When I was growing up in El Paso, Texas, there was a statue in my home that I remember, as a child, being both curious about and frightened of. It was an image of a man about four feet tall with his head hanging down, a look of sorrow on his face, and painted drops of blood running down his legs. My family referred to the statue as "El Santo." I learned that it was an image of Jesus suffering His passion, and that it had once played an important role in the celebration of Lent and Holy Week in our Latino community.
Such Latino Lenten traditions, focusing on suffering in relation to the Passion and death of Jesus, offer us all a way to confront suffering in our own lives and in the world. Americans, generally, prefer not to think about suffering and death. Latino spirituality, especially during the Lenten season, does not shy away from such themes. Latino popular religion draws its rhythm from nature and the indigenous understanding of the cycle of life. The suffering and death of Jesus are incorporated into this understanding. Death closes the circle; the new life of the Resurrection at Easter continues the cycle.
When I first came into contact with El Santo, He was kept in a shed behind our house, with a heavy cloth draped over Him. I discovered Him because I had a tendency toward crying and whining spells when I didn't get my way. My mother would make me go outside because, she said, I was not pleasant company when I was in that state. The shed was my haven for self-pity. One day, I noticed the strange parcel and peeked under the cloth. I gasped as I saw bare feet and bloody legs. Gradually, I pulled the sheet off and discovered the statue of the very sad man. Strangely, I took comfort in His sadness. He was not some laughing clown mocking me. He was as downhearted as I was. I kept my discovery a secret for a short time, then began to ask questions.
I learned that the statue was with us because my great-grandfather had been responsible for the Semana Santa (Holy Week) activities in our parish, in which El Santo played a prominent role. The Holy Week traditions and practices, which included the Passion play, had been going on in the parish for as long as anybody could remember. When "foreign" priests of non-Hispanic descent came to the parish, according to family lore, they discontinued the community's Holy Week practices because they did not understand them and considered them childish and disruptive to the solemnity of Holy Week. The priests would not even keep El Santo in the church because they thought Him unsightly. My great-grandfather brought him home along with many of the props and costumes used in the Passion play and stored them in the shed, where many years later I would discover them.
I used to question my grandmother relentlessly about the unusual assortment of articles in the shed. She was a young child when El Santo was first brought to our home, and she remembered the Holy Week processions before then: a huge number of people accompanying her father and his friends as they carried El Santo on their shoulders. She told me her father used to ride a horse in the Passion play.
My parents eventually decided to take El Santo out of the shed and build a grotto for Him next to our house. Our parish priest blessed the grotto, and El Santo was ceremoniously moved to it one Easter Sunday. My mother had a robe made for Him, and my father placed a cross in His hands. Along with my family and neighbors, I have spent many hours at that grotto begging for mercy or interceding for others. It served as the spiritual center of my family's life. During the summer, we would gather in front of it to pray the family Rosary, and at times of family crisis one or another of us can still always be found there. It has also become an informal chapel for the neighborhood.
I have discovered while working in or visiting different parts of Central and Latin America that similar statues of Jesus, bloody and tortured, are very common there. I have found myself sitting in churches and watching as people come in a steady procession to kneel before, touch, and pray at the feet of this battered Jesus. I suspect that this suffering image offers comfort and hope to those whose lives are characterized by hardship.
Starting with Ash Wednesday, and throughout Holy Week, Latino spirituality has us confront these themes of suffering and death. On Ash Wednesday, we are marked with ashes on our foreheads as a reminder that we are mortal and "to dust we shall return." Lent becomes a time of preparation and reflection on the death and suffering that is a natural part of life, and also on the suffering brought about by injustice. Latinos, both as immigrants and as a minority group in the United States, are often victims of such injustice.
Holy Week in Latino religious practice is not only a matter of attending
church services on Holy Thursday evening and Good Friday afternoon; rather, it is a time when life comes to a halt and is marked by a different rhythm. It is a time of total preoccupation with the events surrounding the Passion and death of Jesus. Ritual observances ranging from special foods (meatless dishes such as capirotada, a bread pudding served on Good Friday,
Many Latino communities are now reviving the tradition of reenacting the Way of the Cross. Actors, particularly the person who plays Jesus, spend months preparing themselves spiritually for their roles. This reenactment is not treated as a performance but as participation in a sacred ritual. It is often so vivid that it is not uncommon to see people weeping as they witness Jesus stumbling under the weight of the cross and hear the shouts of the Roman soldiers.
Other Holy Week rituals, such as washing feet in commemoration of the Last Supper, staying up with Jesus and praying through His agony in the garden, and the Péacutesame--a Good Friday ritual of accompanying Mary after the Crucifixion--similarly draw us into the experience of suffering.
My family maintains that the "foreign priests" who discontinued the Way of the Cross in our parish and who refused to keep El Santo in the church did not understand the meaning those traditions had to our community. Ritual offers an experiential way to acknowledge and confront what we are afraid to name. The liturgical season of Lent offers us an opportunity to reflect on the cycle of life as including death and to contemplate the reality of suffering in our lives and in our world. Identification with the suffering of Jesus may help us to see the redemptive value of suffering in our own struggles.