Rite of passage: Expats cross cultural divide

Rite of passage: Expats cross cultural divide

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Easter parades are quintessentially Spanish. So when British expats took part in one for the first time, it was a cultural first.

The Spanish people take Easter, Semana Santa, very seriously. The various festivities, in many towns, always culminate in huge processions through the streets of the Pasos, the enormous floats depicting the Stations of the Cross, born on the shoulders of the Costaleros, dozens of young, strong Spanish men.

Long term expats bridge the divide with the locals

Or, in one unique instance, on the stooping shoulders of a group of middle-aged, grey-haired British residents, all of whom were wondering how the heck they got themselves involved in this.

It began almost by accident, with a simple request.

The manager of the foreigner's office in Torrevieja, in south-east Spain, British-born ex-police officer Graham Knight, 55, was asked by local town councillor for culture, Eduardo Dolon, for a few Brits to help carry one of the Pasos.

After a few discussions, the idea spread to 'Why not have a Paso carried solely by members of the foreign community?' It would be a first; it had never been done before, not in all of Spain, not, it is believed, in the entire Roman Catholic world.

Knight gradually assembled a few ‘volunteers’.

"It wasn’t easy", he told us, "The Paso weighs over 1,000kgs, and requires a hundred men to carry it.

"It was so heavy that it had, in the past, been mounted on a wheeled chassis and pulled, but now it has been refurbished, and would have to be carried."

The Paso that was made available for the foreigners was that of Jesus in the Garden of Olives, with life-sized carved statues of the sleeping Saints, John, Peter and James, with the Christ beyond them and, behind him, a soaring angel, wings outstretched.

All carved in solid wood, on a huge chassis, sheathed in silver and plated in gold. Oh, and two trees, as well, plus several car batteries to power the lights, and flowers in tubs all around the tableau, just to finish it off.

Word got around; the first few volunteers were assembled, then the idea took hold and finally they reached the magic number of one hundred.

Uniforms had to be paid for, black trousers with a green silk shirt, and white gloves.

That was a start. Then there were the accompanying Nazarenes, the ladies in flowing robes, masked and hooded, a la Ku Klux Klan.

They had to make their own costumes, but local seamstress Margaret Tuft, a British expat, had soon assembled a team of sewers, and got to work. 

"My house became a factory," said Tuft, "The team have done an incredible job making the costumes."

Then the Costaleros had to start rehearsing and to practise Pasos, learning to move from side to side so that the entire Paso swayed above them.

These Ku Klux Klan-like figures accompany the paso

In time, they learned the rhythm, learned to march in step, ably guided by Briton Mike Upsher, a former undertaker, who has some experience of these things.

By this time, the Spanish press was taking notice, and reports began to appear of this novel idea, with stories appearing in the national media.

Then came the day when the Paso, newly refurbished, arrived, to be ritually blessed at a Mass held by the town’s leading priests, attended by local dignitaries – and the entire British cofradia, or brotherhood.

The following week, the Paso was wheeled out, and the cofradia inserted the eight huge carrying poles, and got ready to take the strain.

On the command, every man got in position, took the weight – and the elegant Paso was raised, settled onto shoulders, and the British Cofradia was in business!

For several practise sessions, the Paso was born aloft through nearby streets, until the day of the first procession, the Monday before Easter, arrived.

Amidst hundreds of fit young Spaniards, the Brits were easy to identify - green shirts and grey hair.

Gradually, the procession assembled, the bands got into place, the drummers in front, the Nazarenes alongside, the Penitentes, dressed solemnly in black, assembled behind the huge Paso, and the Cofradia were ready.

As thousands of Spaniards watched, the Paso was lifted aloft, and the Costaleros began the rhythmic sway, prior to beginning the long march around the town.

The reception given to the British Costaleros by the Spanish onlookers made everything worthwhile.

"It was fantastic, unbelievable," said Knight, whose job it was to march with the Paso, giving the instruction when to raise or lower it.

"The Spanish were just overwhelmed, they cheered, some were in tears of emotion, we just couldn’t believe how enthusiastic they were. It made it all worthwhile, all the hours of practise, all the work we’d put into it."

A typical paso weighs up to 1,000kg

Never before have foreigners, even non-Catholics, carried a Paso in a Semana Santa procession.

The Spanish press, even national TV were there, as shouts of ‘Viva los Costaleros Inglese!’ rang out.

The hardy Brits walked on, bearing the Paso – the equivalent weight of a bag of cement for each man, more than expected, since the carrying poles were shorter, meaning there were actually only 86 carriers – through the streets.

Drums crashed, bugles played, the Nazarenes dispensed sweets to the hundreds of children along the route, the Penitentes marched solemnly behind.

Two hours of marching – it will be nearer five on Good Friday!

This writer was one of them, and it was an experience of a lifetime. For the first time, after some 15 years in Spain, I felt I was finally, at last, fully integrated into the Spanish way of life, making a real contribution, not just as a foreign resident, but as part of a real Cofradia, of real Spain. Vive los Costaleros Inglese indeed!


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