The most easily recognisable image of Semana Santa in Guatemala is the endless sea of people wrapped in purple robes taking turns to carry ornate Jesus-floats on complex sawdust and flower carpets through the streets of several towns and cities in the country. These devotees are commonly known here as “cucuruchos”.
“The cucurucho is a character that first came about in the middle ages,” explains Miguel Álvarez, a historian from Guatemala City. “They first appeared in the Confraternity of Santa Vera Cruz in Seville, Spain during the 12th century.”
According to Mr. Álvarez, their attire was based on the robes and hats that the pilgrims headed to Santiago de Compostela and Rome originally wore. “They also covered their faces as a symbol of discipline through anonymity, and they wore conic hats to represent their search for the heavens through their religious exercise,” he adds.
Cucuruchos began gaining importance during the 16th century in Spain. Confraternities in the Spanish regions of Castilla and Andalucía began referring to them as “Nazarenes”, and it was one of those things that the Spanish brought over to this side of the world during the colonial period in that same century. So, the first confraternity of Nazarenes opened shop in Guatemala in 1582. Nowadays, cucuruchos are a fundamental part of Guatemalan traditions during Holy Week. They eventually became known as “cucuruchos” in this country because their traditional hats resembled this cuban delicacy.
Their role is often quite simple: they take turns carrying a heavy processional float with religious imagery through the streets as a sign of devotion and penitence. Raúl Illescas, a member of a local confraternity called Hermandad de la Recolección, explains that the average float is carried by 70 people, and has about 50 turns in its processional route. That means that an average of 3,500 cucuruchos participate in each procession. So, during Holy Week, nearly 150,000 cucuruchos participate in processions in Guatemala City and La Antigua Guatemala. “Let’s add in about 60,000 more from the rest of the country, and that number goes a bit over 200,000 cucuruchos,” he adds.
“The amount of people who carry the processions now is just incredible,” observes Mr. Illescas. “Back in the day, you could just show up at La Merced on Good Tuesday and get a turn to carry a processional float on Good Friday.” Nowadays, turns to carry are bought several weeks ahead of time. On average, they cost anywhere between Q.25 (3.41USD) and Q.50 (6.82USD). However, turns that involve something special like bringing out the processional float from a church can be inherited, which makes them scarcer and can get a lot more expensive than the average ones. There are even special code numbers to claim a turn that belongs to someone else, thus allowing for the sale or gifting of turns to carry.
“You always want your turn to be on a good block, and you always want to have a good song in the background,” explains Mr. Illescas, who has participated in processions since he was a child. “If it’s a song you don’t know very well, you’re like, ‘Yeah, alright…’ but you’re gonna carry it regardless. You’re not gonna stop doing it because of that.”
The constant increase in the number of people who carry the processional floats translates directly into a higher number of people who go watch them pass by. And, while it’s true that it’s always better to have a bigger audience, this can also become a bit of a logistical nightmare.
This is something that Mr. Illescas has experienced first-hand. Every procession has line inspectors whose sole job is to make sure that people don’t step in the way of the procession and everyone respects each others’ turn, and that’s a role he’s had to play before. “In a lot of cases, you may run into your average violent Guatemala,” he relates. “And I’ve had to deal with that a couple of times.” He recalls a particular occasion in which a random man who was standing where he wasn’t supposed to pulled out a gun on him. “He said, ‘If you keep bugging me, this is how it’ll end up, so leave me alone. I wanna stand right here.’ There’s not a lot I could really do about that,” he laughs. “These are situations that happen around this whole thing, but you just have to learn to deal with them.”
The constant evolution of technology has also brought about changes to the way in which cucuruchos behave during processions. For example, it isn’t strange (nor is it not mildly humorous) to see cucuruchos talking on the phone mid-procession, which is quite a feat considering that there’s a big-ass marching band accompanying every Jesus-float. “There’s people who break the ranks to take a quick photo or a selfie,” adds Mr. Illescas. “They all want a little piece of something to remember the whole thing.”
Regardless, it’s in the cultural DNA of the Guatemalan cucurucho to constantly adapt itself to the times. For instance, in the 19th century, the government of Manuel Estrada Cabrera prohibited the use of face masks for Holy Week processions after he found out that several Military Academy cadets would disguise themselves as cucuruchos to blend in as penitents to assassinate him. So, the confraternities simply stopped wearing the face masks without complaining. When it comes down to technology, instead of fighting the increasing popularity of smartphones, they just developed apps to share photographs, download routes, and listen to the music used in different processions.
“Being an heir to that tradition gives a sense of belonging to the 21st century cucurucho,” muses Raúl Illescas, who’s worn the purple robe during Holy Week for the past 23 years. “In Guatemala, our national identity is pretty torn up because we import traditions such as Halloween and Thanksgiving. However, the processions during Holy Week are something that belongs to us, and no one can take that away from us as a culture.”