Holy Defined

The Gonzales sisters exemplify the true meaning of Easter.

Ask 100 Catholics what the holiest time of the year is and only about 50 will correctly answer "Easter." Another 25 will say "Christmas," and the rest--the ones who show up to Mass only occasionally, and then do so wearing shorts, sandals and a baseball cap--will ask what "holy" means.

The Gonzales sisters, who are part Mexican-American and part Yaqui Indian, and therefore industrial-strength Catholics, would know the answer to that question. The three high school students are a pleasant anomaly these days--good students, outstanding athletes and devoutly religious people. The three girls (including a set of twins) have been following a grueling schedule these past 43 days of Lent, but the most intense few days are yet to come.

The twins, Francisca and Celia, are twins like Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger were in the movie. I guess you could say that the resemblance is something less than uncanny. They're a year ahead in school of their younger sister, Andrea.

Franny, who writes poetry and draws beautifully, is the reigning Miss Pascua Yaqui. She rides in parades and does that back-handed wave to people like Mexican politicians do. She has to wear long sleeves because that's where she wears all of her emotions. The kid cries at cartoons.

Her twin sister, Celia, is stoic to the point where people feel the need to check her pulse every now and then. When she does finally smile, it's like her lips are Super Glued together. You get the feeling that she's trying to figure out a way to charge a fee to allow people to see her teeth.

Andrea is more outgoing, quicker to laugh, but she's also not without a temper. As teenagers go, she's still relatively quiet, except on the softball field, where she talks constantly! She ends every sentence with "now," although her "now" seems to have eight or nine syllables in it.

I can just imagine the car trip when these three go down to the Yaqui part of Mexico. Andrea will look out the window and say, "Oh look, a cactus!"

Franny will think about it for an hour or so, then say, "No, it was a tree."

Then, after a couple more hours, Celia will say, "If you guys are going to keep up this constant chattering, I'm going to get out and walk."

They're the daughters of former state legislator Sally Ann Gonzales and her husband, Luis.

The entire family is extremely active in the Pascua Yaqui village on the far southwest edge of Tucson. Being a part of a tribe and living in a village named for Easter, this is clearly their busiest and most important time of the year.

The Yaqui people first settled an area of Mexico along the Rio Yaqui, not far from the modern-day Ciudad Obregon. They farmed the land and lived in relative peace for hundreds of years. The Spanish missionaries converted them to Catholicism, but "allowed" the Yaquis to retain and incorporate some of their own rituals into the Catholic Miracle Plays, many of which tell the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Around 1900 political unrest and revolutionary fervor brought death and destruction to the Yaqui people. The government first tried to assimilate the Yaquis and make them into "civilized" Mexican farmers. The Yaquis resisted, fearing that they would lose their culture. A reign of terror ensued. Entire villages were wiped out, sometimes simply because the people dared to worship in the same way that their parents and grandparents had. In a move aimed at either assimilation or genocide, the government then forced some Yaquis to march to the Yucatan Peninsula, where they were put to work as slaves.

Many Yaquis fled to Southern Arizona, where they settled in Guadalupe, south of Phoenix, and in the Pascua Yaqui village near Tucson. The religious rituals, which had been forced underground in Sonora, were resurrected and practiced openly in the United States.

It's difficult to explain all that the Yaquis do during Holy Week. It's like Catholicism on steroids. They recreate much of the Passion of Jesus, from his betrayal after the Last Supper to his crucifixion, death and resurrection. But their rituals involve evil people known as fariseos (Pharisees) and masked individuals known as chapayekas. The chapayekas pursue Jesus (represented by a figure in a scarlet robe known as the Nazarene) from the fifth Friday in Lent to noon on Good Friday. The people then recreate the 14 Stations of the Cross leading up to the crucifixion.

On Saturday, an effigy of Judas Iscariot is dressed up as a chapayeka and burned. On Easter Sunday, the resurrection is celebrated and blessings are conveyed.

When the girls invited me to attend, I was surprised to learn that non-Yaquis are welcome at the ceremonies (the one here in Tucson will be held at Cristo Rey Church in the Pascua Yaqui village), but must follow certain strict orders. The religious rites cannot be photographed or filmed. A visitor is even forbidden to make a sketch of what he sees.

That's fine with me. I'm the worst artist in America. I couldn't draw flies with rancid meat.

Los Gonzales choose to participate in the rituals in Guadalupe, where several close family members live. That means that for the past several weeks, the girls have had to play their high-school basketball or softball games on Friday, drive up the interstate, do homework in the car, sleep at a relative's house and take part in all the ceremonies.

There's no complaining, however. As Andrea explains it, "We don't have a reservation, like a lot of Indians. We have villages where Yaquis settled after leaving (the persecution) in Mexico. We don't mind all this traveling and all the rituals during Lent. It's what ties us together as a people."