When the Jesuits brought Catholicism to the Yaqui in the early 17th Century, the Native American tribe already had a long history of trading and warring. Some of their family names –which mean “snow” and “fish tail”—suggest that they lived in western coastal areas and northern climes, and that they led a nomadic life way beyond their current homelands in Tucson, Arizona and Sonora, Mexico.
According to village elders in Old Pascua, one of four Yaqui communities in the Tucson area, they willingly accepted the Jesuits Catholicism because it corresponded to many of their beliefs and origination story –which included a tree, a flood, and a Sun God who was akin to the Christian God.
Ever since that time, the Native American tribe have kept Catholicism close to their hearts, and life cycle events like weddings and deaths are enacted with great devotion. But the Lenten period, which culminates in Holy Week, is perhaps the most dramatic. Visitors are only allowed if they follow the rules: no photos, sketches or recordings.
The events of Holy Week are basically the same in each Yaqui village, and although it is possible to go from one to another, it can be more satisfying and familiar to attend the ceremonies in one place –like Old Pascua at Fairview and Grant, on the dusty grounds of Old Pascua Cultural Plaza. On a long rectangular plaza, in front of the elegant and simple white San Ignacio church with its two bell towers, Yaqui males from very young to older, dress as Fariseos (Pharisees), caballeros, roosters, monkeys and Roman soldiers. The Pharisees wear butterfly cocoon rattles around their ankles and carry red, black and white wooden swords. Their exaggerated and large masks, often made of goat skin, give them anonymity for the pageant. And once masked, they cannot speak, so they communicate through mime.
Events are announced for a specific time but may begin hours later. The most intense event of Wednesday night is the arrival on horseback (mimed by riding wooden swords) of the Pharisees looking for Jesus in the wilderness. They crawl along the floor of the church like hunters stalking a prey. After each search, a light is extinguished until everything goes black. And the whipping begins. The Pharisees fall to the earth and are whipped over and over. Then the whippers are whipped. The sound of ritual moaning is haunting.
On Thursday morning the angels –the children—join the Procession of the Hearts of Jesus. A figure draped in black represents the one who will betray Jesus. Time slows down. Hours pass like minutes. In the church, little children are adorned in the red robes of Jesus and the purple of the passion. They take vows for three or five years or life to serve God in one of the Yaqui societies. It is a way of praying to God or thanking Him for healing for themselves and family members. Then gifts of ceremonial foods are given to participants to bless and strengthen them.
Later, the Pharisees go searching for the “old man,” a representation of Jesus. They involve spectators –the few who are there. They go from cross to cross on the plaza and in the surrounding streets. The old man hides, but they ferret him out and carry him on the back of a Pharisee. Jesus, as filtered through Yaqui sensibility, is ready to be crucified.
On Friday, Jesus is symbolically lanced and then solemnly removed from the cross. Children and adults are sobbing. Pharisees, caballeros and Yaqui members line up to venerate the slain Lord. The mood is somber, the predominant color is black and there is an all night vigil.
On Saturday, the plaza is crowded with spectators. Pharisees and Pilates shoot cap guns and carry an effigy of Judas. The music is upbeat with guitars, an accordion and drums, which are punctuated by gunfire.
The Pharisses and caballeros click wooden daggers against wooden swords.
The joyous atmosphere is a stark contrast to the solemnity of Good Friday. Flowers are strung across the church. Firework are sent to the sky, notifying and honoring the elders in the heavens. There is an air of excited anticipation. The theme of flowers culminates Easter Sunday. The blood of Jesus is believed to have miraculously transformed into flowers. Heaven and deer and elements of the regalia, like masks, are called flowers or are associated with flowers. Easter Sunday, they believe, is the day evil will be “killed” by flowers, by good.
The heat is blazing. Spectators wait for hours, people line up to buy tacos and burritos at food stands. The sun is merciless. This is my commitment, my “vow,” to be here hour after hour, despite the heat during the day and the cold at night. It is minor compared to what the participants endure.
The Pilates and Pharisees walk back and forth across the plaza, taunting the faithful, mocking a sacred deer dancer. Suddenly, the church bells ring, people pour out of the church, showering the Pharisees with confetti. The Pharisees hunt the deer and chase him. The deer dancer is mystically beautiful, moving gracefully like a deer, becoming a deer.
Twice the “good” people of the church try to entreat the Pharisees to abandon their evil ways. Finally, they remove the shoes, capes, belts and rattles of the evil ones. It is a deep mystery play. The tension and drama build as the story unfolds. The third time the Pharisees throw their masks and swords on the Judas pyre. They pyre is lit. The masks burn. Evil is gone.
The Matachines start to dance. There is a huge release. As a spectator, I feel that these last few days, I have been through a small sacrifice, a personal ordeal. Like the participants, I feel a huge release when it is over.
Judith Fein is a freelance writer.
Judith Fein is an award-winning travel journalist and author of LIFE IS A TRIP: The Transformative Magic of Travel. She resides in Santa Fe.