Mexico, Photographs, Religion, Travel

Procesión del Silencio (A Photo Tale)

For once in my travels my timing is perfect, as I happened to be here in San Luis Potosí for their renowned Holy Week celebration, the Procession of Silence. (Actually my timing is doubly good, as I’ll also get to experience 5 de Mayo in two weeks.)

Holy Week is the week leading up to Easter and it’s a big deal everywhere in Mexico (and throughout the Catholic world). But the Procession of Silence is definitely an SLP specialty. Have you ever seen a parade that’s totally silent? How about one where the parade-goers are barefoot and bound in chains?

I never had either until last week on Good Friday.

There are other Processions in Silence in Mexico, but SLP’s is the biggest and most well known. Literally thousands of penitents march in it, wearing hoods to cover their sinful faces and carrying out the hours-long march to expiate their sins.

Be warned, fellow Americans, the hooded figures in this parade are not part of the organization you think they are:

Photo by André.

Penitents in the Procession of Silence. Photo by André.

The hoods are called capirotes and are a longstanding part of Catholic tradition. The entire Procession is modeled on one from Seville, Spain. Not everyone wears the hoods—and even less have chains on them—but everyone in the procession observes total silence. The only sound is the beating of drums and occasional fanfare of horns.

Well, that and all the spectators saying how cool it is.

Photo by André.

Women in the Procession. Photo by André.

Each group in the procession has its own take on the uniform. Some men wear red hoods, some wear black, some wear white. Some women dangle a rosary from one hand, others clutch a Bible to their breast. But while each group is different, the people within the group have practiced to military perfection. Every woman dangles the rosary exactly the same way. Everyone marches in step.

Some groups have a large corps of children preceding them. They, too, have drilled to lockstep precision. I can’t imagine how unpleasant the months of rehearsals must have been.

Each of the floats is carried by hand:

Float in the Procession of Silence. Photo by André.

Float in the Procession of Silence. Photo by André.

Coming from New Orleans, I have a lot of experience with parades. We take a lot of pride in our floats and costumes in the Big Easy. I was struck, however, by how much better (gasp) the Potosinos’ were. New Orleans floats can be complex and artistic, but they look like what they are: cheap decorative materials assembled by inebriated volunteers in their off hours. For the penitents in the Procession, these floats are their religion. No half measures. Every inch of every float is carefully handcrafted work of artisanship, without exception.

The costumes are also higher caliber, perfectly uniform across all members of a particular group and clearly meant for careful re-use year after year. It really was more like a uniformed army than a costume party.

Stations of the Cross. Photo by André.

Stations of the Cross. Photo by André.

I will say, however, all that religious fervor fails to beat out New Orleans in one crucial regard: the horns. After every two or three groups go by there’s a brass band in formation, trying to play solemn fanfares to echo across the march. They were terrible.

I don’t just mean “doesn’t live up to New Orleans standards.” That’s a pretty tough hill to climb. I mean, “Out of tune and out of sync.” There’s nothing like a dozen tinny trumpets hitting a flat note and stumbling over each other to do it, to really drive home that Jesus suffered for your sins.

I’m not really sure what went wrong with the horn section. It wasn’t just me; most spectators suppressed snarky comments while my local host gave me a look. Somehow, the Procession planners mananged to get 4,000 people to march in perfect lockstep for three hours, in flawless hand sewn medieval garb with gilded and rose-covered treasures lifted on their backs. But nobody drilled the brass sections in an actual march.

Anyway, it was still an amazing event and a breathtaking thing to behold. Our Temple used to organize large-scale public ceremonies and processions, which is rare in the highly individualistic polytheist community. I find something magical and powerful about people wearing the same uniform and doing the same thing together. Sometimes it means more to give up the sense of self and contribute to a group celebration.

Every so many drum beats the procession would halt. I got a chance to see many of the women’s faces (why is it the male sinners get to hide their faces but the women have to show theirs?). Not everyone looked happy. It must be hard doing what they were doing. But ultimately, the long hours over many months of rehearsal—and even the act itself—isn’t for them. You don’t join for your own gratification. You’re doing it for everybody else.

That’s how you beat your sins in Catholicism. Polytheists don’t have “sin” but I think we could learn from that.

Photo of the Week:

Jesus. Photo by André.

Jesus. Photo by André.

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4 thoughts on “Procesión del Silencio (A Photo Tale)

  1. Wow. That certainly would be an experience! I agree to how seeing a large group in unison in clothing and action being a very awing thing to behold. I think it is mostly so because that is not a normal thing to see in the first place – if it were something more common it would become mundane and something else would have to be done to create that sense of awe and greatness. And that would be hard to beat.

    It is curious that the men get to cover their faces, and wonder what the underlying reason is. In experience it usually has little to do with actual religious reasons, even though it often becomes the excuse.

    • Yeah, I think everyone in the Procession has a role to play, so to speak, and the uniform for most of the men just happens to be the capirote. There definitely was no element of shaming anyone in the parade; if anything we were all in awe of them.

  2. Pixi says:

    Andre, I am wondering why that particular photo at the end is the photo of the week?
    Just looking at it, it seems like kind of a blurry picture of part of one of the floats. I can’t tell who the figures on the float are (besides apparently Jesus), or what they are enacting. It is not as impressive of a picture as, say, the first float picture which has the church and procession in the background. So, why that one?

    • Fair enough. Honestly I had a hard time with all the pictures; in order to get good exposure at night needed to have a shutter speed of 1/5 of a second or longer, which is a very long time for the shutter to be open. The result is that if I photographed a still image it is fine, but photographing moving things (like most of the parade) resulted in blur.

      Most of the photos in this post were captured when the parade was halted between steps, allowing (relative) non-blur… although they are all blurrier than I would like.

      The last picture, however, is one of several that I captured by trying something different: I moved the camera at the same speed as the parade as the parade went by. If I got the pacing right then the result is that the parade (which is moving) looks un-blurry, and the background (which is stationary) has motion blur. If you look at that last picture the buildings and crowd are blurred out completely, as if the parade float and me are zooming past them together.

      Admittedly, I didn’t do it perfectly, with the float still looking a tad blurry, but it was one of the best of the shots I tried like this. And I just really love the weird motion blur, where the moving element is the only thing in focus and everything still is rushing past.

      So that’s why I chose it as Photo of the Week. Honestly, none of them are good photos–all blurry, with me guessing at aperture and F-stop settings*, and no tripod–but out of the best mediocre ones, this was my favorite.

      *at least I think that’s what they’re called. I mean, “Me guessing at those two settings that matter a whole lot when it’s dark out.”

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