Semana Santa in Cusco: A Mix of Andean and Catholic Traditions

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Semana Santa in Cusco (Holy Week), a mix of Andean and Catholic Traditions, is one of the largest and most important celebrations of the year in Cusco. It marks the events leading up to Christ’s resurrection on the cross and is normally celebrated during the last week or March or the first week of April depending on when Easter falls in the current year. In the Imperial City of the Incas, Cusco, Catholic tradition has mixed with indigenous Andean beliefs to form a unique iteration of a celebration that is found in many cities around the world.

Events begin on Lunes Santo, Holy Monday, with the procession of the black Christ around the Plaza de Armas to Plaza de San Francisco and back again, stopping at other churches along the way. The black Christ, known as Señor de los Temblores or Lord of Earthquakes, is representative of the mix of Catholic and indigenous beliefs in Holy Week.

As the Spanish struggled to convert indigenous peoples to Christianity, they petitioned the Spanish Crown during the early 17th century to send them aid. The king of Spain responded by sending them a black Christ statue. Missionaries felt that indigenous people would find it easier to relate to a dark-skinned representation of Jesus than to the traditional (but historically inaccurate) representations of a light-skinned Christ. The arrival of the dark-skinned Christ statue in Cusco was not marked with fan-fare, and it wasn’t until a terrible earthquake in 1650 that the statue finally began to achieve the type of following and fervor that its creators had intended. During the 1650 earthquake that decimated Cusco, the black Christ was paraded throughout the city in an attempt to miraculously quell the aftershocks. It worked, and since then the statue has been known as Lord of Earthquakes and has accrued a massive following of believers who parade it through the streets of Cusco on Holy Monday in memory of the procession during the Earthquake of 1650. Señor de los Temblores became the patron saint of Cusco when in 1720 he was accredited with ridding the city of a plague.

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Impressive procession for the Lord of the Earthquakes or Senor de los Temblores in Cusco, Peru

On Holy Monday the center of Cusco fills up as people come to pay their respects to the black Christ. The Plaza de Armas is jammed packed as people jostle to claim the best vantage point. Many followers will stake out a claim on a bit of sidewalk hours before the Lord of Earthquakes is programed to pass by in order to get a better view. People line the streets three and four deep for hours waiting, before the massive platform bearing the statue passes by. Most of the historic center is closed off to traffic and the black Christ remains on display in the main cathedral on Plaza de Armas for the remainder of the week.

Thursday and Friday of Holy Week are a national holiday and Peruvians get the two days off from work. Thursday honors the Last Super of Christ, while Friday was the day of his crucifixion and entombment. Peruvians, in another mix of Catholic and indigenous traditions, celebrate Maundy Thursday and the Last Super with twelve special dishes that represent the twelve disciples of Christ. Like in other traditions, fish is an important part of this meal, and like other Peruvian traditions, this one is slowly beginning to fade into the past. In an attempt to revive all twelve of the original and unique plates prepared for Semana Santa, a food festival ‘Cusco Mijuy’ (In Quechua: Cusco Eats) was established during Holy Week to celebrate the unique culinary plates that developed in Cusco to accompany this Catholic celebration. This year’s festival takes place on April 2 and April 3rd in Cusco.

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Peruvian woman selling latigos or whips on the streets of Cusco, used for penance

Besides the ancient traditions of both the Catholic and Andean religions, a more modern day tradition has evolved amongst families in Cusco. During Holy Week, especially on Good Friday, television channels play essentially non-stop and back to back all the great Christian epics including Ben Hur, The Ten Commandments, and The Passion of the Christ, amongst others. Wether they actually sit down to watch them or not, families are often tuned in to these movies and have them on in the background as they make preparations for the various events of Holy Week. These movies have become the background fabric that knit together families as they gather together to celebrate Semana Santa and above all spend time together as a family and contemplate the faith and traditions they share.

Posted by: Sarah Lyon.

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