Today, Palm Sunday, marks the beginning of Holy Week for Catholics around the world. Two of my most memorable trips to Spain took place during Holy Week. I’ll never forget the first time I saw the Spanish penitentes. They walked in procession in black and purple velvet robes, some hooded, others wearing cone-shaped hats. With their faces covered they carried huge candles. I felt as if I were at some type of Ku Klux Klan gathering. My son, Emilio, was 3 at the time. The hooded men scared him and he wouldn’t leave my side the entire time. He kept referring to the penitentes as “the witches.”
Throughout history Spanish penitentes have frightened some people. In the book, My Penitente Land, by Fray Angelico Chavez, the author makes reference to a passage by Miguel de Cervantes. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza come upon a procession of penitentes. Don Quixote mistakes them for evil masked knights who were kidnapping a noble lady. The lore of the penitentes, some of it factual, most of it fictional, will always be a part of the 650-year-old confraternity.
Semana Santa en Sevilla
In Spain you don’t have to be overly devout to be inspired by the religious fervor and history of the region. The sense of community that takes place in southern Spain at Easter is contagious. The Spaniards of Andalusia demonstrate their religious faith with the same zeal and conviction that most probably existed on La Via Dolorosa during the actual Crucifixion.
New Mexico’s Penitentes
In New Mexico the penitentes continue to play an important role in their communities. Their moradas (meeting places) come to life during Holy Week. The roadside memorials found all over New Mexico known as decansos are attributed to the penitentes. The penitentes mark the ground with stones or crosses during Holy Week as they visit the various moradas. While carrying large crosses they stop periodically to pray. These stops are a form of the descanso, a resting place.