Holy Week

Cusco Palms

Selling palms for Palm Sunday in Cusco, photo by Judy Kalt Skeels

I’ve always been curious about the things people consider important enough to celebrate on a regular basis –  whether daily, weekly, or yearly. For example, when a person walks into a room on any given day in the cities of Bolivia or Peru, they’re expected to greet everyone in the room, with words, or often a hug and a kiss. Likewise, when they leave the room, they take leave of each person with words, a hug or kiss. Forgetting to do so implies coldness or a lack of respect. Greetings and leave-takings represent little micro rituals that tie people together. Depending on your comfort level, you can adapt and embrace these rituals and participate in them, or simply observe them from afar.

But what about the bigger rituals: the ones that happen on Sundays or holidays? I was really excited this year to be in the Andes for holy week, or Semana Santa. I knew this would be a big deal in any household. I decided it would be most fun to spend it in Chuquisaca with my friend Cristina and her family.


Maria Cristina and her daughter Natalie

Cristina grew up in the city of Sucre, the daughter of Quechua speaking parents who were also born in the area. Her mother still wears traditional dress and both parents speak Quechua at home more than Spanish. I knew that the family was devoutly Catholic, but I had never been to church with them or attended anything more than family gatherings. I was curious to see what mix of indigenous and European traditions would be practiced. I knew that all work would be canceled for the week in Cusco, Peru, and I thought the same might be true of Bolivia, but it wasn’t. Only Good Friday (the day of Jesus’ death) was a day off.

Thursday night after work, Cristina, her husband and children and I drove to a small patch of land they own on the outskirts of the city. The soil seemed rocky and rough, but they had a good five square yards or so of tall cornstalks and they wanted us to harvest it before neighbors and birds might come to help themselves. We selected the stalks that had ears of corn that were firm on top, and cut them at the base, then separating the stalks from the ears. The stalks would be sold for cows to eat, and we brought the ears to the car, driving home in the dark. They told me that we would be fasting in the morning, and traveling the ‘way of the cross’ up the hill in commemoration of the suffering and death of Jesus.


Marcelina and Aniceto, Cristina’s parents

At 4:30 in the morning, Cris and her kids and I walked up several streets until we came to the church, where thousands of people were gathering and a group of religious leaders, men and women, had begun to read prayers and meditations around cross and a rolling loudspeaker. This event, which started in the dark and cold and gradually emerged into a murky gray dawn, lasted several hours. Thousands of people of all ages followed the way of the cross up the hill, stopping at 12 stations to contemplate the events around Jesus’ death and their significance for our lives today. Frequent parallels were made between Jesus’ suffering, stumbling, anguish, torture and the difficulties and injustices of our everyday lives, addictions and deaths. There was also a great deal of emphasis on the role of Mary, Jesus’ mother and her own heartbreak and persistent love in the face of her son’s agony.

I found it challenging to focus on so much suffering while fasting in the cold and dark, far away from home. But I decided not to turn away from it or leave early, and I stuck it out until we arrived home four hours later, having met up with several of Chris’s siblings and their families who headed jubilantly back down the hill with us.

I thought about the gory movie about Jesus’ crucifixion and the sadistic and disturbing images it brought up even in the trailer. I also thought about the recent incident in Newton Massachusetts where an athletic team from a Catholic school shouted religious slurs against the Jewish community – calling them Christ killers. How ironic from a historical perspective, since Jesus himself was Jewish and was slain by the Romans. He was betrayed by his own friends as well as by religious leaders he had criticized – all in all a pretty mixed group.


Preparing humintas (corn cakes)

When we got back to Chris’s house, her mother and husband were already busy cooking up a storm. They told me that the tradition is to serve 12 different foods on Saturday to break the fast. Everyone in the family was expected to help prepare this meal. The most labor intensive and delicious food was made from the corn we had harvested the night before. They ground the kernels and saved the leaves to wrap humintas – the Andean version of tamales, corn mush with sugar and cheese, baked in the oven and steamed on the stove. We also ate a delicious squash and vegetable stew, spaghetti and meat dish, and three other foods I can no longer remember. I only remember being extremely full.

Easter itself was tame by comparison. Nobody got especially dressed up, but we did go to church. I don’t remember the service being especially exciting or inspiring. Cris led me into a side area to contemplate a life-sized mannequin of Jesus lying bloodied and dead in a glass coffin – which I found odd in relation to my own expectations of a Christian Easter, since I think of it as an occasion to cast aside death and contemplate spring, new life, rebirth, fertility. Afterwards we had yet another family feast, this time with grilled fish.


Esmeralda and Jorge grill fish for Easter

Strangely enough, in all my time in the Andes, I’ve spent more time in either Protestant or indigenous earth-centered ceremonies than in Catholic ones. I say strangely because Catholicism is the state religion here and the most widely practiced. I’m grateful to have spent this holy week with Cris and her big extended family – and most grateful for their enthusiastic sharing of every aspect of this festival.


Stations of the cross with traveling megaphone – dawn, Sucre

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