — that some of the most instructive revelations of what it is to be generically human are to be found.”
― Clifford Geertz


The cultural peculiarities of our humanness, especially when studying religions of the world, fascinate me. Mexico has many virgins, and Dolores or Our Lady of Sorrows is particularly intriguing to me.

Although Dolores is an advocation of the Virgin Mary, she represents the sorrows of the mother of Jesus, and is usually depicted with seven daggers piercing her heart, which represent the sorrows all mothers go through when losing a child.

The altars are erected on the streets the Friday before the beginning of Holy Week. Called the Friday of Sorrows, the symbols on the altars help the faithful share her pain and grief, and remind them of the great sacrifice Mary made to become the mother of martyrs.

In Patzcuaro, Mexico, where we are enjoying refreshing highland weather for the month of April, I watched the construction of the shrines, processions, and reenactments of the crucifixion of Jesus, with a healthy dose of skepticism, yet awe for the pageantry.

From the perspective of a cultural anthropologist…as I like to call myself,  I questioned everything, as well as reflected on the religious traditions, how they originated, and their significance to their faithful followers.

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2016 Semana Santa Statistics

lifeguard quote copySharon, my friend in Granada, reported that it was eerily quiet over the long Easter week holiday. Usually there are endless “bombas” or firecrackers that only make loud and annoying booms. So, she wondered what was up with the lack of bombas. Her Nicaraguan friend said, “We have to save all our money to get drunk. We have no money for bombas.”

That about sums up Semana Santa madness around Nicaragua. Go to the beach, get drunk, go swimming, or drive drunk. We stayed home this year, not wanting to deal with the drunks and crazy drivers over the holiday. But, if you are wondering how crazy it gets over Semana Santa here are a few statistics.

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Marketing Jesus

Every year during the hot, dry weeks before Semana Santa, Popoyuapa welcomes more than 30,000 visitors who arrive by bus, truck, car, and wagon to visit the miraculous Jesus the Redeemer and swim in nearby Lake Cocibolca.

The origin of the Pilgrimage to Popoyuapa is a matter of speculation, but living memory attests that the pilgrimage has existed for the past 150 years, and maybe longer as a pagan ritual for the Nahua wind god, Hecat. Hecat, one of the three major divinities, had a sanctuary in Popoyuapa in 1528. During the Nahua religious ceremonies, they refrained from work and sex, and became drunk. They partied, fought, and danced throughout the night.

According to local legend, the modern-day image of Jesus the Redeemer was found floating on the waves of Lake Cocibolca as one woman’s response to a personal miracle, hence the name, Rescued Christ.

The 1970s heralded a growth in the reenactment of cultural processions and parades in Nicaragua and the Pilgrimage to Popoyuapa was born out of a desire for nostalgic reenactment and religious and cultural devotion.
IMG_1297But, the pilgrims’ festive party brawls clashed with the Rivas parish priests’ desires for a solemn occasion two weeks before Holy Week. The erection of houses of ill-repute, dance halls and liquor stalls in the town square in front of the small church horrified the Rivas priests.

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The Pilgrimage to Popoyuapa

Religion points to that area of human experience where in one way or another man comes upon mystery as a summons to pilgrimage.~Frederick Buechner


Two weeks before Holy Week in Nicaragua, rural ox-pulled carts travel to Nandaime, where they gather for their annual pilgrimage to the Popoyuapa sanctuary, in San Jorge, Rivas.

Read more about the traditional pilgrimage.

Weekly Photo Challenge: A Good Friday

Ron returned from the states yesterday bearing gifts for all. This morning, after completing my outdoor chores, my two favorite girls came to visit. Lourdes wanted to make cupcakes for Semana Santa. So, I sent her to the side porch to see if there were any eggs in the box. “Dos huevos,” she shouted. “Perfecto,” I responded. Just enough for cupcakes. She mixed, blended, and gleefully decorated two dozen cupcakes.

Then, Johnson and his girlfriend arrived. Last week, Johnson came to my house to visit. He pulled a plastic bag out of his backpack and said, “I have a present for you. It is something for your house.”  His gift to me was his Survivor Run trophy mask. “Johnson, are you sure you want to give your trophy mask to me?” I said kind of teary eyed because I was so touched that he would give his trophy to me. “Of course,” he responded as if I had asked him if he wanted a glass of water.

Johnson is the most humble and gracious person I know. He never complains and works extremely hard to better himself. His goal is to be in the 2016 Olympics as a marathon runner representing Nicaragua. Yet, he has no good running shoes. “Johnson, come here,” I said as I directed him to my laptop. “Pick out a pair of good running shoes. I’ll order then online and Ron can bring them back from the states.”

Today, Johnson tried on his new running shoes. They fit him perfectly. I am so grateful that I can do just a little thing to help him meet his goal.

Next, Marvin and his daughter, Lauren stopped by with a warm, delicious bowl of alvimer. It is a traditional Semana Santa dish of sweet mixed fruit. In exchange, we gave Lauren some Mardi Gras beads that Ron found at his sister’s house in the states.

Soon, Cory, Tina, and Sam arrived. It was a hot afternoon. We are on our second day without running water. AGAIN! It was either go swimming or eat watermelon and play spoons. We opted for both. After teaching all of our Nicaraguan visitors how to play spoons, we joined the crowd swimming on our beach.

At sundown, we watched to cormorants chatting with each other. Then, everyone headed home. Ron and I settled down to a light supper of toasted cheese sandwiches. We still don’t have any running water and I didn’t feel like using my bottled water to wash any dishes.

This evening, I voted for my Cradlepoint Entry. I was trying to win a mini-iPad for Ron, but he bought a new laptop in the states. Now, I have a new goal in mind. I’m trying to hep my young friend, Ever, win this mini-iPad. Ever is the head guide in the Los Ramos rural tourism program. He really needs the internet to communicate with tourists interested in the Los Ramos cultural immersion programs. Presently, my son does all the communication. So, if you can find it in your heart to vote for Ever, please go to this Facebook page to vote. You must have a Facebook account to vote. You can vote every 24 hours until April 12th. Thank you so much for your help.

I’m working on my Weekly Photo Challenge post..a day in the life of…while Ron is passed out on the couch watching basketball games.
It has been a good Friday. Full of love, friends, gifts, and fun. It would have been perfect if we had running water! Feliz Semana Santa!

And the Easter Week Drowning Statistics are…..

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The water is your friend…you don’t have to fight with water, just share the same spirit as the water, and it will help you move.~ Alexandr Popov


Every year during the Easter holy week, known as Semana Santa, the media reports the number of drownings which occur at the local beaches in Nicaragua. It reminds me of the yearly reports of the amount of trash collected after the Nascar races at the Bristol Motor Speedway…except this is much more serious.

During Holy Week, the masses take to the beaches to find refuge from the scalding heat in March and April. For some, it is a passionate religious week composed of prayers, processions, and pilgrimages. However, for most Nicaraguans, their spiritual quest takes on a party atmosphere of grand proportions involving massive consumption of Tona and Victoria beer, Flor de Cana rum, and swimming…a deadly combination…especially considering that most Nicaraguans can’t swim.

This astounds us! Ron has over 40 years of experience as a swim coach and a swim instructor. The population of Ometepe Island is 40,000, and increases dramatically during the week of Semana Santa. It is always frightening to go to the beach during this time of the year because our trained eyes skim the troubled waters constantly, instead of relaxing and partying like a bacanalear (a Nicaraguan party animal).

Although the official toll isn’t in yet, the Nicaraguan Dispatch reports that at least 20 Nicaraguans drowned, 970 were stung by jellyfish, and lifeguards from the Red Cross saved 254 swimmers. Semana Santa week is typically a violent week in Nicaragua. Progress toward water safety is slow, but things are looking up. The Red Cross has a few lifeguards stationed at the most popular beaches, now. Ron is going to offer swimming lessons for the preschool children in our local elementary school. We’re going to make a trip to Maxi-Pali (a Nicaraguan Wal-Mart on a smaller scale) this week to buy swimming noodles and kick boards.

We are living on an island, in the middle of the world’s 11th largest fresh water lake, in the middle of Nicaragua, in the middle of Central America. Surely, we can help the locals make the water their friend…. one child at a time.