Postcard from Cadiz, Spain: Favorite aunt hanging by strings for generations

Tia Norica

“Corre, corre, Tia Norica.” Tia (Aunt) Norica first pranced across a stage for audiences in Cadiz in the early 1800s.

With a cast of carved wooden figures, artist Pedro Montenegro began staging plays to entertain audiences in 1815. Early shows included the story of the Nativity, Isabel II and Libertad. Tia Norica soon managed to work her way into every play, becoming the audience favorite. The star marionette even merited her own comic sketch, El Sainete de Tia Norica.

The puppet company continued through the years under various directors. Electric lights and retablos for backdrops were added for productions by the early 1900s. And new plays and puppets continued to expand the repertoire.

Some of the charming rod and string puppets made their way to the permanent collection of the Museo de Cadiz in 1978.

“Descendants” of these puppets still are used for festival performances, so Tia Norica retains legions of fans.

No puppeteer is even needed for these older puppets to enchant. My imagination has assigned Tia Norica a voice similar to Robin Williams portraying Mrs. Doubtfire – with a Spanish accent.

The figure of Sancho Panza astride his donkey makes one wonder if the Cadiz puppeteer’s version of Miguel de Cervantes’ classic skipped over Part II, Chapter XXVI, when Master Pedro stages a puppet show for Don Quixote. In the book, Don Quixote was carried away during an attack by Moors in Master Pedro’s play:

Don Quixote, however, seeing such a swarm of Moors and hearing such a din, thought it would be right to aid the fugitives, and standing up he exclaimed in a loud voice, “Never, while I live, will I permit foul play to be practiced in my presence on such a famous knight and fearless lover as Don Gaiferos. Halt! ill-born rabble, follow him not nor pursue him, or ye will have to reckon with me in battle!” and suiting the action to the word, he drew his sword, and with one bound placed himself close to the show, and with unexampled rapidity and fury began to shower down blows on the puppet troop of Moors, knocking over some, decapitating others, maiming this one and demolishing that; and among many more he delivered one down stroke which, if Master Pedro had not ducked, made himself small, and got out of the way, would have sliced off his head as easily as if it had been made of almond-paste….

Don Quixote did not leave off discharging a continuous rain of cuts, slashes, downstrokes, and backstrokes, and at length, in less than the space of two credos, he brought the whole show to the ground, with all its fittings and figures shivered and knocked to pieces, King Marsilio badly wounded, and the Emperor Charlemagne with his crown and head split in two.

A miniature practice round for the windmills that lay in the knight’s path down the road. So happy Tia Norica was spared such an encounter.

Postcard from Cadiz, Spain: Water-locked ancient stronghold

Water. No matter what direction you walk, you quickly encounter it. It’s visually stunning and soothing, with ever-changing colors depending on the weather, time of day and whether you are on the east or the west side.

Geographically termed a peninsula between the Atlantic and its bay, Cadiz seems more an island. The thin band connecting it to the Spanish mainland is narrow to the point it feels but a fragile manmade thread that could easily be severed by an Atlantic storm.

This isolated location made it an ideal stronghold for early Phoenician explorers from Tyre to establish a stronghold on the Atlantic in 1104 B.C.  Gadir, as it was called then, is considered Europe’s most ancient city still standing. The city is associated with the slaying of the three-headed monster Geryon by Hercules in Greek mythology.

Cadiz has been ruled by Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths, Byzantines and the Moors. Christopher Columbus set sail from the port during his second and fourth voyages to the New World. When sandbars made navigation of the Guadalquivir River to Seville no longer possible, Cadiz flourished as the center for trade with the Americas. The fleet based in Cadiz invited frequent attacks and pillaging by Spain’s enemies through the centuries.

Today, the population of Cadiz numbers about 100,000. With much of the peninsula occupied by its industrial port, the actual residential area covers less than two square miles. There is no land for the city to expand in size, and, because of the city’s historical importance, buildings in the historic center are restricted in height. Unemployment is fairly high, which means the port still welcomes the arrival of cruise ships disgorging huge numbers of people for several hours at a time. Those temporary invaders were easy to avoid, however, as they failed to explore more than a quarter of the city.

The city is laid-back, and its narrow, mainly pedestrian streets, are pleasant to wander. Boardwalks skirt the water on all sides.

The island-like setting attracted the attention of 007. In 2002, Cadiz starred as Havana in the James Bond film, Die Another Day. I share this for one of the above views shown in the background of the film, not the non-subtle sexual interaction between Halle Berry and Pierce Brosnan.

 

Instead of being catty about the film, I will switch to the topic actual cats. The most surprising inhabitants encountered is a large feral cat colony perched on rugged boulders on the Atlantic side. Tender-hearted residents provide the felines with boxes and crudely constructed shelters, and fishermen toss them scraps from their catch.

Postcard from Cadiz, Spain: ‘Show us your shoes’

The headline only makes sense in San Antonio, Texas. A city filled with parades this time of year, although far from religious in nature. Crowds along the streets yell “Show us your shoes” to duchesses, princesses and queens riding high upon their floats throughout Fiesta San Antonio.

Of course, no one does that in Cadiz during Semana Santa. The continual processions are solemn commemorations of Holy Week.

The floats, or pasos, bear statues of religious figures, not real people. So, watching, you find yourself yearning to focus on the hundreds of participants accompanying the floats bearing the Virgin Mary and Jesus.

But individuality obviously is not the goal.

The Nazarenos are disguised under their capirotes designed to funnel their penitent prayers up toward heaven. You begin seeking eye contact with those continually tugging their hoods to keep their eyeholes in a functional alignment. Is that person male or female? Altering centuries of tradition, many members of today’s “brotherhoods” are women. Found myself analyzing all the different shapes of the robed figures: Is that a pregnant woman or a short beer-loving man or woman? And what does a collapsed cap mean?

The teams of costaleros bearing the weight of the pasos on the back of their necks are hidden under the floats’ heavy velvet skirts. Only their shoes are visible, but the alignment of their footwear conveys how closely they are crammed together and the teamwork required to step in unison as they slowly pound the cobbled streets. Once in a while, you can view them switching out the tired team for a fresh one or someone lifting the skirt to check on their welfare. And we stood next to a rare team of women anxiously preparing to crawl under an unusual paso with wheels to maneuver it along its route.

Checking out shoes quickly becomes a spectator habit. Women dressed in clothes of mourning wearing lacy mantillas march in high heels. Then there are barefoot penitentes, some hobbling a bit as the hours pass by. So used to my flat cushiony Skechers that I’m unsure which of those two options would send me into a state of limping faster.

Some members of the cofradias can be seen reaching into their robes to hand out holy cards to children along the way. Some interact with children by tipping their candles onto extended balls of wax growing in girth throughout the week. Children marching often carry baskets of candy to distribute to other children.

The musicians are pied pipers luring you toward processions.

But the goose-stepping uniformed men haunt me somewhat. The stomping of middle-of-the-night marchers on Thursday echoed like storm troopers invading our building. They invoked my childhood fear of the military parade of winged monkeys in the Wizard of Oz except, instead of that rhythmic chorus, there was no music. A woman wailed mournful chants. La Llorona? It took hours to fall back asleep. (Does that amount to a confession that I am still frightened by the winged monkeys?)

The capirotes? They no longer inspire fear, only curiosity about the individual underneath.

On Easter Sunday, the members of cofradias accompanying the float bearing a figure representing the resurrected Jesus wore no hoods. They wore suits. They lost any sense of mystery. Kind of like watching bankers on parade. The camera lens failed to focus on any of them.

While the flower-bedecked gilded floats attract attention and draw the faithful, the faith of the people provides the true beauty of Semana Santa.