I waited for Leo in the Plaza de España just as the procession was beginning. A wave of something between awe and anguish washed through me as I watched a heavy carriage float slowly out of the church’s entrance and and into the crowd. This large platform, called a palio, ornate with gold, an olive tree and a figure of Christ was glittering in the street and rendering its audience nearly silent. I strained to see how the men were carrying the palio and discovered later they were standing underneath it with all of its weight digging into their shoulders. Leo met me near the statues in the center of the plaza while I asked earnest questions.
Following the first palio was a marching band playing the national hymn, and behind it, a series of groups all executing a crucial role in the processional. Some carried wooden crosses on their shoulders, some wore white turbans on their heads, and several carried candles and wore tall, blue cone-shaped hats with capes, called capirotes, that reminded me of the Klu Klux Klan. Leo tells me their faces are covered and the people underneath the palios are hidden because theirs is a private homage to God. “Are they asking for forgiveness, doing penance, or making a wish?” I want to know. She says they are doing all of the them. Andalucia’s calendar is marked with religious and cultural festivals that seem to work like collective therapy. People let down, relax, and, according to Leo, use these sanctioned rituals for releasing a deep sense of internalized guilt.
Now, having witnessed the procession, I feel a vague sense of comfort when I see the blue capes in my curious pictures. I wonder how the children and adults were impacted by their own participation in a ritual that is meant to cleanse them or deliver them the desires they speak to the Virgin Mary. Between tall white buildings and cobblestone streets, I feel I am certainly watching the remnants of history and maybe even standing in it. Leo and I wade up and down the parade route looking for her son and stop to eat freshly fried potato chips on the way. Wet potatoes sit plumply in a square bin waiting to be sliced and everyone is chattering now that the second palio with the Virgin Mary has made its way out of the church. We talk about what it means to be Andalusian, about historical events that have been locked into the chambers of the unconscious. I appreciate her ability to describe a culture’s psychology so vividly and without any judgment. “Complicados, complicados…” she says over and over again. I notice at a particular point, when the blue capirotes are pointing to the nighttime sky, I can stop asking questions and let the experience tell me what is important to know.
With warm potato chips in hand, we quicken ourselves ahead of her son’s placement in the procession and wait for the Christ and the olive tree to turn a corner. A guttural dialogue occurs between the men guiding the palio and the men underneath it. Not here in Puerto de Santa Maria, but in some cities, the penitentes actually walk on their knees with the palio on their shoulders and necks. I wonder if the relief of putting down the weight at the end of the evening is a symbol of releasing the density of pain or guilt. I imagine that each person must experience this moment uniquely. I stop moving completely as my eyes catch the skirt of the palio waving to and fro like a large bed’s dust ruffle. Scores of black feet march in tiny, intentional steps and while I can’t see any faces I seem to hear them breathing. I feel something deep in my chest begin to ache and tears sizzle from my solar plexus into my eyes. Suddenly, a woman watching the palio as it aims to take the corner breaks like a brazen flame into a low, flamenco-style song and uses her right hand to draw notes in the air. I’ve spoken Spanish for years, but don’t understand what she is singing. I only feel the emotion of her words. Strength, anguish, brightness, pain and hope tumble out of her mouth like barrels of wine for all of us to drink and when she is finished, the caravan underneath the palio is ready move its feet again.
The palio makes its way around the corner but no one needs to breathe a sigh of relief. We’ve been hit with the baritone light of that golden sleigh making its steady progress in us for years. I’ve lost the potato chips, the camera, and my questions, and see us all standing together in the street. I ask for this moment to stay and stay. I’m sure that something captive has walked itself outside of me and in the taxi ride home, I am happy not to give it any name.