What does Holy Week mean to young people in Seville?

What does Holy Week mean to young people in Seville?
As the Spanish city shut down for the week, Leah Rustomjee spoke to the young residents reimagining tradition.

A smartly dressed older man tuts at my trainers and points up at the Virgin Mary, shaking his head in frustration. It’s Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Sevilla and I’ve found myself accidentally sitting in a pre-recorded mass in what appear to be the wrong clothes, my wanderlust having led me into a charming but deceptively empty chapel. Attended by over half of Spain’s population each year, Semana Santa is one of the country’s most significant annual celebrations. Towns and cities restructure themselves to accommodate the daily processions of ornate floats (pasos) commemorating the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Roads are closed, businesses and supermarkets shut down and annual leave is actively encouraged. Home to the most grandiose processions in the country, Sevilla’s pivotal role in popularising the Catholic festival in the 16th century has inspired a fanatical devotion and pride amongst the local Sevillanos.

“I’ve never missed a Semana Santa in my life, it’s my favourite week of the year,” says Ignacio, 27, who has been participating in the processions as a penitent (Nazareno), the hooded figures that accompany the floats, since he was four-years-old. Nearly a quarter of Semana Santa-goers are under the age of 30.

Dating back to the 15th century, during the Spanish Inquisition, the conical hoods (capirotes), and robes used to be enforced on those who had committed religious crimes as a form of public humiliation. Today, the Nazarenos don these outfits as a symbol of religious penance during Semana Santa. “It’s passed down through the generations. If your parents and grandparents have been part of a Hermandad,” Ignacio explains, referring to the Catholic Brotherhoods (Hermandades or Cofradías), made up of devoted individuals who are in charge of organising the processions, “then you would join the same one as well.”

Despite being busy with full-time work and study, Ignacio takes the whole week of Semana Santa off to watch the processions every day. “For me and my circle, it’s a time to reflect and get closer to our religion. I would love for it to be passed down to my children, too.”

To an outsider, the uncomfortable resemblance of the capirotes to the white hooded robes associated with the Ku Klux Klan is hard to ignore. Young sight-seers, such as Waleed (28) from Berlin, visiting Semana Santa for the first time expressed discomfort in sharing such culturally symbolic images on his social media for fear of being associated with neo-Nazism. “You can’t upload these images without context,” he says. However, the history of the capirotes long predates the Ku Klux Klan, who formed in the early 1800s. While a reason as to why the KKK adopted this uniform has not been formally identified, misrepresentations in the media have not helped distinguish the two, with the BBC wrongly using an image of a Nazareno of the San Gonzalo brotherhood to illustrate an article on the KKK back in 2015.

“People aren't informed about it,” Ignacio says. “For us, we wear it to get closer to our religion. Underneath these hoods we are repenting our sins, praying, some of us fasting. I’d like people to come and see this for themselves.”

Traditionally, the role of penitent was exclusively reserved for men. Women could only aspire to the role of ‘manola’ – the mourners who don black lace headpieces (mantillas) and five inch heels following behind the processions and grieving the passing of Jesus Christ. There have even been instances of women covertly dressing up as men to participate, with one woman facing a seven-year ban from her Hermandad after being caught. It was only in 2011 that a decree establishing full equality of rights between members of the Hermandades was motioned by the Archbishop Juan José Asenjo, finally granting women full participation in religious penance. While acceptance of women and children as penitents is widespread today, the role of float-bearers (costaleros) carrying the floats remains a predominantly male domain, much to the chagrin of some of the younger generation.

“There are many people that still believe women are only good for wearing the mantilla during this week”, Esperanza, 34, says of the gendered symbolism that she believes persists today. Her brother is a Costalero and his support and guidance encouraged her to become one too. However, Costalero groups in Sevilla are oversubscribed with men and prevailing attitudes have not been receptive to change. For the past 17 years she has had to celebrate Semana Santa in the nearby cities of Cordoba or Huelva, where female involvement is more normalised and she can take part as a Costalero – a role she views as being totally distinct from that of a Nazareno, bearing greater emotional significance due to its rigorous physical demands.

Esperanza is attempting to recruit 40 women to take part in next year’s procession in Sevilla to bring out ‘Maria Auxiliadora’ – a float featuring the Virgin Mary that has been agreed by the church can be carried by a group of women. “You get to carry ‘mama’ as I like to call her,” Esperanza explains, referring to the Virgin Mary. “You’ve been blessed and chosen to do this work. You have to be a specific height and have a particular strength, not everyone can do this."

She wants to remind people who view women as symbolically incapable of undertaking the role of Costalera, of the historical context of this tradition – a paid position only open to men in an era when women were discouraged from pursuing work opportunities. “Clearly traditions can change and it's time in Sevilla for this to change as well.”

For Ibn Itaka, 34, an artist living in Sevilla, the processions inspired tears, specifically when he heard the bugles (cornetas) in person. “I couldn't help but surrender to it.” Blindsided by the passion and unity he witnessed, the week also reinforced his views of Spain. “This Spanish spirit of when you jump into something you jump into it whole-heartedly... People here will fight a bull,” he said. He also reflected on the lack of visibility he felt as one of few Black people watching the processions, which made him recall a Sevilla Negra tour where he found out about ‘La Hermandad de los Negritos’ – a Black brotherhood founded by a Spanish archbishop in 1393 to care for Black people living in Spain at the time. The brotherhood still exists today, albeit without any Black people. However, Itaka remains hopeful that things will change as Spain begins to reckon with its past, stating that “inclusivity is a default in younger generations.”

Many of the young Sevillanos I spoke to shared the idea of tradition being a way to connect with past loved ones. Although Seca, 22, stopped participating in the processions as a Nazareno when he was 16, due to his changing views on Semana Santa, he still appreciates the week for its cultural and familial value, seeing it a way of uniting the generations and paying homage to his ancestors. “It’s emotional. My grandma cries a lot when she sees the procession because it reminds her of our grandpa.”

Similarly, Esperanza’s family meet at the same street corner every Wednesday of Semana Santa without fail – though this year felt different, as one of her family members recently passed away. Despite the sadness she says, “I would have to be bleeding in hospital to miss a day of Semana Santa."

Of course, not all the city’s young people are as enthusiastic. Elizabeth, 28, bemoans how socialising comes to a standstill because of the impossibility of getting about. An outsider to the tradition, her British parents never encouraged her to participate, and while she tried to give it a go as a teenager, wanting to fit in with her peers, she could never quite connect with it. Now, she describes her group of friends as ‘underdogs’ due to their lack of interest in Semana Santa. “The people I know who attend are not the type that will go to church on a Sunday. It’s only when Semana Santa comes around and it’s the moment to ask for forgiveness,” she says. “Two weeks later it's Feria and they’re back to their usual partying ways!”

Photo by Bruno Rascão

Elizabeth is wary of making these comments, however, as having a negative view of Semana Santa is not widely accepted in Sevilla. This year, the city’s mayor was forced toshut down his blog after his comments comparing the Holy Week to the Tour de France caused a backlash on Twitter.

Suspending the city’s infrastructure is an aspect of the celebrations that Seca agrees needs to change. “It shouldn’t be the case that a 10 minute journey to get to work takes me an hour,” he says, pointing to the issue of classism and the increasingly large, hostile crowds for damaging his recent experiences of the week. “More and more made-up rules are being introduced, and you get dirty looks for just attempting to cross the street. They think you’re trying to steal their spot!” Esperanza adds that social media is partly to blame for overcrowding, with the advent of Semana Santa apps such as ‘Gran Vega Pass’ and ‘Cruz de Guía’ making it easier for the public to find out where and when the processions are taking place in a way that was never possible before.

The fanaticism that exists in Sevilla is unique in Spain for its cultural conservatism. When Esperanza wears her costalero outfit in Cordoba or Granada, no one bats an eyelid. In Sevilla, she is no stranger to the side-eye. Claire also speaks to this: “Here in Seville, it’s common to be asked ‘who are your parents?’ Surnames are a thing here.” When I tell Seca about my trainers in church experience, he nods. “Being mocked for how you’re dressed during Semana Santa is a very common experience,” he says, explaining that his grandmother is still blissfully unaware of the tattoos on his arms. Minos, 26, a London-based producer visiting for the week, was also shocked at seeing how immaculately dressed everyone was. “I’m Catholic and I’ve never had this experience before,” she tells me. “In a way it made me feel more connected to my religion, but I did question all this opulence. To me Jesus’s message was much more simple.”

This collective outburst of emotion and reverence is a rarity today, and to see this occurring across the generations shows just how ingrained Semana Santa is in the Sevillanos cultural and religious psyche. For young Sevillanos, their commitment to passing on but also reimagining some of the traditions feels hopeful and though I struggled to connect to the societal and religious obligations of the week, the spiritual notion of remembering our loved ones in such a public and unifying way resonated. It gave me the opportunity to reflect and feel closer to my own late grandparents – my grandfather, who would have walked as a Nazareno, and my grandmother’s passion for her Virgin Mary.

“For me it's devotional,” Esperanza concludes. “Each year is unique – the flowers, the ‘pasos’, your own emotional state. There are years where people come, and years when people go.”

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