Between Postcards and Realities

Exterior of the Shrine of El Rocío / ALEJANDRA CEBALLOS

Francisca Medica Caro, a traditional fritter maker from El Rocío, reflects the seasonal work situation that afects many inhabitantsin one of the municipalities with the biggest risk of povertry.

–  Patricia?

– No, Paqui.

– How do you spell it?, ¿With a K?

– No, with the letter…

She stops, she cannot remember how to say the letter. She takes a piece of paper and writes “Pagui” in cursive.

From Almonte, below the age of 60, inhabitant of El Rocío. That’s how the operator at Caixa Bank describes her when she calls to offer her an insurance policy. From the other end of the line, she says, “yes”.

At El Rocío, a village from Almonte, Francis – ca Medina Cano is one of the only eight inhabitants of Vetalengua street. She lives at number sixteen with her three sons in a two- story house. Around her, there is no one.

“Right in front of her lives a woman, and two houses down, a couple of Romanians, but only during the strawberry season. Some of the houses are full in summer or people come just for weekends,” she says, showing the empty houses.

There is a little girl playing in the street, and a neighbor passes by on horseback without stopping. It is a reflection of a village with less than 2,000 inhabitants that belongs to the municipality of Almonte. Here, more than the 55% of the economical activity is based on tourism and services. Then, the difference between summer and the rest of the year is, as the locals say, “abysmal.”

The owner of the fritter shop “Churreria Me – dina” learned the art of turning flour, water and oil into Andalusian´s favorite breakfast when she was just 12, and since then, she has been dedicated to it. Like 90% of the population of her municipality, she does not have higher education and neither do her sons. They work at the fritter shop on weekends, and, on weekdays, they do “whatever they can find.” Juan, Antonio and Manuel decided not to continue to study after high school and are now principally do manual work in the countryside.

From Monday to Friday, and especially during winter, Paqui is free to rest or to do housework. She is part of the 30% of Andalusians who, since 2014, make up the statistics of low work intensity per household.

Instead, on Saturdays and Sundays, she wakes up at six o’clock in the morning and takes two kilograms of flour; there is not an exact measure, just “as much flour as water,” she says moving her arms, trying to explain a recipe that is as natural as walking, so she cannot quantify it.

She leaves the dough ready, while the rest of the village is just waking up. She opens the side door of a white two-square-meters stall. Below a red sign that says Churreria Medina, there is a frontal window through which you can see a cabinet and the espresso and fritter machines.

She gets the oil hot. From a giant funnel comes a tight yarn of liquid dough that Paqui curls up with a couple of wooden sticks, making crunchy and puffy spirals that start to form when hitting the boiling oil.

At the end, using the sticks, she rescues a spiral of more or less fifty centimeters of diameter from the oil. She leaves them in the shopfront, where they will be cut, weighed and sold to customers.

Francisca Medina Caro outside her home// ALEJANDRA CEBALLOS LÓPEZ

“Give me a euro’s worth of fritters,” says the first man that arrives. Paqui takes the little canes she just cut, wraps them in paper and weighs them. “Here you have a euro and fifty centsworth. Should I leave it that way, or do you want less?” “That´s fine.” He answers and takes his fritter, a coffee and leaves.

During the first hours of the morning, entire families, groups of elderly people and customers arrive buying threads or “a few euros worth” of fritters. Meanwhile, people visiting the village arrive. Every two minutes, around 10 cars pass by, as well as buses from the Doñana natural park and carriages pulled by horses with people clapping and singing inside.

The gas truck passes and the fritter-vendor buys two tanks. Then, the supplier of the ingredients arrives. “Whatever I owe you, you will have to wait. I just spent what I’ve earned today on gas,” she says to the man who patiently nods and asks what she needs for her next order.

“The chocolate mix is done with, and, since the romerías are coming, I will need a little bit of everything,” says Paqui, talking about the busiest week of the year- a religious celebration in which a million people can congregate.

It is the only week of the year in which she works every day and even needs two of her sons at the shop to be able to attend all of the incoming clients. This religious, cultural and holy phenomenon is the insignia of El Rocío and on a larger scale of Andalusia. 119 religious brotherhoods affiliated to the Matrix Brotherhood of Almonte travel up to nine days on foot, by carriage, horse, car, truck or motorcycle to celebrate the Pentecost Monday next to the “White Pigeon,” the Virgin of El Rocío.

The Patron Saint of Almonte, inside the white shrine (sanctuary) might welcome over 300,000 visitors during the weekend and over a million pilgrims during the Romeria’s week.

According to the legend, the image of this Virgin was first found by a hunter from Almonte during the 15th century. In 1587, the first shrine was built with the money sent from Peru by the Sevillian trader Baltasar III. Among other miracles attributed to her, people from Almonte thank the Virgin for saving them during the French occupation in the 19th century. Since then, the pilgrims began to show their gratitude for the favors the Virgin did for the population of this town.

The huge growth of this phenomenon was reinforced by the visit of the pope Saint Juan Pablo II in 1993, when he declared that everybody should become a rociero.

So, 20,000 horses, 8,000 cars, 3,000 tractors and more than a million pilgrims congregate in a village that is usually empty. During the Romerias week, the colors, dance, music and the exaltation of the senses congregate at the biggest pilgrimage of Spain. Paqui uses 20 kilograms of flour instead of two, and her chocolates, usually made one by one, now need a machine with the capacity of 50 liters of milk to supply the demand of thousands of visitors that pass along the sandy streets that, weeks ago, were empty on weekdays.

Interior of the shrine of El Rocío with the image of the Virgin at the main altar/ ALEJANDRA CEBALLOS LÓPEZ

In front of the fritter shop window, where there used to be an empty house of the Ginés Brotherhood and the parked cars of tourists, there are now pilgrims dressed with the typical flamenco costume in flashy colors. The brotherhood occupies the house, and there are four new fritter shops at the four corners of the square. The cars wait outside the town that has been closed for the pilgrims to walk freely.

– Do you wear a dress for Romerias?

– Me? No, I wear a fritter costume.

Paqui smiles, standing up from the table and going to the back wall, where she has a picture of her father dressed up for the pilgrimage.

“I only go to mass when someone dies, but when I was younger I always went on pilgrimages. And now, I have pictures of the Virgin which comfort me,” she says in front of the picture of a man dressed in black next to a carriage decorated with colorful flowers.

According to the anthropologist and professor at the University of Seville, Isidoro Moreno, Andalusia has one of the lowest rates of religious participation in Spain, even though, big festivities like Holy Week or the romerías in Andalusia are some of the most important in the country.

According to Moreno and his partner Salvador Rodriguez Becerra, director of the Investigation and Studies of Andalusian Religions Group, the high participation at these festivities is due to the possibility of being identified as part of a community. The world becoming lay does not mean that there won’t be anything holy, it just means that each individual can decide what is holy and what is not. And, for this population, being identified with the others, is what holy is.

It is time for everyone to show their status. The Main Brother covers the expenditure of the brothers of every subsidiary. The men on horseback show their superiority over those who go by foot on the sandy paths. The visitors are delighted by the postcard image of an ephemeral event.

It is easy to imagine El Rocío as a small paradise trapped in time, where pilgrimages, horses and countryside are the daily bread.

It is not difficult to dream of the times when men and women went around the sandy paths of the village next to the wetlands, surrounded by blossomed wild olive trees, while weddings were celebrated in the white shrine.

But that’s it, a picture of a village in which just 16 percent of the population is younger than 15, where inhabitants depend on the pilgrims and tourists who only come on weekends, because on weekdays, “there is nothing. The town is empty; the restaurants open just for the sake of opening,” a waitress from the restaurant El Frenazo Rociero says.

In the middle of the Doñana Natural Park, the inhabitants of El Rocío pass their days waiting for tourists, weekends, summer and especially, pilgrimages. Meanwhile, the sandy empty streets are often surprised by a local who comes by horse or foot, between the trees and the birds, who are the real neighbors of the town.