Essay and photos by Andrea Otáñez
LEÓN, Spain–As I sat down to pick through the hundreds of photos I had taken during a four-hour follow of a Semana Semana procession, this text dinged from one of my favorite Catholics:
Did I make a mistake by staying in León with the families and the abuelas standing solas, our backs against the walls, trying to make ourselves small in those narrow streets?
No, my heart. Mi corazón sagrado.
A little over a week before this Palm Sunday, I was in the HM Regla emergency room behind the Catedral de León because my heart was doing weird things. It had been pinging with pain for about a month, a pain that my doctor assured me (twice) was related to the detestable sounding condition known as GERD. But my second day in León–after two years of trying to get a greenlight to go abroad during a pandemic–the pain seemed to slide into unnerving palpitations. After a day of fretting, at 11:30 p.m. I called my teaching partner and he met me at the ER.
EKG, fine. Oxygen saturation, fine. Bloodwork, fine. Blood pressure, fine. Fine. All was fine. My heart was fine. Actually, the moment I finally decided to call my teaching partner, my heart felt relieved. All was fine.
This isn’t me. This wasn’t me. But two years of COVID-19 isolation, racial reckonings, marital reckonings, maternal heartbreaks, war in Europe, the death of a sweet matriarch, my dad’s slide into dementia, and teaching nearly 1,000 students from my tiny home office–the pressure apparently was real.
Semana Santa–holy week, the celebration of a resurrection (but not before the reliving of the torture)–had weighed on my heart, too. I don’t do well in crowds, apparently. This is a new thing because all my life I’ve gone to live concerts, sat in crowded flights, surged to catch packed subways in overheated New York City and DF. But crowds now seem to take their toll on my psyche. So once in León, my body worried about what it would be like to have an apartment on the narrow road that leads to one of the most important cathedrals on the Camino de Santiago during Semana Santa.
But I stayed in León — and fell enamored with the procesiones de las cofradías. I don’t cotton to the severe images of Jesus that start populating the paseos closer to the crucifixion, but my Christian-ish upbringing and ability to sing the entire soundtrack to Jesus Christ Superstar prepared me well for Spanish Semana Santa. What’s more, marching bands have always made me cry happy. During Semana Santa in León, the tinny trumpets and booming bass drums brought the same tears of appreciation for people playing musical instruments together in the streets.
I like to be in Puerto Vallarta on Dec. 12, el Día de Guadalupe. The cathedral, capped with its Spanish crown, is named in honor of La Virgencita. Marineros, danzantes Aztecas, little girls dressed as La Morenita, parade through the streets in advance of a float bearing la Virgen de Guadalupe. At the end, she is carried up the stairs through the bahia-facing doors of the la Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. People cram the streets to see and take pictures of her. Little Juan Diegos fall asleep on their papis’ shoulders after a long day of being cute. Apparently procesiones de las esculturas catolicas are in my blood.
I lied a little when I said it was me, families with babies, and abuelas watching the pageantry of Semana Santa in León. It was also teenagers in groups, staking out their spots a good half hour before each procession came by. And dads and preteen sons with cameras. College-age young people, in groups of two or three, laughed and sometimes smoked while they waited to be reverent for the filas of papones.
Though spectators can’t see the faces of the scary papones in tack-sharp hats, their varied body shapes and shoes, mascaraed lashes and glasses peeking through the eye holes remind us we are them. Being in the crowd and in the moment, my appreciation for the communal ritual of Semana Santa deflated my anxieties. Me and my just-fine heart somewhere on those crowded streets let out a sigh of relief much like the papones who ayed and exhaled when the tallest pointy hat signaled to put down their two-ton stories of Jesus for little rests along the way.