“Take up your cross and follow Me”: Holy Week in Ecuador

The purple tunics of Ecuador’s faithful stand out from the yellow and white buildings of Quito’s Historic Center. It is here that one of the largest processions in the world takes place, second only to Sevilla, Spain in the number of participants during Good Friday. Cucuruchos (cone-heads) is what these bright purple garments are called, to the uninitiated the pointed tunics bring about images of the Inquisition or even the Ku Klux Klan but cucuruchos or something else entirely.

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Thousands of cucuruchos walk along the road in Quito

It is said that in colonial times, sinners were forced to sit outside of the church while wearing a large purple cone, this tradition was later adopted as part of Holy Week celebrations though the addition of a face mask to the cone gave a semblance of anonymity to sinners who would otherwise be criticized. For over 3 hours, those who participate must walk the path of the Historic Center, now paved with tar but in old times the uneven cobble-stone roads would cut up many of the faithful who chose to go barefoot.The procession in the name of Jesus del Gran Poder (Jesus of Great Power) takes places yearly on Good Friday with thousands of participants and hundreds of thousands of onlookers.

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Hundreds of crosses are carried by the faithful, often wearing crowns of thorns

The procession is a monumental act of faith that can seem extreme to many, after all self-flagellation and whipping were common sights. Nowadays some still do inflict pain on themselves as a sign of repentance while others carry large wooden crosses, as to walk the same path as Jesus before his crucifixion (via crucis). Many even wear crowns of actual thorns or even of barbed wire with the blood dripping down from their heads being their actual blood. Others in turn decide to strap cacti to their backs or their feet, every step is literal pain and yet they endure. The color purple, signifying penitence, is used by the cucuruchos as they whip themselves with the thorny hortiga (stinging nettle). The procession and faith of the people involved never fails to surprise and captivate or at the very least elicit respect. Still for others it is a strange sight to see in part for its uniqueness, in part for the relative violence involved.

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Las Veronicas are women symbolizing those who helped to clean Jesus’ feet as he carried the cross

Holy Week is also celebrated throughout Ecuador’s Andes with the hearty and filling fanesca, a stew with the base of bacalao (salted cod) and pumpkin. What makes the dish special though is the addition of 12 grains, to symbolize the 12 apostles, and the fact that it includes no meat due to prohibitions on meat to symbolize sacrifice and faith. Due to its labor intensive and time-consuming preparation, it is a dish most commonly eaten at home with family. Thanks to my good relationship with my host family in Quito, I was able to visit and participate in the celebrations. To compliment the saltiness of bacalao in fanesca, arroz con leche (rice pudding) and figs with cheese are also eaten.

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Fanesca alongside figs and arroz con leche

Overall Quito has a lot to offer during the Holy Week celebrations as does much of Ecuador. Each town and city celebrates in their own distinctive manner but the splendor and scale of Quito’s procession and festivities are difficult to match.

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