Missing Mary

In Presentation on September 17, 2010 at 5:33 pm

It should have occurred to me but it didn’t. If the Virgen de la Luz is escorted into town every September for the week of Feria she must have some way of getting back out to her shrine afterwards so she can do the whole thing again the following year. I hadn’t given the matter much thought but if pushed I suppose I imagined her being secreted away under cover of night when all the excitement had died down, or perhaps popped onto the back of a pickup as surreptitiously as possible. Nothing to see here folks, type of thing.

But that would mean the Spanish passing up on the opportunity to have a procession, which of course is inconceivable. And so it was that I found myself outside the church in the centre of town this last Sunday, unable to move for all the people, most of them of a certain age and all in their Domingo best. I seemed to be among some kind of local elite near the entrance to the church and may have been attracting resentful glares on account of my prime position, I can’t be sure. 

I wasn’t in the best frame of mind to enjoy the affair – I’d only come out for some milk and had just that minute received a text from the director of the English school to the effect that that she had gotten three of the texts I had been trying to hurl in K’s direction earlier that day with my utterly insane Spanish mobile. The texts in question were personal in nature and not entirely free of embarrassing content. There was no credit left in either my Irish or Spanish phones so I was highly motivated to get somewhere where I could top up and send a damage control text to the director, except now I was stuck in the middle of what appeared to be a major religious event and there probably wasn’t anywhere open anyway.

With great effort and a long, long series of curt, shuffling apologies I managed to squeeze through the crowds and off the main street onto the lane where the apartment is. Not a hope of getting phone credit anywhere so I grabbed the laptop and headed out on the hunt for wifi. There is a bar at the top of Calle Nuestra Senora de la Luz near the Puerta de Jerez – the main entrance to the old town – that I had used before. It would normally take me all of ninety seconds to get there; now the way was barred by huddled spectators awaiting the procession. At any sign of an incursion into their space, no matter how apologetic, they appeared hostile.

I had to walk away from the whole thing, leave the old town by another exit and double back to the other side of the Puerta. Fifteen minutes later – minutes during which the bemused and possibly disturbed director was wondering, I have no doubt, whether and what I would reply – I reached the bar.

Being on the procession route it was, of course, crammed; balancing the laptop on a stool and downing a cold beer in more or less one gulp I sent a webtext to the director explaining the confusion. Nothing more I could do on that front.

Now, the procession. It wouldn’t be if there weren’t any pictures of the procession. Except I hadn’t picked up my camera in the apartment. Sweet Blessed Virgin! I retraced my steps using the same absurdly diverted route, wiped the sweat off with a towel and exchanged the laptop for the camera. A week earlier the Virgen had entered the town through the Puerta so I decided to return there for shots of her departure. Cue diverted route again, for the third time.

When I reached the Puerta there was a crowd beneath its archway which surely, it occurred to me, would block the path of the procession. Still, I joined them. The Virgen had already embarked on her sombre journey, the doleful, deliberate drumming audible from here. Two slow beats, followed by a series of faster half beats, the mesmerising rhythm by which she advanced with her entourage of priests, officials and the brass band that played their heavy, dolorous air intermittently. The sound alone, even before the procession had showed itself through the Puerta’s arch, had an impact.



Where you have Mary, you have Joseph. He led the way into town a week ago, and he led the way now. Not through the Puerta though, apparently. I looked on in despair as, perplexingly, he appeared beneath the arch for just a moment as he was carried aloft from left to right and disappeared down another street, leaving me with a couple of very poor, shaky shots. Presumably the Virgen would be going the same way – that’s how it always seemed to work, so I wouldn’t be getting my shot of her from this vantage point. Holy Mother of God! I was sorely tempted to just give up at this maddening development and go home, but doubtful that getting to my apartment was even possible in these crowds, I went looking for somewhere better.

There is another archway on the seaward side of the old town and I knew I could intercept the procession there, so there I went. Another wild detour.

As I passed through the arch things were looking up; people had lined up along each narrow pavement, confirming that this would be the route, but there were fewer of them. Looking up the sloped, cobbled street I could see the caballeros at the head of the march. They were still, the Virgen and her attendants on one of the many lengthy pauses that separate the musical and percussive interludes of the procession. It seemed as if I might get my shot after all and I allowed my mind to turn momentarily towards the cold beer that I would certainly be having afterwards. Please God and all the Saints!

They were on the move again and here came Joseph. Both he and the Virgen are carried along on platforms draped in velvet, and beneath the velvet a small troop of white shod men create, through sweat and skill, their peculiar swaying gait. Between the former and the latter, ladies promenade in traditional headdress. There may be a word for it – a little bit of research would have helped here but as I said, I only came out for some milk.

I walked up along them getting a few shots to where the street turns a corner at the top of the hill, onto a lane which is too narrow for the crowds to line – just a few intrepid souls prepared to be crushed, and myself. A coterie of priests was already on the lane, and behind and above them I caught my first glimpse of her, illuminated and decked in flowers.

Her platform was barely narrower than the lane, perhaps by three feet, so I nestled in a doorway and waited for her. I was deep inside the territory of faithful worship now, the air thick with incense. The banter between onlookers and caballeros was gone, as were the smiles and giggles of the parading ladies. Expressions  were devotional, absorbed and serious.

Here came Mary. Swaying, she advanced – her light bathing the lane and we few onlookers. I haven’t a shred of religion in me. This was powerful. As she passed, hands reached out for blessings. If her skilful bearers were to slip here, people would be hurt. Just as she passed me they set her down for a pause, so I wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while, squeezed as I was by her side. Despite myself, my hand reached out…

When they lifted her again it was so well done, in such unison and with such precision that it elicited a gentle applause. These were their lads after all; it wasn’t quite all about the divine. This was an exercise in which the community could see itself at its best, trying its hardest, embracing itself. The Virgen moved on.

My work here was done. As she receded the crowds behind her dissipated a little and I wandered till I found an accessible bar and a beer. Glory be to all the Angels in Heaven! The procession continued – I could still hear its music in the distance. Who knew, at this stage, which would be her route to the shrine? I didn’t allow it to preoccupy me unduly as I downed the beer, or afterwards as I wandered home, happy to leave the townspeople to their celebrations and in need of my bed.

Early September in Tarifa is still sultry and I lay there for some hours, sleepless in the heat. The music never quite stopped. It just grew fainter over time. Whatever route she was taking, she was in no hurry.

Until, at a certain point late in the night, it seemed to me that it was getting louder again, which didn’t make sense. But it was. I could hear the drum beat and band as they returned to the little square in front of the church, from where they had set out. I realised I had only witnessed the very beginning of tonight’s spectacle – that it was a long night, and a circuit, culminating at the church. I heard the finale from my rooftop as they blasted out some classical tunes and the national anthem. There was singing and, it seemed, some kind of coordinated shouting.

In a way I wished I was down there with them, but in another I was happy to listen from here, a fly-by-night – in town for barely two weeks, I was more comfortable hidden. Since she ended the night back at the church, the mystery of the Virgen’s return to her shrine must remain, for me, unsolved. I have no idea where she is now and I prefer it that way. Not on the back of a pickup, I hope.

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  1. I love the movement in these photos, really adds to the editorial.

  2. beautiful photos- the red of the girls’ dresses is so…Spanish. It’s lovely that you encountered this on the way out for milk. That’s the kind of thing that keeps us traveling. Because on the way for milk at home not much usually happens. Ironically, the Mary processions in Ireland seem very exotic to me as an American!

  3. Difficult for me to equate “exotic” with Ireland but then I suppose it must be for many visitors! Yes, it was magical that in the time it took me to pass by the church, pick up some milk in a local store and retrace my steps, all of the above had begun to materialise…

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