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Holy Week in Ayachuco, Peru

The following is a crónica I wrote for an IFSA class, translated as literally (read: awkwardly) as possible.

It is prohibited the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages in the historic center of Ayacucho. We will make this Holy Week truly Holy. – Sign in the center of Ayacucho

One must be blind not to see the cultural collision that is Holy Week in Ayacucho, and even that might not be enough. I realized in Lima one week before while in a taxi. I started to talk with the driver. “Ayacuchanos don’t like Limeños,” he told me. “They come to drink, to get drunk, and they don’t respect the Holy Week ceremonies.”

Alcohol and Holy Week. I knew that Catholics drank, but this I couldn’t imagine. I didn’t know what to expect. I come from a Pentecostal family, although I neither profess nor have any faith. We did celebrate Holy Week, but this celebration would never permit that I drank. We ate Peeps and chocolate Easter bunnies; we searched for plastic eggs filled with sweets, everything as healthy as a carrot. So, confused, I went to my best resource here in Peru: my host mom. I asked her about Holy Week, Ayacuchanos and Limeños, the question of drinking or not.

“The Ayacuchanos are jealous,” she responded. “They’re jealous, yes. They want to live where we live in the capital.

Oh, please mami, I thought. You’re messing with me, right? It seemed like the collision went further than Holy Week. Discontent but without any other remedy, I had to wait until I arrived in Ayacucho.

The schedule said the trip would last eight to ten hours, but we arrived in thirteen. For all the turns that the bus had taken I felt sick. And you can’t imagine the joy I felt when two women (with their children) climbed on the bus to see us coca tea. It tranquilized me, and at eleven AM we arrived.

The next day, Good Friday, I left to go to a museum, but before I arrived there I encountered a procession, which turned out to be the staging of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. It had passed through the city and arrived at the central plaza where the Peruvian flag flew at half-mast. There began the judgment of Jesus. Jesus, roman soldiers, the Pharisees, and about twenty women personifying the Virgin Mary arrived at the court of Pontius Pilate. “Let him free! He is a holy man!” shouted the virgins. The public, under the influence of the Pharisees, requested the crucifixion of Jesus, but Pontius Pilate refused. “No! I’m going to punish him, severely, and after that I am going to let him free.” Then he turned him back to Jesus and the soldiers began with their orders.

“Grab a hold of him,” one commanded to the other with a smile that shocked me. The other grabbed Jesus and tied his hands to a post in the street. They took off his clothes but left him with a white cotton skirt (and under this, underwear), an “artistic liberty” that the theatrical group took. “My heart is prepared, father. My heart is prepared,” shouted Jesus. A soldier gave him a punch in the face, hard, and they began to flog him. A whip made of cactus collided against the back of Jesus and the actor screamed while he bent at the knees, doubled over in pain. I saw the wounds open in his skin whose color had turned red. I asked myself how much faith he must have in order to personify every year his savior. Too much, it turned out: they just finished the flogging when they put the on him the crown of thorns. They put it on hard, pushing it until they saw blood flow from his head.

I had inserted myself so much in the staging that I didn’t realize what was going on around the procession. I opened my eyes when I noted the plethora of cameras that surrounded Jesus. Each one fought to take a picture of the Messiah (not me – my camera lacked battery), and while he suffered, they fought. “Listen, you, in the blue, get back. I don’t see anything,” I heard.

Taken aback, I took a step back to think about what I was seeing and hearing when I entered in the true shock. “Ice cream, ice cream, ice cream two for one!” voiced an ice cream vendor behind me. Ice cream? I thought. Who the hell wants to eat ice cream while this man suffers? Many, apparently – I saw cones everywhere. And I kept noting more vendors – of trips, artisanal goods, souvenirs. “Gringo!” one man shouted at me. “Take with you all of the history of Holy Week, one sol!” I shook my head and returned to my hotel. Even if I wanted to I couldn’t continue watching the procession.

In the hotel, I asked the hostess how Ayachucho was before, if there was a before. She told me there was, although in her life Holy Week had always been lucrative. “After all, that’s how it is: lucrative. Holy Week is lucrative, and you are going to see thousands of people taking advantage.”

The next day I reunited with some friends from La Católica. One of them comes from Ayacucho, and while we drank Inka Cola and smoked Lucky Strike cigarettes in the tourist cultural center San Cristobal, she recounted to me her version of tourism. “Here, what you see doesn’t exist outside of Holy Week. You know, every town has a celebration and only during this celebration do they have pride in their ‘traditional culture.’ Prostitute the culture, that’s what they do. Prostitute it.”

To me, it doesn’t seem so clear. Ayacucho, as the destination of Holy Week, appeared for the faith of the people, shown by their thirty-seven churches and their numerous processions celebrating the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. And this faith of the Ayachuchanos continues to be shown. One only needs to think of the staging of the crucifixion, of the pain the actor felt in the name of Jesus, and the quantity of people who followed him. Or think of the procession of the Our Lady of Sorrows, when the plaza filled with people with candles who walked more than three hours to remember the death of their savior.

In the end, I did see what the taxi driver told me. In fact, I participated. The plaza was jam-packed with people drinking and dancing to the music that three bands played. The city lit fireworks and everybody enjoyed themselves until five AM. At five the procession of Jesus resurrected came out, and the public, drunken in all cases, stopped drinking, stopped dancing, and followed the pyramid of candles for two hours in complete silence.


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