7 Jan – 4 Apr 2016. I’m in the Jardin, San Miguel’s town square, sitting on the low stone wall facing the large space in front of La Parroquia, the parish church. The space is filled with a riot of colour and movement, flashing feathers, flying feet and pounding drums. About thirty dancers from one of the local indigenous tribes are dancing up a storm to a loud rhythmic beat. Their joy and commitment is compelling.
I watch and photograph “death”. His mask is unique: a shiny reflective chrome gaudiness that can’t be ignored, the feathers a mad celebration of orange and blue. He absorbs every bit of my attention. His charisma, his presence, his commitment to the dance is unmistakable. He’s a wild man giving everything he’s got. We connect somehow. Apart from photographing him, maybe he gets my enthusiasm for his vibrant dancing. I’m grinning from ear to ear. He’s death, but he’s not scary, he’s exhilarating!
One of the tassels of beads and feathers fall from his headdress. He scoops it up and presents it to me. Wow! I’m so honoured. I tie it to my camera case, and there it lives. I think of it as a shaman’s gift for my journey. Later when the dance is over he pulls off his mask to reveal his smudged skull face. I am kissed by death. It’s not an omen; it’s a benediction.
The Festival of Our Lord of the Conquest, held each year on the first Friday in March, completely fills the Jardin Principal and the streets adjoining it. There must be at least ten different dance groups. Hundreds of Chichimeca (a collection of different individual tribes) or conchero dancers come in from the surrounding towns.
The soundscape fills the air: the pounding of drums and the ceaseless rattle of ankle bracelets made of seedpods or shells. The dancing is infectious and intense. There’s a potency to the ritual that’s compelling.
I’m fascinated by the headdresses. The more elaborate ones have bird or animal heads, or skulls. There’s a toucan head, the head of a green parrot, and a hawk, all with feathers still intact, two jaguar heads one with the pelt of the forelegs draping down either side, a wolf, a couple of foxes, many animal skulls looking ferocious with bared teeth, and several (hopefully fake) human skulls.
Conchero dancing began as a way to preserve the indigenous heritage after the Spanish conquest of Mexico. The dancing could not be suppressed, and eventually became incorporated into Catholic holy days. They dance in honour of Christ of the Conquest, one of the most revered statues in La Parroquia. It is the same throughout Latin America, this blending of the indigenous and Catholic traditions, rituals, and celebrations. All the dancers at some point during the day enter the church to recite thirty-three prayers, one for each year of Jesus’ life.
The air is thick with the smoke and smell of burning copal, tree resin that is used as ceremonial incense. Every tribe has an altar, and at each altar people, instruments, clothing, and headdresses are cleansed by the smoke.
Through the haze of smoke and feathers:
Taking a break:
In stark contrast, the celebrations of Semana Santa (Holy Week) held during Easter are strongly Catholic. There is not a hint of indigenous influence.
His beard is grown especially for the parade. He wears a rough white tunic and rides a donkey. He is led by altar girls and boys, and is surrounded by the twelve apostles and dozens of other followers dressed as at the time of Christ. From time to time the followers shout “Viva Cristo Rey” – long live Christ King! They pass through the Jardin and on to the Church of San Francisco. While the church bells sound a clangorous welcome they file in for mass.
This is the first of two Palm Sunday Parades in San Miguel de Allende. The second is longer. It begins with altar boys and girls, and priests.
Then come the drummers, and the faithful carrying handcrafted palm offerings.
They are followed by four men carrying a huge statue of Christ on a donkey,
and by various community groups each carrying their own banner. More drummers and more of the faithful complete the parade. Everyone it seems wears a splash of red.
People come from all over Mexico and the world to experience Semana Santa in SMA where the final days of Christ’s life are reenacted in some detail and with great reverence. From Palm Sunday to the following Thursday there are five different parades, and on Good Friday there are three more. And of course fireworks just about every night.
Via Crucis – The Way of the Cross on Easter Wednesday
The main parade on Good Friday is the highpoint of religious observances. It begins at La Parroquia with the reenactment of the trial and sentencing of Christ by Pontius Pilot. Then the parade begins, led by Roman soldiers.
They are followed by angelitos strewing chamomile on to the pavement.
More Roman soldiers lead out two men. Each is dressed only in simple short white pants, his wrists roped to either end of rough wooden board that passes behind his back, his skin covered with “blood”. One of these men has traditionally been played by the priest since 1765. They are followed by more Roman soldiers and many penitents dressed in purple sackcloth. Each wears a crown of thorns and carries a whip and a skull. Finally another huge statue emerges from within the church. It is Christ weighted down by the heavy burden of the cross.
This is followed by about thirty children dressed in purple with an overlaying smock of white, a brass band, and three large statues of female saints including Mary. Hundreds of people take part in the parades of Semana Santa, and it is a time of great religious significance for the people of Mexico.
The parades and reenactments of Semana Santa didn’t resonate for me the way the indigenous festival did, but it was a great spectacle. What did resonate for me was the Easter Sunday explosions. It was time to burn the Judases!
I’m standing in the middle of Calle San Francisco on the north side of the Jardin. The crowds are gathered; the excitement and expectancy is palpable. In front of me there are four long ropes strung high above our heads from the building on one side of the street to the Jardin on the other. On each rope four or five life-size papier-mâché and crepe paper effigies are attached to the ropes and dangle above us. Each has a ring of fireworks around the waist.
Seven or eight more rest against the wall of the building waiting their turn to be strung up. What follows is a choreographed dance as a rope is lowered, a fuse is lit, the rope is raised again, and we watch as the fuse burns down, and begins to connect with the fireworks. We all watch in anticipation, almost holding our collective breath as the effigy begins to sputter and spin in a manic dance. Suddenly it happens. The explosion! And the crowd roars its approval every time! The pieces rain down onto the street and are collected in piles. At the end there will be a great scramble for the pieces. To take home a head is a special prize.
We are all waiting for Trump! We wait and wait as the other effigies are exploded. Maybe the organizers have a plan to do Trump last, but the crowd isn’t going to stand for it. By the time they have blown up about twenty the crowd waits no more. The chant starts softly at first and then quickly gets louder and louder until it is an undeniable roar: Trump Trump Trump! Trump Trump Trump! The handlers hear our plea. And the roar that goes up when Trump explodes is the loudest of all.
The effigies were originally meant to represent Jesus’ betrayer Judas Iscariot. The ritual began as a cautionary tale to the masses demonstrating what happens to you when you commit a sin. It was brought by the Spanish to the new world and was part of their efforts to convert the indigenous population. These days the effigies are more often comical characters or unpopular politicians.
And so on this riotous note more than a week of Semana Santa celebrations and rituals comes to an end.
Of course we find the best ice cream in town. Way down Zacateros, after it becomes Ancha de San Antonio, is Helados Santa Clara, serving ice cream and coffee. We’re there frequently and sink with our drippy sweet treats into the soft chairs in a dim corner way in back. I notice the photographs on the walls. They are of SMA streets, and they capture the feel of the old town with a silky depth. One in particular catches my eye. I want to see that street! I want to be there at sunset to get that same photograph!
Don goes on a scouting mission while I’m at home all wrapped up in pain. He announces he’s found a street near the Jardin that could be it. It’s important that there are no cars. So next evening I get a taxi there and get my shot. I know it’s not the same street, but it’s close enough. It has the atavistic feel and colour of SMA in the fading evening light.
Next time we are at Helados Santa Clara I’m looking at the photographs on the walls and some people sitting near us mention the name of the artist. They’re paintings! Later I go online and look at more of his work. It’s beautiful; I love it. I don’t remember his name. And we might never have found the street in his painting since it possibly doesn’t even exist, but what wonderful inspiration it proved to be.
Spring arrives, proclaimed by the jacarandas blooming purple all over town. We’d originally planned to spend five months in SMA, but after three months finally both of us are ready to go La Manzanilla. For our last night in town we go to the very swish Luna Rooftop Tapas Bar at the Rosewood Hotel. We eat in slow stages, enjoying the sheer luxury of the setting, and looking out over the magnificent views of San Miguel at sunset. Suddenly, as we’re about to leave, I see the city in whole new light.
Next post: SMA WTF!
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted © Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2016.