For Owen Szafran, 2020 has been an exciting, if atypical, year. The coronavirus pandemic hit fast and hard, but Owen was lucky enough to first enjoy an educational and exciting term in Seville, Spain through a Spanish Studies Abroad program where he had the opportunity to conduct his own research project on one of the city’s most unique features: the Catholic brotherhoods, an enduring aspect of Catholicism’s influence on Spain. With direction from Silvia Lopez, Owen was inspired to examine the contributions of “The Hope of Triana” brotherhood to Holy Week, a celebration that takes place in the week leading up to Easter and features grand parades, grander crowds, and floats depicting the life and times of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, represented through statues that are created and cared for by Seville’s numerous brotherhoods.
Unable to be off-campus fall term but still wanting an immersive experience with the Spanish language, this program was ideally suited for Owen’s schedule and goals which he says included “improving Spanish and getting comfortable with more everyday usage rather than textbook usage” in addition to “learning a bit about Spanish culture and getting to know locals”. The ten weeks he spent in Seville working intimately at the side of Spanish priests, culminating in a 30-page research paper in the Spanish language, ensured he would come away with improved language skills in all varieties.
Such a concept unknown to the US, Owen described the brotherhoods as “like churches, but they’re more community-oriented and then Holy Week is their big thing for the year where they spend several weeks and months leading up to it preparing their statues, or their images as they call them, to go out. The most famous [brotherhood] is the one that I studied which is called the ‘Hope of Triana’ and has between 15,000 and 20,000 members”.
Upon arriving in Seville, Owen began meeting with one of the brotherhood’s secretaries and his advisor for the duration of the program, Juan Manuel, several times a week to observe a variety of Holy Week-preparation events, like lowering the Jesus statue from the chapel’s altar. Owen would take notes on these events and interview participants, conducting a total of around 15 with different brothers at all levels of the brotherhood’s hierarchy. His weeks of intense research culminated in a final paper based on his experience of being the third ever foreigner, a guiri, to get such an intimate look at these proceedings. Owen says, “It was a really big deal that they let me do this, so I basically wrote what is Semana Santa or Holy Week in Seville according to a guiri, how does it look from the outside. But also what is the inner workings of the brotherhood because you see these massive processions in the city but not a lot of people understand what goes on behind the scenes and what goes on for the rest of the year”. After this experience, Owen was able to get a sense of what it means to be a brother of the Esperanza Triana which is the center of religious life for its members and a “big community that almost becomes a family”.
With improved Spanish language skills and an insider perspective into the culture of Seville through the lens of its Catholic brotherhoods, Owen describes his time abroad as a “really great experience” and is compelled to “try to go back there in some context, since it’s definitely opened up a door that I can speak and understand and live in another language”.