Gender & Identity, Life

The intensity of Spain’s religious celebrations surprised me

I had to learn that cultural symbols are not the same all around the world, even if they look like the KKK.

When I studied in Spain, my host mom warned me about Semana Santa, or the Holy Week celebrations before Easter. It’s one of the most religious periods of the year in this very Catholic country, which means that it’s a big deal. The devout organize elaborate, six hour long, sometimes lasting until 5 in the morning processions where they take the huge icons of Jesus and Mary out of the church and carry them through the town on the backs of a team of men. Nearly the entire church community, even the children, get involved in these processions, and the rest of the town turns out to watch.

Why would a celebration like this need a warning? It has to do with some of the traditional outfits for the processions. In particular it has to do with the capirote, the tall pointed hood that some of the faithful wear during the processions. In Spain it serves as a symbol of repentance, but to those of us who were raised in the US is eerily reminiscent of the outfits of the hate group, the Ku Klux Klan (or KKK).

“I just wanted to let you know that some of the students that I’ve hosted have had a negative reaction,” my host mom explained, “but you have to understand that for us it’s very religious, and totally the opposite of what it means to you.”

I live in the northern part of the United States, where the arson and lynchings and other horrible deeds done by the  KKK were not as common and sometimes feel far away both in distance and in time. Still I’ve studied enough history to be sensitive to this topic. So heading into my first procession I was unsure of what to expect. It was four in the afternoon, and my host mom was with me and a friend. She had taken us to a church, to see how the processions started because that, she said, was the best part. The icons were so tall that the men sometimes had to go through doorways on their knees so they wouldn’t hit the doorframe.

We got there early, and there was already a large crowd. The participants in the parade were milling around, preparing. Men in rich purple robes with gold embroidery headed toward the church. At one point, one stopped near us, to say hi to his sweetheart. People greeted each other. And as the start time came closer and I started to see the tall black hoods and wrestle with discomfort, this helped. When I knew that the people behind the hoods had girlfriends and were excited to see friends it made them more human, and less scary. I was also, quite frankly, glad that the first time I witnessed this was during the daytime.

It was weird to watch at first. Especially at night, the rows of silent, marching hooded figures were scary. But I just kept telling myself, “This means something different here. It’s not the same.”

Another moment that gave me a visceral, almost knee jerk reactions was seeing children wear the hood. When your first instinct is to think of acts of hatred it can make you think “Oh no, this is indoctrination.” And it is, but then you have to step back and remember that it’s for a religion, and not for something racist and bigoted. As a person of faith, knowing that it was for a religion helped me. And it was awe-inspiring to see that even children took this seriously and wanted to participate, despite the fact that these processions required serious effort.

By the end of four days of processions, seeing the hooded figures no longer made me think of the cultural associations in the United States. I was grateful to have the chance to see such an important part of Spain’s culture, and to have learned that sometimes even the worst symbols don’t have the same meaning all over the world.