Those Who Carry Virgins

In honor of semana santa and the fact that I have absolutely no time lately, I’m going to do a repost from last year, which, now that I think about it, might have been a repost from 2012. Anyway, I really love this interview that I did with my friend Jesus, a passionate costalero, and it’s definitely worth a read if you have a moment.

“I am a costalero for Her … for Her, because I love Her.”

As the Iberian Peninsula continues to suffocate from a never- ending mix of a smothering economic crisis rife with political scandals and graft accusations within the royal family, Spaniards are preparing to celebrate the most anticipated week of the year, Holy Week or Semana Santa.

Source:Luis Fernández García
Source: Luis Fernández García

However, as evidenced by the multitudes of protests and repeated calls for political resignations, it’s not a far stretch to say that the general population has clearly lost its patience and faith in the Spanish system, which, for many, may never have been that strong to begin with.

This year, as religious processions hauntingly glide through narrow Spanish streets, many may be asking themselves if the current political ills of the nation have managed to sap the faith of even the most devout Spanish Catholics.

And while more than a few pious elderly señoras may insist that now, more than ever, is the time for prayer, the popularity of the church has diminished greatly in correlation with Spain’s economic crisis. A germinating impatience with the Catholic Church has been growing among the general public due to the church’s influential role in politics and even more so, the handsome tax breaks the Catholic Church receives while painful cutbacks have been demanded of Spanish citizens.

As Holy Week approaches this year, will the current political backlash against Spain’s status quo manage to extinguish Spain’s historically prevalent religious fervor as well?

Not likely.

For anyone who has experienced Holy Week in Spain’s Andalusia region, it’s clear that religious zeal still exists, especially among the elderly and even among the younger crowds, if only for this special week. With masses of locals and tourists cramming elbow to elbow to solemnly watch as the heavy wooden platforms (pasos) are carried by packs of hidden costaleros, this week is an inspirational one, to say the least. Even for the most resolute non-believer, Spain’s processions are a sight not only to be seen, but a tradition to be respected and admired.

The Faith Found under the Throne

But what actually goes on behind (and under) the scenes of these revered possessions? Just who are these devoted Spaniards who train for months to blindly carry these weighty “thrones” laden with heavily decorated statues of Jesus and Virgins? Where does this devotion come from and why, in this day and age of ever-growing faithlessness, do these men commit to bearing the weight of these iconic symbols on their shoulders year after year?

To find the answers I was looking for, I simply did what the reason for the season suggests, I turned to Jesus. Well, not that Jesus. Jesús Llorens, a 31 year-old costalero who has graciously agreed to explain the process behind the Spanish procession and give us some insight to his 13 years under the throne as a costalero in Granada, Andalucía.

Jesús, how long have you been a costalero? Tell me a bit about the process of becoming a costelero.

Jesús: I’ve been a costalero for 13 years. I began when I was 18 years old because my parents wouldn’t let me start any earlier. In all of the brotherhoods (cofradías), if you want to be a costalero, you have to be 18 or have parental permission.

Before I became a costalero, I did a little bit of everything in the church. I lit candles as a monaguillo, carried candles as a nazareno, helped organize mass as a mayordomo and carried the insignia of the brotherhood as a portador de insignia. During my time spent in the church when I was young, I met the costaleros and they were a big inspiration for me. It’s an amazing experience and I’ll continue to be a costalero until my body won’t let me.

I think one is born a costalero and you start little by little at a young age. When you’re young, you see the older costaleros walking past during the processions or you watch how they build the wooden thrones or how they use small tables to practice. When you’re finally at the age when you can participate, that’s all you think about.

What is your brotherhood?

Jesús: I belong to a total of 4 cofradías. In Granada, I’m in the Cofradía de La Entrada de Jesús en Jerusalén, the Cofradía de la Humildad, and the Cofradía del Resucitado. I’m a costalero for all of these. In Seville, I belong to the Hermanad del Beso de Judas, although I’m just a brother, not a costalero.

Explain to me the different methods of carrying “the paso”.

Jesús: Well, there are different ways of carrying the thrones depending on the city. In Malaga, there are hombres de trono, who carry the thrones using outside supports. They carry with one shoulder and there are normally quite a few of them.

Spain's processions
Rolling the “Costal”

Costaleros are completely under the throne and carry the weight on the nape of the neck, specifically over the seventh vertebra. We wear something called a “costal”, which helps the pressure. It’s usually made of sack cloth and a pillow that is rolled in fabric to protect the neck. For centuries, this is how it was done in Seville and for the last 30 years, it has become common in all parts of Andalucía. However, each city has its own distinct customs. For example, the pace and rhythm is different from city to city, like los horquilleros in Cádiz or the way that the throne is carried also differs like la molía in Xerez.

What are the preparations before Holy Week like? How long do you prepare physically? Do you have any personal rituals before the big day?

Costelero practice session, Spain
Costalero practice session

Jesús: We start preparing for Holy Week around Christmas time. There is always a first meeting sometime in November in order to coordinate the practice schedules and talk about important dates pertaining to the brotherhood.

From Christmas to Holy Week, each brotherhood organizes events to encourage participation, social gatherings, expositions, trips, and of course, various masses and special devotions for Jesus and the Virgin that represents each particular brotherhood.

The physical preparation is very important because we carry the throne for many hours and if one is not prepared physically, they’ll suffer for that lack of strength. Personally, I normally exercise all year, but when we begin the practice sessions, I really start to work on strengthening my legs, back and abdominals. These are the areas that suffer the most and where costaleros have to strengthen the most before Holy Week starts.

As far as personal rituals go, the day before I meet with all of my friends and we talk about the big day. Other than that, I just try to get everything prepared and rest.

Where does religion fit in with the practice of being a costelero? When you’re underneath, what do you think about? Is this a personal religious experience for most or is it more of a social event?

Jesús: Clearly, to be religious or a believer is a very important part of being a costelero. At those moments when your strength fails, you think about what you are carrying on top of your shoulders. I don’t know why, but it gives you an extra bit of motivation and you find strength that you didn’t know you had.

DSC_0188I know people that are costaleros because of the brotherhood; the union and the friendships that are created underneath the throne are very important. In fact, my best friends, the ones I call “brothers,” I’ve met under the throne.

Our processions last typically seven hours. So, when you are underneath you have time to think about many things. Many times, while you’re walking and listening to the music around you, you pray, or you think about your family and friends or a loved one, or someone close to you that you have lost and you dedicate that moment to them. In other moments, you concentrate on what you are doing. For example, when you are doing a complicated, tight turn, it’s important to know what you have to do to help those around you.

Other times, you simply close your eyes and let yourself be carried away by the moment. The band that is behind you is playing a piece of music that you will always remember, the smells that come from the procession: a mix of incense and fresh flowers, the cries of the people commenting on how well we are doing or how beautiful the Virgin is. Sometimes, you block everything out and just hear the simple sounds of the throne itself, the creaking wood or the sound of the Virgin’s canopy swaying back and forth.

Of course, there are a few costaleros that do this as a hobby, like a sport. But I have always been told that to be a good costalero, aside from wanting to be a costelero, you have to feel it; you have to know your own motives for doing this and for committing yourself to suffer under the throne for hours in the name of Jesus or the Virgen.

There is a quote from a book written by Father Ramón Cué that reflects this sentiment well, “I am a costalero for Her … for Her, because I love Her.” The most important thing to remember in this entire process – in what I call “our blessed madness” – is what you carry on top of the throne.

Can you walk me through the day of the procession?

Jesús: The first thing you do as a costalero on the day of the procession is open the window and check to see if it’s sunny or cloudy outside. If it’s already raining, the cofradia won’t even start the procession. If it’s not raining, from the time I wake up until its time to leave for the church, I’m very nervous, I hardly eat anything, and I’m pretty quiet. I start to think how the day will be, which streets I’ll pass, what music I’ll hear.

When its time to leave, I get dressed in silence and remember to grab my good luck charms, a handkerchief, a medal, and a photograph. Once I’m dressed and ready to go, I give my mother a kiss and leave to meet the rest of the costaleros so we can walk together to the church.

The costaleros have to be there about an hour before the paso is scheduled to leave the church. We need time to put on the costals and the back braces. Once we are ready, we enter the church where we say a final prayer before leaving.

The most emotional moment is right when they open the doors of the church and the light from the street illuminates the interior of the church. This brief moment is something very special because just when the light hits you, you also hear the applause from the people outside who have been waiting for the doors to open for quite a while.

Spain's Holy WeekOnce outside, everyone follows the instructions given by the supervisor, or el Capataz. The weight of a throne can be anywhere from 1500-2000 kg depending on the confradia. Typically, a throne with the Virgin on top can weigh anywhere between 1000-1500 kg. A typical route for my cofradia can last about seven hours, but there are some that last 12 or 15 hours.

Every city has its series of streets that each procession has to pass through. This is referred to as the Official Route and it passes by the Cathedral where the city’s Archbishop says a prayer as the processions pass by.

Once finished with the Official Route, each cofradia returns to their own church. This trajectory is where we experience the most intense moments, because you are able to go a little more slowly and you can enjoy the walk a bit more. When you go slower, people start to gather behind the throne, mimicking the rhythm of the costaleros, following you until you enter the church. This is what’s known as a “bulla” and it’s a very beautiful moment for all of us.

Finally, when everything is finished and the throne is placed inside the church, we say a prayer giving thanks to a job well done. We congratulate each other and the supervisors who have lead us through the streets. At the end, you always leave with a flower from the throne.

Spaniards have some pretty colorful vocabulary sometimes. Tell me the truth, do people swear under the thrones or is that inappropriate?

Jesús: Well, sometimes it’s just inevitable that someone uses a strong curse word here or there, especially when you’ve just passed a difficult street or you’re doing something really hard that requires a lot of strength and you’re suffering. But, if someone says something really inappropriate, they’re reprimanded quickly because, well, it’s just not the place to say some things.

At its heart, Holy Week is an ostentatious dedication to Spain’s strong Catholic roots. However, its many roles are more diverse and complex than the elaborate processions themselves. Despite economic and political troubles that seem to plague Spain on a permanent basis, Holy Week will always be a powerful key in building and restoring community spirit not just for religious celebration, but to take politics out of the spotlight, even if it’s just a brief period of time. Surely, this year, more than a few prayers for seemingly out-of-reach prosperity will be whispered as the processions pass by, but it’s health and happiness that’s on the mind of most Spaniards this week, not economics.

Thank you to my friend, Jesús, for sharing this unique glimpse into the underworld of Spain’s Holy Week Processions. As he has described, this is a massively respected event that entails months of planning and quite a bit of suffering for those physically involved.

Holy Week is an essential part of Spain’s identity and for anyone doubting the existence of Spanish faith, one shouldn’t look much further than a dedicated costalero, who carries 1000 kilograms of it on their back.

Semana Santa 2012, La Hermandad de la Cañilla, Granada

Practice Session – Cañilla, Granada

Practice Session – Virgen de la Paz Granada

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15 Responses to Those Who Carry Virgins

  1. Fascinating! I am so, so far from being capillita, despite living in the epicenter of Holy Week, but find myself wanting to know more as time goes on. Sharing!

    • Hamatha says:

      Thank you, Cat. You know, my first Semana Santa was in Seville and I’ll never forget it – it was incredible. I’m not very religious at all and we’re usually out of town this time of year. But if we’re here, I get totally caught up in the spirit of the week. That, and the days off, of course! ;)

  2. Christine says:

    Great post Hamatha!!!!

  3. I love the behind the scenes portion, what a great idea. I was wondering what went on and my kids even asked how old you need to be to carry the floats. We watched several this week in our little town. Now I can point them here! Thanks

  4. Elle Draper says:

    A superb article – am very happy to share it with our friends.
    Elle x

  5. Jill says:

    Very interesting behind the scenes insight. Here in Ayamonte (Huelva) the wet weather caused a number of cancellations, which are always a huge disappointment for the costaleros after so much preparation. We were able to visit the churches to see the pasos close up. The craftsmanship and intricate detail are wonderful.

    • Hamatha says:

      Hi Jill,

      Thanks for your comments! I absolutely hate it when it rains on Semana Santa, but for as long as I can remember, it always rains on Semana Santa! I feel terrible for the costaleros and the rest of the teams that work so hard to prepare. Oh well, maybe we could start a petition to change the date of Semana Santa to June? ;)

  6. Pingback: Celebrating Madrid's Semana Santa » Pass the Ham

  7. Mo says:

    A wonderful in-depth look at what we rarely see, the people carrying the pasos. Well done, a very interesting read.

    • Hamatha says:

      Hi Mo,

      Thank you so much for your kind words! I’m glad you liked it. It was a lot of fun putting it together. :)

  8. Mike Booth says:

    My sincerest praise: I wish I had written this.
    P.S. I just linked to Pass the Ham from ¡Alegría! The Joy of Spanish Living. You’re in select company there.
    Keep up the silly work.

    • Hamatha says:

      Hi Mike!

      Thank you for your kind words (and the link)! Always good to hear that someone is not only reading Pass the Ham, but actually finding a little bit of enjoyment as well! :)

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