July 20, 2014

Day 19: A Coração da Festa

This morning was probably the most important part of the Festa do Emigrante, and hardly anyone was there — a procession down the main street of Lajes to the church, in which people from the various other churches in the parish brought crowns representing the Espirito Santo (Holy Ghost).

For those not familiar (most of you), the cult of the Holy Ghost is pretty much specific to the Azores and is carried over to the Azorean communities in the US, Canada, and Brazil. As far as I know it doesn't really exist much in mainland Portugal. I won't go into great ethnographic detail now, but you can get the basics here. There are special festas (feast days) and rituals devoted to the Espirito Santo, but it tends to make an appearance at any major event here.

What I find interesting is the absence of humanized iconography. There is no visible "person" being worshiped or represented. No images of Jesus or Mary or any of the saints. Instead, the only symbols are a nearly transparent crown, sometimes a scepter, and a dove. That's about it. These are housed in a special small chapel called an imperio, and there is usually nothing much else in there except the banners and other items used during the processions (the two photos below were taken on Pico during my previous trip). Those of you who know me know that I am not at all religious, but I find this kind of unmediated, "minimalist Catholicism" quite beautiful and interesting.

The procession this morning consisted of groups from each church in this freguesia (parish) bearing their banners and crowns, each accompanied by its own folia, an ensemble of men playing drums and cymbals and singing stark hymns. As they marched solemnly down the street, the foliões alternated singing, first one group then another, until all had been represented. There were only a handful of people there watching, most of whom I think were associated with the participants.

I've been worrying that the ethnographic part of this project was getting a little lost, so I was happy to make recordings and take photos at the same time (thanks, little Canon point n' shoot!). In some circumstances I might have felt self-conscious about doing this, but there were plenty of other people documenting the event, and I was probably one of the more discreet ones. There was a TV crew there, and a number of people with video cameras and tablets and shooting still photos, all of whom were getting up much closer than I was. There was even one old guy who was recording all of the sound on an ancient boom box.

The procession ended at the church, transitioning directly into a mass, which was better attended than the procession. I didn't understand a lot of what was being said, but at one point I could tell the priest was talking about all of the emigrants who have moved from the Azores to California and New England and Canada and Brazil, and how they have kept alive the Espirito Santo traditions there. I recorded the whole thing from up in the choir loft (along with several other photographers and the guy with the boom box), including some fabulous bell ringing in a continuous "strumming" style I've never heard before — again with the minimalism! At the end I went up in the bell tower and the sound was really intense. In the photo below you can kind of make out all of the crowns lined up on the two side altars, thirteen in all.

In the afternoon I was invited to join Regina Meireles and her family for lunch, but had no idea it would be at such a special place. Her daughter Ana picked me up and we drove about five minutes out of town, then pulled over by the side of the road. We got out and walked down a barely visible gravel path to an old stone mill house, set next to a creek and shaded by many large trees, a secret patch of heaven. Regina's parents met and courted here — it was where girls used to come to wash clothes, and boys would come there to meet them — and they eventually bought it because they had such sentimental feelings about it. All of the family I met the other day in Fajã were there, plus a couple of other young friends of her daughters. After a big lunch one of the guys got out a Portuguese guitar, and Manuel got out a classical guitar (called a viola here), and Regina's husband Armando began to sing fados from Coimbra. He has a beautiful voice, and I'll be hearing him sing later this evening with a grupo folclórico as part of the festa events. Again I must say that the kindness and hospitality shown toward me by this family has been truly wonderful, and I can't think of a better way to have spent my last afternoon on Flores. As Regina said to me: "We are not rich, but we are rich in other ways." Indeed.