Sunday, April 5, 2020

Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Central America: a Collection

Sawdust Carpet,  Antigua Guatemala
Semana Santa (Holy Week) in the Latin American world is a visual spectacle. The processions and customs are magnificent and although they are sacred to Christian believers, belief is not a requirement for participation. 

Because of this year's Covid19 pandemic, Semana Santa observances will be different, cancelled in some places, limited in others, and in others, unchanged.  The motherland, Spain, is on lock-down and so its elaborate processions are cancelled.  In Antigua Guatemala, the famous sawdust carpets will not be built, although some families will be able to make small carpets outside of their homes.  

For a virtual tour of some of Central America's most famous and magnificent Semana Santa events, here are links to pieces and videos I have done in past years.  

Antigua Guatemala's famous sawdust carpets:   

Video of these carpets: 

Videos of several Holy Week Processions in Antigua, Guatemala: videos of several Holy Week processions

Antigua Guatemala processions

Article about a unique Holy Wednesday custom in Nandaime, Nicaragua.

The beautiful "Huertas" of Nicaragua:

The Sawdust Carpets of Sutiava (Leon) NIcaraga:
carpets of Sutiava Nicaragua

Granada Nicaragua's one-of-a-kind Via Crucis Aquatic, a procession done in boats on Lake Nicaragua. There is nothing else like it on earth.

An overview of the beautiful Holy Week events in Nicaragua:

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Jeweler to the Divine

Calle La Ronda, Quito, Ecuador
When, while walking down Quito's short Calle La Ronda, you hear the clinking of someone hammering metal, you have reached the studio Germán Campos Alarcon.  He is an orfebre, what in English we would call a metalsmith, and a very famous one at that. 

Germán Campos Alarcon, Orfebre
Señor Campos is a famous man in Quito.  Many tourists and locals buy his jewelry, but you will also find his clients in the very oldest, most historic churches of this colonial city.

In the Latin American world, it is customary to adorn statues of Jesus, Mary and the saints with gold or silver accessories to convey their divinity.   The gold crown-like ornament on this Holy Week image in Merida, MX is a physical representation of Jesus' spiritual powers, his holiness.

Jesus Nazareno, Holy Week Merida, MX
Puebla's Señora de los Remedios wears a crown, showing her position as Queen of Heaven and halo.
Figure of Señora de los Remedios, Puebla, MX
These figures are displayed for public adoration during Holy Week in Granada, Nicaragua.

Holy Week Figures, Granada, Nicaragua

Sr. Campos' busy studio is full of examples of his diverse work. 

Studio of Germán Campos Alarcon, Quito Ecuador

Studio of Germán Campos Alarcon, Quito Ecuador
Studio of Germán Campos Alarcon, Quito Ecuador
Studio of Germán Campos Alarcon

He does not only traditional Spanish Colonial-style metalwork, but is also known for his reproductions of pre-Columbian Ecuadoran artifacts.
Germán Campos Alarcon at work in his studio, Quito Ecuador

Making these beautiful objects is a complex process, as you might guess from the array of tools on his work table. Here are some wonderful videos that show Sr. Campos at work. You will see a master's hands transforming metal into objects of dazzling beauty and spiritual depth.

Monday, January 13, 2020

A 20th Century Institution: the Guadalupe-Reyes Marathon

Illuminated Guadalupe, Akumal MX
It's a rare opportunity to actually be able to observe the start of a new holiday since most religious holidays have their origins somewhere in the distant, mythic past, But not the case with this one, the Guadalupe-Reyes Marathon.

Mexican Promotional Poster for Guadalupe Reyes Marathon

The Guadalupe Reyes Marathon is not a religious holiday per se, but rather ties existing holidays in a new way.   Guadalupe Reyes came into being in the 1990's as a pop-culture event.  Someone saw the fun and profit in turning merging the independent end-of-the-year celebrations into one nonstop alcohol-fueled fiesta.  Something like this was probably already happening and advertisers saw the potential profit in it. The key idea of the marathon is to drink some form of alcohol every day of the event, which runs through December 12, the Feast of Guadalupe to January 6, Dia de Los Reyes and then further onto Candelaria (February 2).   Bars do a brisk business during this time period and the Guadalupe-Reyes Marathon is heavily promoted by Mexican tourism.

The Feast of Guadalupe

Novena for Guadalupe, Akumal MX

Altar at the Guadalupe Mass, December 12, Akumal MX

The Marathon begins with the Feast of Guadalupe, technically December 12  but with celebration ongoing for about a week before the actual date. Please refer to this link for a broader discussion of the beautiful ways in which this holiday is celebrated.

Below are photos of pilgrims on their journey for Guadalupe this past December.

Group of pilgrims near Tulum, MX
Solo Pilgrim near Tulum, MX
Pilgrim running near Tulum, MX
These photos above are of the personal pilgrimages people begin to undertake some time before December 11 to reach the actual Shrine of Guadalupe in Mexico City, if possible or to their home churches by that date in time for the 11 pm Mass. These are undertaken to fulfill "promesas" to Guadalupe, offerings made in turn for a something granted by her.  This link offers a closer look at these pilgrimages.

The Feast of Guadalupe does not end with the early morning religious service on December 12.  The partying continues throughout the day and although I did not know it at the time,  the folks in these trucks were among the many Mexicans starting the Guadalupe Reyes Marathon. 

Pilgrims after Guadalupe's Mass, December 12 Akumal,MX
Pilgrims after Guadalupe's Mass, December 12, Akumal,MX

Having a Christmas tree next to your statue of Guadalupe is a typical thing to do in Mexico.

Akumal, MX

The Posadas

Although the "posadas", the big Christmas celebrations, typically happen between December 16 and 24, they can begin sooner.  As I drove down a Quintana Roo highway, this past December 9th, I saw a huge of taxis parked along the side the highway.  

Parking for the Posada at the Sindicato de Taxistas, Playa del Carmen, MX
Parking for the Posada, Sindicato de Taxistas, Playa del Carmen, MX
Curious, I doubled back and went in to see what was going on. It was the annual posada for the Sindicato des Taxistas (taxi union) for drivers, other employees and their families. I couldn't go in, but there was a fiesta going on complete with rides for the kids.

This painting by famed Mexican painter Diego Rivera, shows a posada. Here the revelers are breaking a piñata, which is typically filled with sweets.

Posada by Diego Rivera

Here, two women are in the lengthy process of making a piñata for a posada. Piñatas are a year-round staple for Mexican parties, but the ones for Christmas are made to represent stars.  These women are going through the length process of covering the paper mâché 
base with decorative paper.

Women building a Piñata, Akumal MX
Piñatas and other decorations, Playa del Carmen, MX


Christmas Decorations Center of Playa del Carmen, MX

Christmas is a time for celebration with family and friends.  There is a mass and dinner Christmas Eve (Noche Buena) and some gifts are given at this time. Christmas Day itself tends to be quiet.

Dia de Los Reyes

Manger, Playa del Carmen, MX
The Three Kings arrive at the Manger, Playa del Carmen, MX

With Christmas and New Years Eve over the Marathon heads to  Dia de Los Reyes, which marks the arrival of the Three Kings to visit baby Jesus. This is the time when children receive most of their gifts, in remembrance of the gifts that the kings brought Jesus, and adults exchange gifts with each other. 

Rosca de Reyes in Mexican grocery store
Rosca de Reyes
These unique cakes are made for Dia de los Reyes and are called "rosca de reyes".  Inside of each of this cakes is hidden a small figure representing baby Jesus.  Cakes similar to this are found throughout Catholic Europe and the tradition of these cakes began in France or Spain sometime in the Middle Ages.

These cakes link Dia de los Reyes with the February 2 Feast of Candelaria, which commemorates the presentation of Jesus at the Temple and the Purification of the Virgin Mary.  The tradition is that whoever finds the baby in the Rosca is blessed, brings the figure to the church service on February 2 and is responsible for hosting a party for everyone that day.  Although Candelaria is not an official part of the Guadalupe-Reyes Marathon, the celebrating often keeps going until then.

Guadalupe-Reyes Today

Promoting Guadalupe-Reyes
The end of the year is a time of intensive celebration in many countries and Latin America seems to have a special flair for celebration.   Through the Guadalupe-Reyes Marathon, this long period of partying, drinking and celebrating has become a cultural institution with an independent identity and life of its own. 

Partly because of the drinking, there is a rise in traffic deaths in Mexico during the Marathon, although not all of it is attributed to the excessive alcohol consumption.  

Nowadays there are two sides to Guadalupe-Reyes. One focuses on the traditional goal of excessive alcohol consumption and partying, as in this humorous ad showing Lucha Libre wrestlers struggling to get to the end of the Marathon.

Getting to the Finish Line of the Guadalupe-Reyes Marathon
On the other hand, there is also a trend to awareness of the dangers of excessive alcohol and food consumption that are a part of the Marathon.

The Health Hazards of Guadalupe-Reyes Marathon, Mexico
The dangers of excessive alcohol consumption, Mexico

Thursday, November 28, 2019

The Truth About the First US Thanksgiving

Artists rendition of the First Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving Day is the iconic US holiday and is among the central founding myths of this country.  From time to time it is debunked as in Charles Blow's editorial in today's New York Times. But whatever really happened on that very first Thanksgiiving Day, there is a broader backstory that is too fascinating to be ignored. 

If you haven't already read my article from 2015, please take a look at it to see the unlikely but true role that the Spanish Colonial World played in the event-

Monday, October 21, 2019

Dia de los Muertos is Almost Here

Grave decorated for Dia de los Muertos, Oaxaca, MX
Dia de los Muertos Altar, Oaxaca, MX
Dia de los Muertos door decoration, Oaxaca MX
Dia de los Muertos Altar Items for Sale, Oaxaca MX
Dia de los Muertos, roughly Oct. 31-Nov.2, is fast approaching.  It is one of Mexico's most colorful holidays and a fabulous time to visit Mexico, if you can.   But if events keep you at home this year, you can enjoy the holiday second hand through this post. Please follow the link to see Dia de los Muertos as it is celebrated in different parts of Mexico.  Included is a link to a video of a rarely seen observation of the holiday in San Juan Chamula, Chiapas.

I hope you enjoy Dia de los Muertos as much as I do!

Sunday, October 20, 2019

All That Glitters is Gold: La Compania de Jesus, Quito Ecuador

La Compania de Jesus, Quito Ecuador
For many tourists, Quito is simply an overnight stop en route to the Galapos Islands and they have no idea of the city’s colonial riches.  Quito, along with Cusco in Peru, was one of the two main cities of the Inca Empire with which the Spanish fought for an extended period from 1532 util its eventual victory in 1572.

There are many colonial era treasures in Quito and most famous among them is La Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus which is also the least photographed, due the prohibition of tourist in the church.  I received special permission to photograph for educational purposes.  

Two Roman Jesuit churches, the Church of Gesu and that of Sant’Ignazio de Loyola, were the inspiration of the Quito Jesuit church, which was begun in 1605 and completed over a century and completed 160 years later in 1765.

Partial Ceiling and side view, La Romania de Jesus, Quito, Ecuador

Behind the stone façade of La Compania lies a glittering world; La Compania is sometimes call a gold box, and rightly so.  There is not a square inch in its interior that is not covered with elaborate carving, inlay and gold leaf.  As in so many Baroque churches, it is difficult to stay focused on any one detail, because the visual environment, with the Churrigueresque decorative style of the interior, is so extraordinarily complex, it is difficult to focus on any one thing. 

Front Altar and Nave, La Compania, Quito Ecuador

Front Altar, La Compania, Quito Ecuador
A Miraculous Image:
In the bottom tier of the altar there is a very significant painting, that of Our Lady of Sorrows.

Main Altar: Our Lady of Sorrows, La Compania, Quito Ecuador
This painting once hung in St. Garbriel's Academy, a Catholic boy's boarding school in Quito. On April 20, 1906, a boy noticed the eyes of this painting slowly open and close and this, seen by others as well, repeated itself for a period of about fifteen minutes and later on a few occasions. The church declared it miraculous and six weeks later, the image was carried in procession to La Compania where it now hangs on the main altar.

Marianna de Jesus:

Statue of Marianna de Jesus, La Compania, Quito Ecuador
Part of memorial to Marianna de Jesus, La Compania, Quito Ecuador
Mariana de Jesus, a 17th century Ecuadoran miracle-working holy woman, in1853 became first Ecuadorian to be canonized; she is the patron saint of Ecuador.  During the 1645 earthquakes and epidemics that followed, Mariana de Jesus is said to have publicly offered her life as a sacrifice for the salvation of the city. She died soon after and miraculous events accompanied her death including a white lily springing up from her blood.  Her remains are entombed at the base of the altar of her chapel in La Compania.

Tomb of Marianna de Jesus, La Compania, Quito Ecuador

Mudejar Elements:
Mudejar, (Spanish Muslim) architectural elements persisted in Spain and later in its colonies even after the country was re-captured from its former Moorish rulers in the Reconquista. Mudejar design is seen throughout La Compania as in other Spanish Colonial churches.  
For more information on this phenomenon, please read:

Mudejar architectural elements, La Compania Quito
Mudejar architectural elements, La Compania, Quito Ecuador
Mudejar elements around pulpit, La Compania, Quito Ecuador 
Mudejar elements in wall ornamentation, La Conpania, Quito, Ecuador

Arches also reflect Mudejar design.

Mudejar influences in arches, La Compania, Quito, Ecuador
Indigenous Elements:
As is typical in Colonial Latin American churches, indigenous influences are present, reflecting both the artistic hand and culture of the people these churches were built to serve.  Much of the artwork in colonial churches was made by local indigenous craftsmen trained in schools built by the Spanish  The carved figures in the first photo are not in a European style, but reflect local convention.

Figural group from altar carving, La Compania, Quito Ecuador

The ceiling of this baroque doorway with its Solomonic columns merges Christian and indigenous symbolism with a sun containing the Christogram IHS, the monogram that symbolizes Jesus Christ. This merging of the Christian and the indigenous was aimed at reinforcing an association in the minds of the newly converted people between Christ and local solar deities.

Entrance Doorway, La Compania, Quito Ecuador

Entrance Doorway Ceiling Detail, La Compania, Quito Ecuador

As is typical of Latin American colonial churches, La Compania has many side altars dedicated to various saints and all of them very are beautiful, Baroque and ornate.

Side Altar, La Compania, Quito Ecuador
Side Altar, La  Compania, Quito Ecuador
Side Altar, La Compania, Quito Ecuador
Side Altar, La Compania, Quito Ecuador
A Unique Trinity:
The altar dedicated to the Trinity is one of a kind.  You will see numerous and varied figural representations of the Trinity throughout Mexico and the rest of Latin American,  but this writer has never seen one showing Jesus as a child with his parents.

Altar dedicated to the Trinity, La Compania, Quito Ecuador
Many paintings by local artists are seen throughout the church. All of these artists were indigenous Ecuadorians trained by Spanish missionaries and there are important stylistic differences between these paintings and their European prototypes. 

From La Compania, Quito Ecuador
From La Compania, Quito Ecuador
From La Compania, Quito Ecuador
From La Compania, Quito Ecuador
From La Compania, Quito Ecuador

Password Protection 17th Century Style: the Missing Image
Sadly, there is no photo for what may be the most unique object in the church.  For background on the missing photo, while photographing anything in La Compania, it was mandatory to wear the photographer's vest used to identify officially-approved photographers.  Otherwise, photography is strictly forbidden. 

Photographer's Vest, La Compania, Quito Ecuador
When I was done photographing La Compania's glittering beauty, I returned my vest and paid  one of the guides for one of the short tours they offer.  My guide took me to some back rooms and in one I encountered something truly unique.

On a table was a very large square wooden box, several feet in width and length,  with many tiny drawers on each of its sides.  My guide told me that this was used both for safe-keeping items and in passing secret messages. There were special combinations for each drawer and the writer of the message would give the code to the intended recipient. Here, before my eyes was the "cloud", centuries before its time and it was a cloud that did not crash or get hacked.