This week I called down to Puerto Rico as part of research for a story and the person who answered the phone told me in Spanish, “Nobody’s here honey, it’s Holy Week. In fact I’m about to put on the answering machine. Call back next week.”
And that got me thinking after years of living in the States, I had almost forgotten how everything grinds to a halt during Semana Santa — Holy Week — in Puerto Rico, especially on Good Friday leading up to Easter Sunday.
It’s an official government holiday and no school. The island is overwhelmingly Catholic — about 85 percent — and at no other time is that more evident than on Good Friday, Viernes Santo, a holiday for many and far more religious and sacred than Christmas Day itself.
In our house in San Juan it meant absolutely no television that wasn’t religious in nature, bacalao (cod fish) for dinner, and certainly no loud salsa or rock music blaring from the radio.
We were supposed to think about the day and what it meant, my mother would say. For kids banned from watching cartoons, it meant being a bit bored and looking for entertainment elsewhere.
The big entertainment for us on Viernes Santo — especially when we were younger and didn’t truly understand the meaning of the day — was to travel to my mother’s hometown of Caguas, a town south of San Juan, for the annual Viernes Santo procession. A multitude lined up early to watch a colorful procession with several men — and praying women in tow — carry an enormous crucifix through the streets of the town all the way to the cathedral.
One year, instead of Jesus on the cross, it was Jesus in a glass coffin. There was a procession to church where it was placed on the altar for all to see.
Now, Caguas being in a valley away from the ocean breezes means that it does get quite hot and very humid. That year - I was 8 - was no different. It was even hotter inside a church packed with people and there was no air conditioning.
So of course I had no idea when I went up to see the Jesus statue in the glass enclosure that it was humidity, not real tears, that made it look like he was crying. To my young eyes, Jesus was crying and I indeed screamed that in the church: ¡Jesús está llorando!
It's not something you want to scream in a packed church on Good Friday, with old ladies crossing themselves.
The crowded room rushed the altar. 'I’m telling you, Jesus is crying, I see it!' I exclaimed, until the priest calmed things down by saying 'No, it was the humidity.' Until her dying day, one of my mother’s aunts said the priest didn't get it; yes, Jesus was crying, of course he was. It was Good Friday after all.
Perhaps because of that commotion, the town rarely had Jesus in a glass coffin in subsequent processions, opting instead for an enormous crucifix with the face of Jesus looking down on the crowds as they watched him pass by in hushed silence.
One year, in the days leading up to Viernes Santo, a rumor spread through Caguas that the town drunk, known as Pedrito Zafacón — or Peter Trash Can because he had a habit of rifling through garbage cans — would be one of the men helping to carry that extremely heavy cross. Everyone thought, wow, did Pedrito Zafacón finally decide to put down the bottle? That would truly be a thing to watch, because for as long as anyone could remember, he was inebriated, day and night.
My mother would say he was like that since she was a little girl, so naturally she was skeptical that Pedrito Zafacón had cleaned up his ways and was going to be one of the honorable men carrying Jesus to the cathedral. That year, we arrived at the procession extra early to make sure we got a good spot, as did most of the town, because everyone wanted to see with their own eyes if Pedrito Zafacón was going to pull this off.
By the time it all started, the sun was beating down on another hot and humid day, and sure enough, there he was, Pedrito Zafacón, coming up the incline toward us on the narrow, cobblestone street in the old part of town. Sweat was pouring down his face as he and the other men struggled lifting the heavy wood and marble object, and right when they got to where we were standing, at the exact spot where my mother was, Pedrito Zafacón slipped. The cross almost hit the ground. The crowd gasped.
Everyone was hushed, except my mother who yelled out, “¡Pedrito, borrachón, lo sabía! (Pedrito, you drunk, I knew it!). To which he replied a slew of expletives, the most benign being yo mama, in front of the crowd, the praying women in tow, the priests, the archbishop, and who knows how many other religious people.
For us kids, it was the funniest thing that had ever happened on Good Friday, on a day when we couldn’t watch cartoons and we had to be serious.
Another year we tried to go to the movies on Good Friday. Since it was "The Ten Commandments," it was okay, so off we went with my father while my mother stayed behind to cook dinner.
Apparently the entire world had the same idea, because the line was wrapped around the block by the time we got there. After waiting in a line for a few minutes we heard screaming and shouting, and I went up to the front of the line to see what was going on.
Apparently the show had just been sold out, which didn’t please the crowd, who started jostling the ticket booth with the girl still inside screaming, “Auxilio! Auxilio! No puedo creer que esto está pasando en un Viernes Santo! Gente salvaje! Auxilio! (Help! Help! I can’t believe this is happening on Good Friday! Crazy people! Help!)”
To a little kid it probably looked way worse than it actually was, and I ran breathlessly back and said it was sold out and some people were trying to kill the ticket girl and they probably had a gun or a rock or something like that.
“Let’s get the heck outta here!” my father replied, and we ran back to the car, as did many other people who heard me describe that chaos at the front of the line, the pending gunfight at the Ok Corral. My mother sighed. “Some people can’t have nice things.”
To this day, I can’t watch 'The Ten Commandments' without thinking about the Good Friday Almost Riot at the Laguna Gardens movie theater.
I would like to think that on the tiny island of Puerto Rico, even on the most solemn day of the year, we keep our well-known sense of humor as we spent time with family and formed unforgettable childhood memories. I know Jesus loves all his children, even those who curse and jostle on Good Friday.