Interviewing One of the Penitentes and My Last Day in Mexico

Yesterday I had spent my day in Taxco for the famous happenings of Semana Santa. I watched two religious processions: at noon time there was the Las Tres Caídas procession and at 5 pm I watched El Santo Entierro (The Holy Burial).

These processions in Taxco are famous for the penitentes – repenting sinners – who walk through town in black robes with their heads covered with black hoods. The mostly female animas are shackled with chains at the feet, carrying candles and have to walk in a bent over position for a good portion of the procession which lasts for hours. Men either carry heavy bundles of thorny blackberry bush stalks (encrucijados) or they carry heavy crosses and flagellate themselves until their entire back is bloody (flagelantes). Last night there was one more procession at midnight, but I simply didn’t have the emotional stamina to get up in the middle of the night to watch what was going to be a rather eerie performance involving pain and suffering.

Statues of the 3 types of penitentes in Taxco

This morning I got up and sat a bit on my hotel’s balcony and just enjoyed the beautiful view of Taxco, this old mining city that is patched up against the hillside. I enjoyed my breakfast buffet in the restaurant at the Posada de la Mision, looking right at Taxco’s panorama, and started strolling into town.

The town was alive again. Yesterday, on Good Friday, the town had this really somber atmosphere, all the stores were closed, there was no music, traffic was shut down, hardly anybody spoke. Today, the town was back to normal. Stores were open for business, people were out in full force, children were laughing and the VW Kombi busses and beetle taxis were back to transporting locals to and from their errands. The city was alive again…..

After downloading my photos at a local Internet café I strolled through the markets to pick up a couple of presents for my two local friends – Marta Elena and Roxana who had been so kind to me during the last couple of weeks and we had developed a real closeness.

Street scene on the Zócalo in Taxco

Taxco is a great place for shopping. Being a silver city it is of course most well known for its handcrafted silver jewellery that can be bought in what seems like hundreds of retail stores or street market stalls. But jewellery is always a question of personal taste, so instead I decided to pick up two beautiful very large painted ceramic plates with a design of the Aztec calendar which I thought would be a beautiful addition in a living room or even on an outside wall in one of Cuernavaca’s beautiful tropical gardens.

With my shopping spree completed, I headed back to the Posada and met Fabiola again who had shown me around town last week when I first visited Taxco. She asked me how I enjoyed the processions and I told her that I found them extremely interesting but rather eerie. She commented that for a local person from Taxco these processions are just a normal part of their lives, they grow up with them and the locals are not affected by them emotionally as I was yesterday.

She said that she knows someone who actually participates in the procession every year and she was wondering if I would want to interview this person to get a better understanding of this unique Tasqueñan ritual. Of course I said yes, so she made a phone call and said I would be able to meet this person at the hotel at about 1 pm. I was really excited about her suggestion, because this would allow me to find out more about this unusual tradition.

Traffic chaos in Taxco

With a couple more hours to spare I went into downtown Taxco again and took one of the VW Kombi buses up to the top of the mountain to enjoy the wonderful panoramic vista over this beautiful city one last time. I hadn’t counted on traffic though, which was really bad, especially since Saturday is market day. The city was just hustling and bustling with merchants, shoppers and general onlookers.

What had taken me 15 minutes in a VW Kombi bus last week took me 45 minutes today with the enormous traffic jam that had unfolded all throughout the city of Taxco. I got back to the Posada 15 minutes late and my interview partner, “Lauro Castillo” was already waiting for me. He told me that this was not his real name, and that the participants in the processions, which are all part of Roman-Catholic “hermandades” (brotherhoods) do not use their real names since they have to preserve anonymity.

So Lauro started educating me about the ritual of the penitentes in Taxco. He mentioned that you can enter one of the hermandades at age 18, and reaching full membership takes a multitude of steps. Of course you have to be Roman-Catholic, pay an initiation fee and perform various community duties and fulfill particular educational obligations, including bible study. You must also agree to adhere to a certain honourable code of conduct.

Two little angels are watching the procession

Lauro went on to explain the different types of penitentes that appear during Taxco’s Semana Santa processions. He mentioned that animas can be male or female, while encrucijados and flagelantes are exclusively male. Lauro has participated in the processions over the last 20 years and has covered all 3 versions of penitentes. He said that when he participated for the first time as an encrucijado, when his helpers lowered the heavy roll of thorny blackberry stalks on his back and it touched his skin, a sharp pain radiated throughout his entire body, but his body actually became numb to the pain after a while. The thorn bundle itself weighs between 50 and 70 kg, so it is indeed extremely heavy.

As our conversation continued, Lauro also told me about his first time participating as a flagelante. He said that the first time he participated, flagellating himself every time the procession stopped, he felt nothing, no pain whatsoever. He figures it was the adrenaline and nervousness that prevented him from feeling any painful sensations. Every year since then, however, he says that every strike of the nail-studded whip actually hurts.

I asked him what people do after they participate as flagellants, and he said they clean the wounds very carefully and sleep on their stomach for several days. He also explained that the animas, the men and women who walk the procession in shackles, have to walk bent over most of the way. When they finally stand up straight again, the spine actually makes cracking sounds since it has gotten used to that bent-over position. Afterwards the animas have to get massages to placate their back muscles to get back to normal again.

The self-flagellation had just started…

He explained that not all the participants of the procession actually finish it, they may actually disappear in one of the churches along the route and be replaced by another penitent who continues to carry the thorn bundle or the heavy cross. And since everybody is wearing hoods and there are hundreds of participants, the audience never actually knows that a participant has been replaced.

Lauro continued that there are about 12 brotherhoods in Taxco and that there are several hundred members. According to him, membership in these hermandades and participation in the processions is actually growing. During Easter Week there are numerous processions, some as short as one hour, and some lasting up to five or six hours. Participating as a penitent in Taxco’s Easter processions is considered a great honour, and he said people from all walks of life participate, from peasants to senior city officials. But the key is that everyone remains anonymous.

When I asked him what motivated people to participate in these somewhat masochistic traditions he explained that when you grow up in Taxco, it is just part of your surroundings and you are exposed to these processions every year since you are a child. He said that some people participate because they might have a sick family member and they consider their role as penitent an offering to god. Others might have committed acts that they regret and they are literally trying to repent for their bad deeds. Lauro also explained that the traditions of pain, physical suffering and religious offerings pre-date the Spanish era all the way back to the ancient Indian tribes of Mexico who also practiced human sacrifices.

The Santo Entierro procession is just about to leave

In his case he explained that he was always impressed with the strong men who carry the thorn bundles or the heavy crosses. And their psychological ability to handle pain was another factor that made them almost seem like super-heros, and that’s why he decided to join one of the brotherhoods himself and become a penitent. Even last night Lauro participated in the Santo Entierro (Holy Burial) procession as an encrucijado, carrying the heavy bundle of thorns, and today he was back to work and you would never even know. He said you can participate in up to 2 Easter week processions every year, and this year he has also participated in two different ones. With around 20 years of experience as a member of one of the brotherhoods, Lauro has participated actively in about 40 different processions and he is now a very respected senior member of his hermandad.

I felt very privileged to actually be able to talk to one of the participants in these processions. These Semana Santa rituals in Taxco are a very mysterious and time-honoured tradition and the religous brotherhoods are almost like secret societies, so I considered myself very lucky to have had a chance to find out more from one of the actual participants in these unique rituals.

Well, my time in Taxco had come to an end, as was the case with my time in Mexico in general. I was waiting for my bus back to Cuernavaca which ended up being delayed by 45 minutes because of the heavy traffic in the city. I arrived about 40 minutes late in the Cuernavaca bus station and I already saw Marta Elena’s jeep in the parking lot. She had come to pick me up which was such a nice gesture.

Having to say goodbye to beautiful Taxco

We spent a couple of hours in the garden of her lovely B&B and we caught up on everything that has been going on. She was very interested in hearing about my experiences in Taxco and I think she appreciated the ceramic plate with the Aztec calendar that I had brought for her.

Marta Elena had invited me to spend my last night at her beautiful house and I said that it would be my pleasure to invite her out for a nice dinner and it would be her pick. So Marta Elena chose one of the well-known restaurants in Cuernavaca, called “La Gaia”, just minutes from the Palacio de Cortés.

“La Gaia” is an upscale restaurant that is located in an antique villa with an interior courtyard that is centered around a pool. The architecture features rounded arches, stuccoed walls and columns and the restaurant is decorated with beautiful paintings by local artists. The atmosphere was wonderful.

Both Marta Elena and I chose the ravioli with portobello mushrooms as the main course which ended up being delicious. I also had a house salad with Roquefort, pears and walnuts to start and we capped our dinner off with a dessert sampler which included a variety of tasty treats.

Our dessert sampler at La Gaia

After our noble dinner we strolled across the street to the mercado de artesanía (the Cuernavaca craft market) and had one last look at the local Mexican crafts and I purchased a few more small ceramic souvenirs for my friends back home. I was just slightly sentimental at the thought that my wonderful time in Cuernavaca and Mexico in general had come to an end. On the other hand I had already started to look forward to my life back in Toronto.

Well, it’s time to head to bed, I’ll be up tomorrow morning at 4:30 am, bright and early to catch my Pullman de Morelos bus back to Mexico city for my flight home. Marta Elena, being the ever gracious hostess that she is, offered to drive me to the bus terminal early in the morning and two new friends will have to say goodbye. (But we promised to reunite when Marta Elena travels up to Toronto in September to visit her son. Then I will have a chance to show her through my city…).

It’s been a wonderful, eventful and action-packed 18 days and it’ll take me quite a while to process it all…..


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