Good Friday in Tzintzuntzan
On Good Friday, I had the good fortune and privilige to be able to experience the traditions that the pueblo of Tzintzuntzan have carried out for centuries to mark Viernes Santo (Good Friday).
My friend Norma had invited me to accompany her and her two children to spend the week of Semana Santa in Tzintzunztan. Her comadre is from this town and, like many Mexican migrants, has been able to construct a house in the center of the village (where we stayed) with the money she is earning in the USA. Comadre is a word for which we do not, I think, have a direct translation in English. It is used to signify the relation between a parent and a god-mother.
My friend Norma had told me that, as she is known in the town – through the friendship with her comadre – we would have the opportunity to witness the local traditions at close-hand over Easter. I did not, however, really know what to expect.
Tzintzuntzan, which means ‘Place of Hummingbirds’, in the local Purépecha language, is a small town situated on the east side of the Lago de Pátzcuaro in Michoacán. The sign at the entrance to the town says it has 2667 inhabitants, but I was told that was long out-of-date and there are now many more people living there. The population is primarily indigenous, belonging to the Purépecha people, who were the dominant group in this region before the arrival of the Spanish.
Tzintzuntzan used to be an important pre-Hispanic regional capital. The remains of five round temples still exist on the hill overlooking the town. When the Spanish arrived, they also at first made it their regional capital. They demolished most of the temples and used the stone to build one of the first churches in Mexico, the Templo de Nuestra Señora de la Salud.
The church contains a much-revered wooden image of Christ, called El Santo Entierro de Tzintzuntzan, lying in a glass coffin.
This image of Christ is believed to be growing, as evidenced by the extension, which has had to be added at the foot of the coffin. On the morning of Good Friday, he is carefully taken out of his glass coffin, ready to be prepared to be crucified later in the day.
The church that contains El Santo Entierro de Tzintzuntzan now exists within the four walls of the Ex-Convento de San Francisco, which was built to house the first Franciscan monks who came to Mexico.
The formal celebrations for Semana Santa start on Thursday evening, with a dramatic portrayal of the Last Supper. This takes place on a stage, situated just outside the ex-monastery. The drama starts again at around 10am on Good Friday, with a complete, four hour long staging of the Passion of Christ, with at least 50 participants and a large crowd.
The Passion concludes with a detailed re-enactment of the Via Crucis, where Christ walks around three of the four walls of the ex-monastery where the Stations of the Cross are located.
The events of each Station are carefully explained by a narrator. The suffering of Christ is vividly conveyed, not least because he is being brutally lashed by men playing the part of Roman soldiers. This lashing appeared to me to be real rather than purely symbolic.
As the Passion concludes, the wooden image of Christ is prepared for crucifixion in the church. He is strapped to a cross – believed to have been brought to the church by the Spanish in the sixteenth century – and raised up between the two crosses of Dismas and Gestas. I was told beforehand he stays there until 3pm, which is the hour believed to be the time that Christ died on the cross, but on the day everything was running late, and he did not get crucified until after 3pm. After a time on the cross, he is lowered and put back into his glass coffin.
Later, at nightfall, there is a candle-lit procession around town of Christ in his glass coffin, followed by 13 other images of Christ, (which each spend the rest of the year in various houses in the town), the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene and three angels.
Up until this point, all had seemed interesting and very moving in parts, yet still relatively familiar to me.
I had seen the penitentes in the morning, flanked by two helpers, who walk around the town, dressed only in a white loin-cloth and with their heads covered by a white cotton hood, with three small holes for their eyes and mouth. They walk with iron shackles and carry a begging bowl to ask for money for limosnas. I was told the shackles used to create profuse bleeding but, possibly because of the intervention of the government’s Commission on Human Rights, there is now scarcely any bleeding.
Around 9.30pm, I returned to the church.
It was crowded with people, mostly women, singing and praying with a deep sense of devotion. Money was being attached to the glass coffin, including a chain of dollars which stretched most of the way around the casket.
I walked outside the church to where the penitentes would be starting their night ritual. This comprised of running through the principal streets of the town, a distance of about 5 kilometers, carrying a large, heavy, coloured wooden cross, at least nine feet long.
Each person was accompanied by two helpers, one to guide the way, and the other to hold the cross at each of the 50 different ‘stations’ where the penitente would stop. At each of these, the penitente would pray, then engage in a curious, shuffling, and strangely rather camp dance, twice repeating two steps forward and two steps back, shrugging each shoulder in turn, whilst he flagellated himself eight times with a short, multi-tailed string whip to which nails were attached.
Just after 10pm, the first penitente emerged from the ex-monastery, dressed as the penitentes I had seen in the morning – but without shackles – accompanied by one companion. He went to the doors of the church of San Francisco, which is attached to the monastery, prayed, then walked to the nearby point where about 40 large crosses were stored. Here he was given a cross by another person who became his second helper.
Carrying the cross on his shoulder, with its end trailing the ground, he set off running along the path through the atrium of the monastery, to the first station, where he stopped, prayed, did the strange dance whilst he flagellated himself. He then went though a door to emerge on the street outside, where he encountered his next station and performed the same sequence of praying, dancing and self-flagellating.
I stayed a while at the start of the ritual, watching people emerge every few minutes or so, praying, collecting their cross and then running off. After a time, I decided to follow the penitentes to see where they were going. This led me eventually to walk the whole of the route through the town.
Every so often, sometimes at short distances of ten meters or so, and other times at longer distances, there was a station. Each station was constructed and decorated differently. Some were simple and others very elaborate. Most were attached to the walls of houses, but some were outside the house, and others, such as in the photo above, made use of local landmarks.
At each of these stations, the penitentes stopped. Their cross was held by one of their companions, whilst they went through the identical ritual of praying, dancing and self-flagellating. As time went on, blood started to flow on their backs.
Usually by each station, there was group of people watching, dressed in warm clothing and with blankets. As the route, though, extended further away from the main street, there were fewer people, and the penitentes seemed increasingly alone and isolated in their activity, apart from their two companions.
Without having intended to, I became completely absorbed in the ritual. I stayed with one penitente for about fifteen stations, until he arrived at a chapel which marked the point of the route furthest away from the starting point. Each penitente entered the chapel on his knees, carrying the cross, and approached the altar where again they prayed, danced and flagellated themselves. They then exited the church on their knees. Here, and at every point on the route, if they met another penitente, each handed their cross to one of their helpers, and acknowledged the other penitente with a nod.
I followed various penitentes on the return route to the church, noting particularly the contrast between the mundane and the miraculous in the station that was in front of the house where I was staying.
By now, at 2am, back at the starting point outside the ex-monastery of San Francisco, the penitentes were still emerging to begin their journey. The nearby church was still full, with mainly women praying, chanting, and keeping a vigil over El Santo Entierro de Tzintzuntzan.
I decided to go back to the house were I was staying. I drifted off to sleep, yet, for the next three hours, could intermittently hear through my sleep the rasping sound the crosses made as they were dragged along the ground outside. I also had the most extraordinary dream, which I woke from at 5.30am.
As I could not get back to sleep, I got up and returned to the church.
It was still full, and the last of the penitentes were returning, entering through the side entrance of the church, walking on their knees carrying their cross, to one of the last stations in front of El Santo Entierro de Tzintzuntzan. After completing their ritual here, they then exited the church through its main entrance, completed two more stations on the wall of the ex-monastery, before reaching the final station at the point where they began at the door to the church of San Francisco.
From here, they walked back into the entrance of the ex-monastery, where later they emerged, now changed into their normal clothes. I sat down outside the entrance, where a group of men were gathered. I noticed two older men were doing most of the organizing and checking names on a list. I began to talk to them about what I had witnessed. It turned out that one of them had been the mayordomo of this event, ten years ago, and he talked to me about the responsibilities of the mayordomo and his fellow organisers.
He said that each year the new mayordomo proposed himself. It was normally someone with sufficient resources to carry out the duties, who also had a manda to fulfill. A manda is a promise made to El Santo Entierro de Tzintzuntzan in return for a miracle carried out or a petition fulfilled. It is this same idea of manda, that the penitentes are fulfilling. If I understood him correctly, one of them told me that the manda is for three consecutive years. After completing this, they can continue with the same activity of being a penitente, but they do the route of the 50 stations in the opposite direction.
The mayordomo gathers together five people to help him. One of them, and the next most important person after the mayordomo in the hierarchy of organizing, is called El Centurión.
This is a strangely dressed figure I had seen earlier, first at the end of the procession following Christ as he traversed the Stations of the Cross. Here the figure was dressed in a white dress mounted on a horse, with a long white conical hat, topped off with a large peacock feather.
Later, after the crucifixion, the figure appears in similar dress, but in the black of mourning, and spends the night in the church in vigil at the foot of the cross. Given the odd appearance of this figure, I thought that it might represent the incorporation of pre-Hispanic elements into the Catholic culture. El Centurión represents the Roman soldier whose servant was cured by Christ and became one of his early followers.
I was informed by the two older men that 242 men had completed the journey this year. I asked if this was typical and was told that some years there were more and some less. Later, I heard that sometimes people are still running though the streets carrying their crosses past 7am. This year, the last person returned just before 6am.
At this point, all the men who had participated as penitentes walked in four lines to the church for a short service of thanksgiving. To my surprise, I was invited by the ex-mayordomo to accompany them. I felt somewhat fraudulent as I walked alongside the men who had undergone this remarkable journey to the foot of the glass coffin, where each person kissed the crown of El Santo Entierro de Tzintzuntzan, and received a postcard with his image.
As we exited the church by the side door, the ex-mayordomo asked me if I wanted to help return the crosses from where they had been left, to another site within the ex-monastery walls. I went with him and was helped to load a cross onto my shoulder. Someone else carried the other end. I walked about 50 meters carrying the cross in this way. It was excruciatingly heavy – even within this short distance, I could feel my shoulder starting to ache.
In a small way, I began to have a greater appreciation of the remarkable effort and committment made by the 242 men in their night-time journey.
A few days later, I spoke with a Mexican friend about what I had witnessed. She disliked intensely the blood and self-inflicted suffering. She saw the event as part of the oppression of indigenous people by the Catholic church, and believed that Mexico should be advancing in other directions. I agreed with her that this was certainly one way to understand the events of Good Friday in Tzintzuntzan.
I thought, however, there were other dimensions present too. The ritual evoked some of my own experiences of, and reading about, rites of initiation. I considered it could give participants access to other, transcendental realms. She was not at all convinced that this was what was happening. We both agreed that it would be necessary to try and understand what meaning the participants themselves made of and gave to the experience.
Next year I hope to return.