Last week was Semana Santa (Holy Week), when Christians around the world celebrate Easter. During Semana Santa, Merida turns into a ghost town. The only people who seem to be walking the streets are tourists, which leaves city-bound residents like us with a lot of parking spaces!
The evacuation became particularly apparent on Good Friday. After a morning meeting with some apparently non-Catholic gringos in our office, we went out for a walk down to the zocalo to see what was going on at the center of Catholic life in Merida: the cathedral on the main square. The park was full of families, sitting on park benches, taking photos, laughing and playing with children who were chasing pigeons. The usual phalanx of shoeshine stands were nowhere to be seen and there was a general air of quiet relaxation.
The cathedral was open and mass was being held. Inside, the pews were full and people were standing at the back of the church. Up front, the statues of three men hung on three large crosses behind a doleful-sounding priest. The Dulce Marias, old Mayan ladies who beg alms, were parked as usual at the church doors, (okay, there are a few old men as well, but they don’t seem to have made a name for themselves…). These ladies are the ones who make a living off the charity of the faithful as they leave the church, and it is rumoured that they come in taxis from their villas in the countryside. Certainly, the Dulce Marias are old, but they don’t look hungry. The old men, on the other hand… but we digress.
While a large group of la gente were distracted by Good Friday mass inside, a group of onlookers were treated to an Easter event outside as well. About 100 young people, clad in black jeans and tshirts, were lining up and preparing to drag two large wooden crosses on a route around town to visit all the neighborhood churches (Santiago, Santa Ana, Santa Lucia, etc.), stopping along the way to read the Stations of the Cross or the progress that Jesus made on his last day as he headed for his final hour on the hills above Jerusalem. This re-enactment was being led by a VW van with a loudspeaker, with each “station” being read aloud so that all could hear. And it was being led and followed by three motorcycle policemen who were blocking traffic for the procession along the way.
As we walked the empty streets, trying to get ahead of the black-clad crowd to get a better view, we saw other, smaller groups carrying smaller crosses, walking reverently along the street and singing. We passed at least two other groups like this before getting back to the larger, cross-dragging group.
Saturday was even quieter than Friday. It was lovely for those of us living or visiting here, but we began to wonder where everyone went.
Sunday morning, we found out. We woke up early to a typical Sunday morning and decided to take the dog, URL, to the beach. We hopped in the car, picked up URL’s friend Rex and drove out to Progreso. We arrived before 8:00 am and were surprised to find the streets cordoned off with orange cones, la policia everywhere directing traffic and Progreso residents already jealously guarding their parking spaces. We found a spot for our car a few blocks from the beach and waded into the growing contingent of families heading for the beach.
The beach at Progreso was in fine form this Easter Sunday morning. The air was cool, the sky was clear and the water was fine. Whole families of ten and fifteen kids with parents and huipile-wearing grandmothers were already staking their claim to palapa-covered tables in the sand (remember, this is before 8 AM!… how did they wake up all those teenagers that early?). The Mexican Navy was there, setting up a First Aid tent, all beautifully decked out in their white uniforms. A man was riding his horse along the beach and another man started up a sand-tractor and headed east. At the end of the malecon, the street or walkway along the beach, there was a huge bandstand set up and we heard rumours that there would be a concert later in the day.
So THIS is where everyone went!
We let the dogs exhaust themselves and then headed back for Merida. To be fair, we did find the Cathedral downtown full of Easter Sunday worshippers. The corridor between the Cathedral and the MACAY Museum held a fascinating sculpture exhibit, which we were able to view while listening to the lovely choral strains of Easter music wafting out through the open doors of the Cathedral. Across the street, the vibrant green trees of the zocalo danced in the wind above, while bright red vendors’ booths below (paid for by Coca Cola) served Yucatecan delights to everyone.
We walked up Calle 60 to Santa Lucia Park, one of our favorites for a lot of reasons. Every Sunday, there is a mini flea market there, with three or four antique dealers. Browsing through their wares is a trip into history and always fascinating. Secondly, there is music there. First a few singers, and then a live salsa band. When we were there, they were just warming up but already people were gathering to listen. And lastly, Santa Lucia on Sunday mornings has a wonderful lady who cooks for us. Not for us in particular. She cooks for anyone who comes along. Her food is delicious and eating her tacos, flautas, tamales and other goodies is pure delight.
On Easter Sunday we finally got out of our office cave and stepped into the light of Merida en Domingo, the weekly party that Merida throws for her inhabitants. It was a joyful rebirth into the cultural life of our city. Hallelujah!
Watch a video of the Passion Play during Semana Santa in Acanceh.