They were waiting on the steps of the cathedral. All fifteen of them. Temporary wall-flowers, waiting for their turn to waltz. Adorned in fine fabrics, shot through with gold thread, capped with crowns and canopies, surrounded by fresh flowers, and outlined against a sky-blue heaven. Each surrounded by his own musicians, dancers, dignitaries and followers.
Spectators milled about. Some rested on the cathedral steps, others lined the edge of the plaza, sitting on the kerb and makeshift stools. They shaded their eyes from the sun holding broad-rimmed hats at the side of their faces; delved into large plastic shopping bags for snacks and drinks, and chatted to friends and family. Vendors sold paper hats, plastic rosaries, ‘spot the saint’ booklets, cakes, bubble-kits, balloons, soft-drinks and plastic stools. Young girls in heavily embroidered skirts and fringed hats posed with lambs and little llamas for small change. The crowd grew.
Outside the huge, green, wooden cathedral doors, church officials busied themselves with candles and incense. A priest intoned in Spanish. Silence fell. Those standing knelt or lowered their heads, and removed their hats. An old woman made the sign of the cross over her chest. Saints and virgins, obscured by clouds of incense, hovered above, beneficent, and resplendent. Still waiting. Choirboys and priests paraded, nuns and old ladies wearing lace mantillas shuffled along. Banners fluttered on poles, and rosettes shimmered in the sun. Drum beats and trumpet blasts, flutes, and conch-shells. The saints were finally ready to roll.
St. Jerome got the party started. Mounted on an intricately carved wooden bier, raised on the shoulders of twenty parishioners, men and saint staggered from side to side, while the bearers found their rhythm. The strain showed. Foreheads creased. Faces glistened with sweat. A saint and his bier can weigh up to a ton. For long periods the men stood still, shouldering their burden. At such times, they turned around, letting the other shoulder bear the load. Family members fed them ice-cream, trickled water into their mouths; and took photographs – for this was an honour, something to go down in the annals of family history. In front of each effigy, teen-aged boys carried a make-shift wooden table, a resting place when the saint became just too much to bear. Boisterous and aggressive, they ran towards the crowd, shouting for space. They twirled, and rushed; rammed the crowd almost, and sometimes they fell.
There were brass-bands and dancers. Traditional costumes, glorious hats, fabulous colours. Saint Christopher, Saints Barbara and Ana, and all the others followed; saints and virgins born aloft, parading the main square, until all fifteen had danced, sparkled and delighted.
After eight days, the saints were on the move again, for a kind of reverse Corpus Christi – to go back to their own churches. For days afterwards, it seemed, we encountered stray saints in small cobblestone streets. Always a party, always a procession.