Monthly Archives: April 2019

La Semana Santa

Leaning against the white, stucco wall of one of Riobamba’s classic colonial buildings, I watched on, entertained and estranged, as young Ecuadorians with markered-on beards dragged their crosses along the cobblestone, moaning “in agony” over the (faux) flagellation inflicted by their companions in Roman imperial garb. But while some were fully committed to celebrating La Semana Santa (Holy Week), others, decidedly, were not: as one school group processed, I observed one of the students stooped over his joined hands as if to pray, but with his eyes fixed to his watch.

If these two scenes exemplified the poles of interest in the event, I would have placed myself somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. It definitely provoked wonder—over the significance of the whole procession; over the various family and community traditions that fed into it (each “float” or segment of the parade seemed to have its own signature); and over how someone had the genius of using the red-bristled brush of a broom to emulate Roman helmet feathers. But I also felt detached—not only did it not resonate with my lack of a religious upbringing, but it was an event that seemed to repeat the same motifs over and over again without ultimately much variation.

Broom helmets!!

I think that much of the appeal of the event came down to the fact that such a large percentage of the Riobambeño population was participating, and that so many people knew each other. It was fun to watch the crowd wave and call out to their friends in the procession, and to see them laugh as their eyes met. In effect, it gave me a glimpse into the rich web of community connections that is often hidden away from the public sphere by work and routine.

Many children were dressed as such, participating.

Not only revealing, it also felt constructive. In a time where everything feels so individualized and polarized, with people even refusing to occupy the same physical and digital spaces, this was a moment where everyone was unified around something bigger than themselves. Whether they were moaning in pain or looking at their watches, they were nevertheless still sharing space together. Whether or not they were Catholic, they were still sharing a moment together. Moreover, individuals had come together in advance to build floats and make costumes. One could tell that La Semana Santa was not simply “una semana.”

One thing that has been so interesting to observe in Ecuador is the way that tradition still holds power. It has been noted that in occidental thought, “tradition” tends to have a negative connotation, butting heads against “progress” and change. “Static” is bad—stubborn—they tell us. But does everything always have to change? Maybe it is true that everything is in movement, in flux. But who is to say that that movement cannot retrace its old steps? Can it not be at once generative and regenerative?  Think of a spiral: constantly in motion, expanding and shrinking, but with points that can overlap, return to a previous point.

Just food for thought.

An elaborate float.

A big motif


Serendipitous homeostasis

There is no feeling like chancing on something you never knew existed, and that upon first contact, moves you so viscerally. In a time when information is so omnipresent, surprises like this are hard to come by. However, one of the beauties of studying abroad is that, being deprived of so much cultural knowledge, you are pushed face-first into a lake of serendipity. The water is cold—shockingly so—but when you get out and dry off you are warm and blissful, as if someone hit a reset switch for your nervous system.

“Serendipitous homeostasis” hit me as I stared at the painting of a woman with her hands held up, one of them curled and the other strained open. Her face, emaciated, was resolutely split down the middle into two tones, a melancholy yellow and a mournful blue. The rest of her body was less segregated, with blue wrapping around yellow in uncertain union. I looked over at the title on a little golden plate: El Mestizaje.

“El Mestizaje”

“Guayasamín was very sensitive to the question of identity being a mestizo himself,” the museum’s tour guide said with a healthy dose of boredom. To a certain degree, I understood her disengagement: she had probably presented the work with the same exact wording hundreds of times. But I could not relate. I stood there marveling at how the painting arrested the feeling of implacable sadness so perfectly, so transfixed that the tour had moved on to the next room when I came back to my senses. “Came back to my senses” is somewhat disingenuous, though; I think I was only fully in my senses when looking at the painting. It was that powerful.

If you had not heard of Oswaldo Guayasamín until now, I recommend that you look up his work. And if you are feeling slightly bold, buy a plane ticket to Quito and go visit La Capilla del Hombre, one of his parting gifts to Ecuador. Located beneath his house (a beautifully preserved manor), la Capilla is a rectangular structure made of multi-colored bricks with a conical dome protruding from the center. In a way, it almost gives the impression of mimicking an ancient Mesoamerican structure (it is probably not a coincidence that a large Mayan statue stands nearby). The museum, with two floors, is not only full of paintings but also sculptures. At the center of the bottom floor is an “eternal flame” meant to immortalize his presence, although I would argue that it was not ultimately necessary—his paintings have done more than enough to cement his legacy within the Ecuadorian imaginary.

La Capilla del Hombre with Quito in the background

Guayasamín’s house

Guayasamín is a veritable master, and that is why I am shocked I had not heard of him before. Exploring themes such as oppression, social inequality, as well as racism in Latin America and around the world, he attempted to capture the absolute essence of his subjects. This is why you will never see one of them smiling: to him, expressions of joy were temporary, while melancholy and sadness manifested permanence. At times, the constant anguish of his paintings became a little hard to stomach. But when I exited the building, I felt once more the warmness that you feel after diving into cold water, a little reminder I was living and feeling.

Mujeres de Nicaragua

Part of “Retratos de América”