Bem-te-vi ... Five
The Procession of our Lady of Achiropita
My friend Paulo Bezulle and I walk northwest from my apartment through a pleasant, very Paulista mix of modern apartment buildings with metal picket fences and electronic gates jostling with one, two and three storey concrete and stucco buildings from the early 20th century painted in bright colours; many little bars, newsstands, lanchonetes(cafés), laundrettes, drugstores, barbershops, tiny groceries, dentists; a jumbled, jostling mix… We head down Rua Treze de Maio past the little square of Dom Orione and into Bixiga; an old Italian neighbourhood, narrow hilly streets, cobbled pavements, low apartment buildings and little houses with balconies covered in washing, plants in pots and trees with sharp coloured flowers growing up out of cracks in the ground, many small bars and cafes selling pastels (these are pasties you eat, not drawing tools) and coffee and beer. The streets are full of people setting up food stalls for the festa after the procession – stand after stand preparing to sell pastas, sausages, pastels, beans, rice – vats of deep red tomato sauce, buckets of grated mozzarella, ropes of glistening Lugarian sausage looped around scaffold poles, piles and piles of long Italian bread loaves. There is an air of waiting, young men and women leaning against walls at street corners laughing and drinking, competing sound systems broadcasting samba-reggae, Brazilian popular songs and a full on operatic version of Ave Maria…..We stroll along and come upon a street laid with a processional ‘carpet’ made of coloured sand and sawdust – each section of is around 6 foot square and carries the names of different community groups, or of our Lady of Achiropita, or just a cross….vivid colours and wild textures. The carpet leads up a hill where there is a line of people waiting to receive Our Lady and bring her into the church. We walk down the hill towards the sounds of samba, when the procession appears around the corner. Children, adults, family groups, men’s groups, women’s groups all singing songs of praise to our Lady, gently dancing along the way, and at the centre of the procession held high aloft is a beautiful icon of our Lady of Achiropita with her Baby on her lap – they are both golden brown-skinned and beautifully gilded, with touches of sky-blue about Her robe and a crown upon His head. The singing is light and joyful and the atmosphere changes from waiting to rejoicing as people sitting outside the cafes and bars stand up and join in to wind through the narrow streets to the church.
Meanwhile, we continue our detour towards the sounds of samba and find VaiVai samba school, one of the best in SP, rehearsing outside at the bottom of the hill – the grooves of samba and the singing of the pilgrims mingling with the roar of motorbikes, the thumping of samba-reggae sound systems and the voice of wobbly baritone leading the processional hymns through a small PA in the back of a van….VaiVai are working hard on a complex series of breaks cued by two very focused young men. The group is around 50 strong, men and women of all ages and appearances, playing with deep concentration. People stand around watching intently, some tapping the grooves on their bodies or mouthing the patterns as they watch, and occasionally jumping out of the way of impatient cars or motorbikes trying to navigate the crowded junction. It is a mesmerising display of musical discipline and communal creativity.
We walk back up towards the church, where the procession has now assembled. The square outside the church is packed as the priest says prayers and blesses the crowds, our Lady held high aloft. Then everyone is singing Ave Maria – young men with dreadlocks, elderly women with shopping bags, fathers with children on their shoulders, smart couples with shiny sunglasses, tired looking men with their homes in sacks on their backs….It’s about 5.30 pm and the light has reached its beautiful pre-dusk moment – low, long and lemon coloured, defining the buildings against the flat blue sky in sharp outline – and then there are crackling silver fireworks barely visible in the evening sky and cheers and balloons released to float away over Sao Paulo as Our Lady and her Baby and the pilgrims fill the Church to celebrate….after a short mass the party will start in the streets and go on for many, many hours. We walk a little away from the Church to Sabelucha – the café of our friend and colleague Marta Bruno’s partner – for coffee and delicious sweets. Excited children with balloons come past pulling their parents towards the street party, silver bunting shimmers from all the buildings as the light fades, the wild mix of music gets louder and the enticing smells of garlic, tomatoes, cheese, meat and baking pull the crowds down to the heart of Achiropita. We are peaceful in Bruno’s tiny space, open to the street, perfect for rest and conversation and contemplation of the falling night.