Legend has it that in the early years of the colonization of the Canary Islands, in the 16th century, a boat en route for the New World was passing by the coast of La Gomera, when the crew spotted dazzling lights emanating from a hillside close to the port of San Sebastian. Going ashore to investigate, they found the source of the lights came from a cave, and inside the cave they discovered an image of the Virgin Mary.
In awe, they took the statue aboard their boat, but found that they were unable to make any headway, that some strange, unseen force had them held captive. When they were overwhelmed by a huge flock of seagulls, one of which tried to seize the little statue, they decided that this was a sign that the Virgin wished to remain in her cave, and they returned her, and were able to continue the remaining miles to San Sebastian. The folk of that town, on hearing their story, made haste to the place, now known as La Puntallana, and in the Virgin’s honor decided to construct a sanctuary for her there – which is where you will find her today, that is, except for a period of about three months, every five years.
The statue was declared Patroness of the island of La Gomera, and named for Our Lady of Guadalupe, and every five years she leaves her chapel to visit the other churches of this small island. It is a fiesta of some note. In fact, I had delayed my arrival back in October because I thought that port and capital, San Sebastian would be crowded as she began her journey from her sanctuary.
The Canary Islands are steeped in traditions brought or created by the first conquerors who claimed the archipelago, island by island, in the names of Spain and Christianity. The colorful fiestas and romerias of the islands all center around blessings from or homage to saints or the Virgin Mary. Even the spectacular and Disney-esque Librea de Tegueste features a stroll around the square by the Virgin.
I’m not big on the organized religions I’ve had chance to observe over the course of my life so far. I could have timed my arrival to take in this event, but instead I chose to avoid it. I was a little sated by all these fiestas to tell the truth.
Throughout the rest of October and November, as I explored the island, I came across decorations, in preparation for, or left behind after, a visit by the island’s patroness, but remained almost totally immune to the excitement. The only aspect of the whole thing that intrigued me was a comment that, although this was clearly a very Christian festival, it was noteworthy that the route the odyssey followed was an ancient spiritual path, clockwise around the island, dating back to pagan times. Honestly, I’m sceptical about that, but don’t know enough about Paganism to believe it or not.
One evening in my favorite tasca, a few days before her arrival in Hermigua, the subject came up over dinner. A kind neighbor had given me a leaflet from the Church, outlining the 3-months of celebrations, and I asked what was going to happen at weekend when it came to Hermigua’s turn to host the Virgin. Up to that point it had been very subdued, with none of the pre-event fanfare I associated with events after living over 20 years on Tenerife. In fact, only the evening before she was due did I see anything resembling preparations. That was when the roadside between the church at the center of this village and a mirador (viewing place) at the northern entrance sprouted palm leaves along the route, tied to walls and fences. The following morning there were a couple of displays on balconies and windows like the ones below. I drove up and down the narrow strip, which is the heart of the pueblo, but noted nothing else.
I’d been invited to watch the procession from the terrace of a house which overlooks the mirador, and at the appointed time helped my hostess to carry giant ferns and bunches of chrysanthemums home to decorate her balcony. Everything was ready just minutes before we heard the steady thump of drums and the clacking of chácaras (a local type of castanet) as the procession approached.
It’s kind of hard to find the right words to describe what I saw when we scampered to the back door of the house to catch the parade. The statue was being carried by the people of the next village, Agulo, and would be handed over to the safekeeping of the parish of Hermigua at the mirador.
What approached was, truthfully, a kind of ragtag group, dancers not in traditional dress, but in ordinary work clothes, and the village band enthusiastically plodding behind them. The effect was utterly charming and natural, a far cry from some of the ornate displays I’d seen before, and to crown it all the statue carried on the shoulders of the village men. This statue was not the bland-faced, over-dressed virgin I’d seen countless times, looking as if she was about to drop her baby, but a tiny and gentle figurine, with, dare I say, the face of an angel.
Truthfully, I fell just a bit in love with this serene depiction of holiness, in her bright, red and orange and blue, Caribbean-colored, glass case. Whether it was the statue itself or the wave of love emanating from the crowd, it’s impossible to say, but I was moved.
The crowd was, for the most part, jolly, another difference. Previously-seen processions have been definitely sombre and even dour, contrasting with the watchers who have often been drunk. Neither stereotype applied here. There was, quite simply, the joy of having the virgin in their midst for a time. This, I felt, was Christianity or at least Catholicism, as it should be, creating or strengthening a sense of community.
After a short service, the tide moved on, a sea of bodies, the people of Hermigua carrying the statue to their main church, where she would remain for four days. I followed about an hour later, but caught up with them as they entered the church. They had made several stops en route to bless various places. I didn’t linger. There was a mass, and I still had some way to walk, and a distrust of organized religion.
I returned four days later, at least I waited, with a friend at a point on the route where the procession would pass on its way from La Iglesia de la Encarnación to the little church of Santo Domingo Guzman, almost next to which I am staying. Only that morning bunting had been strung around the square and the street linking it to the main road. Paper decorations, reminiscent of the ones my kids used to make in school, and blue and yellow balloons were stuck on doors and windows along the short incline to the church square, renewing that sense of innocent celebration, harking back to childhood, that I’d had four days before.
Again the cavalcade was heralded by chácaras, drums and singing, as it approached our spot by the town hall, where we waited with several dozen citizens. Another blessing, more folk songs, and as the ceremony by the town hall wound up, we headed back to the small church to wait the parade’s arrival, and as dusk began to fall the cheery parade tottered down the incline to the church.
With a swirling of skirts the dancers entered the church square, ahead of the virgin, and disappeared inside, followed by, it seemed, half of the village. I am always surprised that all age groups attend these events, although the people I normally see entering the church are women of a “certain age.” After mass there was a party in the square, right on my doorstep, but I had to retreat indoors because my old pooch was afraid of the rockets, which had been going off at various intervals during the proceedings. My thoughtful neighbor brought us a plate of mouth-watering pastries, and hot chocolate with cinnamon – again harking back to those innocent memories of church and school socials, home baking and sense of community.
Three days later she was gone, this time by car, because the next town along is San Sebastian, island capital, 30 minutes away, and her last stopping place, before she returned to her remote chapel along the coast.
This attraction, this liking, was something new for me, but I wasn’t surprised to cross paths with this diminutive virgin again last Saturday. I was in San Sebastian to shop and meet friends for coffee, when, ambling by the harbor I noticed a small, blue boat being decked with flowers and bunting.
I’d been away in England over the holidays and hadn’t realized that Our Lady’s return home had been delayed by winter storms for a month or so. She is taken to her resting place by boat, and high tides, rain and wind had made it impossible to take her until Saturday. I strolled up to the church, where a small crowd had gathered, and inside the followers readied to accompany the statue on the last stage of her journey.
Again the informality, but already that touch of it being a bigger, more solemn event. I watched as she was gently lowered into the small boat, to the greetings of boat horns from those waiting on the sea, and applause from those on land. And she set off home at last, passing the Fred Olsen cruise ship, Braemar, at the harbor’s entrance. A meeting of the traditional face of La Gomera with its future face?
So many of the traditions here in the Canary Islands are connected to religion. I sometimes wonder if the traditions keep the church going, or the other way around. As an agnostic my default reaction is to decry this situation, and yet, what have the islands left if you take away religion? The Conquistadors successfully eliminated the original aboriginal inhabitants who were living here when they arrived, like the natives of South and Central America, those who were not killed or enslaved fell victim to the foreign diseases brought by the conquerors, and against which they had no resistance. Little remains, and what does are those things adopted by the conquerors……better late than never, centuries after their demise, those aboriginal traditions which can be revived, are being recreated, as Canary Islanders seek their unique identity a thousand miles from the Spanish mainland.