Friday, April 10, 2009

Easter Here and There

Today is Good Friday, when Christians mark the death of Jesus by crucifixion. Given the quite bloody nature of the act, I have never been quite clear how the term “good” got put in there by his believers. I would have guessed that “Bad Friday” might have been a more appropriate name.

This counts as just one among the list of minor confusions that inflict a non-Christian surrounded by Catholics (including in my own family) during this, one of the most holy weekends of the year.

So in that detachment, here are some observations about the difference between Easter here in Bolivia and how I remember it (it’s been a decade) in the U.S.

Cochabamba sits at the feet of the largest statue of Jesus on Earth – just a teeny bit bigger than Rio’s and multi-colored at night. On this rainy Friday the city is closed up as tight as a drum, and not because of the rain. Schools, stores and businesses are closed across this valley, as they are across Bolivia and across Latin America. Transportation is at a minimum. Not even Christmas Day here is as shuttered.

From what I recall from Easters back in the U.S., on Good Friday the schools are still open and the buses all run on normal schedule. Though I think the banks may close at noon. I can’t recall exactly, so maybe someone can clarify that. Banks have a lot to pray about this year. To be sure there are some separation of church and state issues in this up there. As Easter always falls on Sunday, this avoids a constitutional conflict. Christmas as a holiday is just a given.

Crosses Here and There

And this comes to my first point about Easter here and Easter there. In the U.S. it is all about Easter and Sunday. Here it is all about Good Friday. Or in other words, up there it is all about “the resurrection.” Here it is all about “the death.”

Consider for a moment the crosses that adorn the altars of Christian churches here and there. In the U.S. (again, from what I recall) a lot of the crosses over the altars don’t even have Jesus on them at all. They are sort of stylized pieces of abstract art. It is as if Jesus may have left altogether, just pulled out the nails when no one was looking and sort of walked away. And if Jesus is on the cross he usually looks more like he is asleep than a torture victim. He looks, well, almost serene.

Not in Latin America. The Jesus nailed to the cross here leaves no doubt as to what the Romans had in mind that day. The savior is a bloody mess. Blood streams from his wounds, from his face. The look on that face is tortured, like a man who genuinely is in the midst of being physically tortured. This is Mel Gibson’s Jesus.

Henri Nouwen was a Catholic priest from Holland and the U.S., who traveled extensively in Bolivia and Peru in the early 1980s (including a long stint here in Cochabamba) and who later wrote about his reflections in a wonderful and humble journal titled, Gracias. It was from his writings that I first got the distinction between what those different images of Jesus meant. He explained, wisely I think, that the impoverished majority of Latin America identifies with the “suffering” of Jesus. People have a sense of connection between the hardships and indignities they endure daily with the suffering they see before them on the cross.

I am no theologian but there is something about that explanation that makes sense to me.

And About that Big Bunny

Okay, let’s get to the big difference, the one that for my investment in chocolate really matters. Brace yourselves children. In Bolivia there is no Easter Bunny. Really, he doesn’t come here at all. Some will say that Evo just won’t give him a visa. But he didn’t come when Goni was in charge either.

On a handful of street corners here there are women selling piles of small chocolate eggs wrapped in colored foil. There are even some foil-wrapped bunnies on the pile as well, though not many. I am leery of these, because I am betting that a lot are leftover from the unsold piles of last year, or from 2003. My coworker Leny tells me that no one here really knows what the eggs are about, pero son lindos y los niños les gusta. So it begins.

Nope, in Bolivia it just isn’t about the bunny. More so it looks like this.

Last night people filled the streets of Cochabamba to visit the twelve churches. The streets are jammed with people walking and almost as many others selling them carmel apples, api, and other treats. Not even a light rain hampered the tradition. Today many families will gather for the traditional meal of the “doce platos,” the twelve plates. Not a single one of those plates will include meat, for reasons good Catholics will understand. Yesterday’s occasional piles of tiny chocolate eggs seemed out done by much larger piles of some sort of dried shrimp that is part of the menu.

Okay, I lied before. The Easter Bunny does come to Bolivia. He or she (the gender of the Easter Bunny has never been clearly established) comes in illegally, sin visa, to keep a handful of children in foreign families happy. The Easter Bunny vs. La Migra.

To entice her or his undocumented arrival today we will color hard-boiled eggs. Then we will hide them around the yard along with a very large quantity of tiny chocolate eggs. Then a group of very eager children of various nationalities will run as fast as they can to fund them. In keeping with tradition I will follow the littlest ones around and make tiny chocolate eggs wrapped in foil miraculously appear in front of their tiny feet.

To be sure there is some cultural confusion in this. Last year when my wife invited the parents of one of my daughter’s friends at school to join us, a Bolivian family, she explained that we were going to color hardboiled eggs. That translates “tenir juevos duros.” He thought she said, “tener juegos duros,” which translates differently to, “We are going to play hard games.” He came prepared for a battle of U.S. style football but found himself dipping eggs in a coffee cup with blue dye.

I was particularly proud of my egg entry last year, which had a crayon drawn face that looked just like Bolivia’s President. I called it, “Evo el Huevo.” No one else was particularly impressed.

And as in the U.S., on Saturday night we will leave carrots out on a plate for the Easter Bunny’s certain appetite after so far a journey. And in the morning small footprints that resemble chalk marks (but they are real, they aren’t made of chalk) will wander about the floors and walls of our house tracing where the Mr. or Ms. Bunny may have hid a basket. I have noticed that as my children have grown older the Bunny finds harder and harder places to hide these baskets. By the time you hit my age they are impossible to find altogether, but I still look.

Okay, there you have it – a cold and academic comparative analysis of Easter traditions in the U.S. and Latin America. It is important that we take these things seriously.

Hey, “Evo the Huevo.” Get it?

Happy Easter to all Our Readers!

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8 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Happy Easter, Jim. No idea why the difference between the gringo Christ nailed to the cross and the one south of the border. Cultural or political correctness? I believe it's the latter.

Speaking of policital correctness, know how politically incorrect I am, I'll probably engorge myself with protein from a churrasqueria, rodizio, or "tierritas" this holy weekend. Lotsa fruit and chocolate bunnies and/or eggs will follow...and prayers of thankfulness, of course.

;-)

The Croats are Morales' Jews
Beni is Morales' Katrina

12:02 PM  
Anonymous Kristina said...

"I have never been quite clear how the term “good” got put in there by his believers."
Come on, Jim, you're smarter than this ;)

1:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good Friday is called "good" because Catholics believe that through his death (on Friday) and resurrection, Jesus redeemed the world.

The crosses without the body of Christ are generally seen in Protestant Churches whereas Catholic Churches generally display Christ cruxified. The graphic crosses seen in Bolivia (as well as South America and Spain) are an artistic sensibility that differs from that of Northern Europe. There has been a change over the past 40 years in the Catholic Churches of North America to focus on the resurrected Christ of Easter rather than the torture and death. Some would say that this follows of loss of a sense of sin (if Christ is suffering for our sins, and we don't believe we are sinners, why focus on suffering?).

As an exchange student in Bolivia, my American family sent me jelly beans and chocolate eggs. I recall making Easter baskets for each of the little children in the household and introducting them to the concept of the "hunt".

With regard to closings in the US on Good Friday, the financial markets are closed. Banks generally follow the markets and close as well (aka a Bank Holiday). Depending on the proportion of Christians (and particularly Catholics) in a region, schools may be closed and in some areas, it is a paid holiday for employees. Connecticut, perhaps uniquely, does not permit the sale of alcoholic beverages on Good Friday.

1:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I will once again plead with the almighty that the scumbag of a vice president, Alvaro Garcia Linera, will one day find himself back in jail for robbing my beloved San Simon University at gun point.

What's baffling is that most bolivians are unaware of this maniacs criminal past in Cochabamba and elsewhere. Anyone who knows this man knows he is a bipolar, twisted, and vindictive individual with an extensive criminal background. Yet somehow he manages to become vice president. Go figure, and we wonder why our country continues to be a stagnant third world hole in the wall.

7:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And the connection to Easter would be...

8:07 PM  
Blogger Jim McIntosh said...

I, too, read Nouwen's Gracias and thought that the Good Friday/Easter Sunday differences was based on the economic divide. Having seen the great similarity between the Philippine and the Hispanic American religious practices, however, I now think that the difference is between Spanish Catholic practices and those of Irish Catholic/European Protestant practices. Spanish Catholicism dwells much more on blood and the suffering of Christ than do other the other cultures.

Modern religious practice depends to a great deal on the practices of the original culture (e.g., water revelry at carnaval and the marked differences between the Day of Dead in the former Aztec/Mayan and the Amayra/Quechua cultures) and the practices of the converting religion. In this case, I think the emphasis on the suffering of Jesus on Good Friday can be much more attributed to the Spanish influence than to economic influence.

9:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good Friday is called in the Castilian language as "Viernes Santo", which is literally translated as "Holy or Sacred Friday". People in spanish speaking america, at least in Bolivia, rarely mention the term "Easter or Pascua", "Semana Santa" is preferred. Also, Palm Sunday is Domingo de Ramos.
Please bear in mind.

Pasadena Camba.

6:48 PM  
Anonymous JMB said...

I think the difference is that in LA, people take religious festivals seriously whereas, in the US people are more passe, shall we say, about religion. Its no strange thing to see processions of people following a few who are dragging a cross on their backs through the streets in LA.

There's no Easter Bunny because, well, what does it have to do with Semana Santa? What does it have to do with Christ? Nothing. So as not to take away from the real reason for remembrance, nothing is interjected which would distract.

Economic divide? No, its simply a matter of which day is seen as more important ... the death or the rise.

2:57 AM  

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