All quotes are from a Romero interviewed for a future story. For more information on this piece, please email Jacqueline@WordsFoodArt.com
“Inside of us… it is very beautiful.”
Sao Miguel, Azores
by Jacqueline Raposo – photos by Brent Herrig
It’s five thirty in the morning and a group of Romeros – men on the first of a seven-day pilgrimage around the Azorean island of Sao Miguel – are walking a clipped pace. Together, they sing rounds of the Hail Mary prayer, slightly muddled and off-key, like a fisherman’s monastic chant lifting up through the dark and empty streets.
They meander through alleys of whitewashed row houses, their worn sneakers trodding on pavement and cobblestone. Rounding a corner, they meet a clapping crash of waves — you cannot hide from the Atlantic on this tiny island, 937 miles from the coast of its home country, Portugal. At a church they stop. Huddled, their heads covered in scarves to mute the chill and spray of the surf, they pray.
Sao Miguel is a rustic island. Roads wind in sharp curves so steep that it’s almost impossible to climb them without a strong manual clutch or on something with four hooves. The air is wet and salty; the heavy weight of March dampens chairs abandoned outside of cafes and towels left on clotheslines. There is a movie theater in “the city” of Ponta Delgada, and a mall and beautiful hotels there as well. On the rest of the island, each town might have a few shops and an internet cafe, but very little else to connect them with the world at large.
It is a charming island for those who visit. It can be a hard one for those who stay.
In the center of every town is a square. And within one block of that square is a church, or two, or sometimes three. Bells ring before mass on Sundays. Summer festivals feature processions with girls dressed like angels and men carrying statues of saints on their shoulders, walking the flower-strewn streets from the church and back again with music playing and people clapping before feasting and festivity begin. Widows wear black; brides virginal white veils.
Faith and tradition hold so strongly here that, hundreds of years after it started, many continue to turn to the Romeria for spiritual grounding.
“Something inside of me made me want to understand my life.”
The Romeria is a tradition unique to Sao Miguel, dating back to the mid-eighteenth century, when a series of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions inspired the extremely-Catholic inhabitants to petition god for blessings against nature’s wrath. In a showing of humility and devotion, groups of men started walking up and around the volcanic mountains, making crosswise patterns to stop and pray in each village, speaking little and reflecting on how good god has been to them. Its completion is a promise similar to the ones made at Fatima in Portugal, where devotees walk miles on their bleeding knees in thanks to the Virgin Mary who healed their child or business or broken heart.
Portuguese faith is not passive.
The Romeros today walk in the original form: they carry no food or money, eat only what is brought to them and, if not taken into a home at night by a fellow Christian, sleep on a hard church floor. They are nameless and have no family nor profession. When taken into a home for a night, it does not matter if they’ve met their host before; they are simply called “brother”. Even in the poorest fisherman’s or farmer’s home they are offered the best seat at the table, the best cut of meat, and the softest bed. Their presence is considered a blessing upon the houses they enter. They eat, rest, wake, and walk again.
The older men, their fingers blistered and shoulders sore from farming and building and working with their hands decade after decade, ponder their mortality as they walk, some of them having had very little time throughout their lives to stop and do so. The younger Romeros, still in their teen years or barely out of school, pray for the economy of their country, for education and jobs at home so that fewer of them need to move further into Europe or with relatives in North America. Those younger still, mere boys, walk for reasons they don’t yet understand.
They walk in thanks for the centuries of peace that have been shared between the people and their land. They walk to petition god for renewed health for a loved one, or for a job, or for the departed soul of a relative. Or for merely a chance.
As the sun lifts, the Romeros leave the ocean’s side, wandering up cowpaths and down the paved roads again. At seven they rest at a bus stop, a van slowing with boxes of bread and fruit, bottles of water, packs of cigarettes. They rest and talk quietly, smiling and stretching. It’s their first day, and they’re on their way only to their fourth town. So far, the going has been rather easy, the sun warming and the air drying out. They know each day will be harder, and feel longer. By the end of a week, they will have walked close to three hundred and fifty kilometers and prayed at dozens of churches. In the course of one month, every village will have seen their group of Romeros circumvent the island, praying and bestowing blessings on their behalf.
As they leave their resting place, their renewed chants blend with those of calling birds, pulsing waves, and sulfuric smoke billowing from the peaceful but open caldeiras and volcanos. Then they lapse into silence, the meditative rhythm of their steps lulling them to look within themselves: