TAXCO, Mexico — Beneath a black and star-studded night, the man in the sky-blue pancake wagon spoons thick fruit syrups over plump hot cakes browned on a charcoal brazier.
Across the cobbled lane, women in lumpy shawls huddle on the steps of La Santisima Church, selling those ubiquitous Mexican street foods, ranging from caldrons of unshucked corn to hot tamales made on the spot.
Lit only by a few bare light globes, the crowd of several dozen is curiously hushed, the children subdued. No radios blare, no cars pass.
It is Tuesday night of Holy Week in the hills of Taxco, and we have gathered in the Plazuela San Nicolas, hub of a small barrio a few blocks from the Church of Santa Prisca and the main plaza.
Few tourists ever venture over here. We are waiting for 9 o'clock and the start of a procession of penitentes in a week of pageantry that is renowned throughout the republic. Its roots stem from Spain in the Middle Ages.
Around 9 a long heavy chain is laid down the center of the cobbled street. Soon the penitentes, perhaps 100 of them, slip barefoot and soundlessly through the dimly lit courtyard of the Church of San Nicolas, across from La Santisima.
Robed and hooded in black, they are medieval apparitions. In Old Spain the hoods shielded them from scorn, it is said. One by one, each penitente is bound at the ankle to the chain. Bent low at the waist and carrying crosses, they drag the chain down the street in lock-step fashion lest they tear their ankles to shreds. Somehow they sense the rhythm.
Close on their heels come las mujeres, the women, not chained but otherwise distinguished from the men only by the smallness of their hands and feet.
Interspersed among them are the children, tiny, solemn-eyed angels aflutter in wings and white ruffles.
Statues of Christ and various saints are borne aloft on litters in a profusion of bougainvillea, gladioluses and roses. Except for the soft whoosh of robes and the measured scrape of chain across stone, the night is silent.
From time to time the stillness is broken by the mournful refrain of a funeral dirge as small bands of musicians filter in with horn, violin and drum. The music is an uncanny echo of the dirges of New Orleans jazz musicians' marching bands.
Reverent faces peer from every window and balcony. Clouds of incense swirl through the air, and the throng has swelled to hundreds, their eyes radiant from the candle each carries. Forming a protective file beside the penitentes, they shuffle off into the night, clogging the labyrinthine streets and lighting the dark with myriad glowing flames.
Around 11 we leave the now-deserted plazuela and make our way to a balcony table at Senor Costillo's overlooking the action on the plaza, to another world, to sip a cerveza and to ponder what we have witnessed.
A priest told us about the penitentes.
"They are a very misunderstood people because they used to practice crucifixion and whipping. But that was a long time ago. The penitentes and their traditions date back to Spain in the 12th or 13th Century. They kept the holy faith alive in Mexico for many years, especially in the remote villages, when the Franciscans were recalled to Spain. The ancestors of my people brought the customs with them to the New World, probably around 400 years ago."
Today the man who is mysteriously hooded by night could be your waiter or banker, taxi driver or mayor by day. In Taxco, no one will say.
The week's events begin on Domingo de Ramas, Palm Sunday, when costumed villagers from the nearby hill hamlet of Tehuilotepec funnel into Taxco's main plaza, laden with palm fronds, fresh flowers and a statue of Christ on a burro.
Beneath the benign eye of the pink and baroque Church of Santa Prisca, the plaza becomes a lush palette of color. Women, men and children settle onto the steps of the church, weaving fronds and selling bundles of flowers and an abundance of Mexican fudge and fruit sticks, cotton candy and balloons.
Monday night is quiet, and Wednesday's procession past the churches of Taxco is much like Tuesday's. The tempo picks up on Holy Thursday. Early in the morning the forecourt of Santa Prisca is transformed into a leafy bower, the Garden of Gethsemane, complete with chirping birds in cages.
Truckloads of Faithful
Throughout the day, truckloads of the faithful from outlying villages rumble through the narrow streets in search of their places for the evening's procession. By nightfall the zocalo takes on a frenzied air as Judas jingles his silver and Roman "soldiers" burst into the garden to arrest Jesus.