That news had filled me with joy. At nearly ten years old, I still hadn't been allowed to visit the Sanctuary. My father would only let the older children go on the Romería1; to the little ones he would say “you can go next year”. Those days there were very few cars but plenty of horses. The horsemen would go crazy, with the girls up behind them on the saddle, galloping through the lanes and the olive groves of the Virgin. Hardly a year went by without some sort of accident.
To go to the Sanctuary in the month of May, when the days were long and luminous, was a privilege not extended to the other children. In the Postwar era – 1941 or 1942 – there was very little to look forward to. But that night I could hardly sleep for the excitement. I got up at 7, had a wash and went whistling to La Victoria. The family was already there with the horses. There were about fifteen of them and there were two people on each horse, a man and a woman. Father Manuel had been allocated a splendid white horse; I had a little donkey with the equipment for the Mass, the vestments, wafers and communion wine.
From Alcalá to Los Santos, as everyone knew, was one league – five kilometres. There was only a cart-track, but the cars and lorries used it to get to the Sanctuary on the day of the Romería. Nothing united the people of Alcalá more than the Virgin and the Sanctuary. They symbolised the faith in the spirit over the trials of life, the enduring hope, the principles which the mothers inculcated in their children, and the love of the Mother of Jesus, which provided a model to follow in between life's joys and sorrows. Nobody challenged the symbolism, because their mothers had been the best teachers. The fathers kept a respectful silence and never discussed it either.
When we arrived at the crossroads of Los Santos and the Jerez-Algeciras road, I discovered the first cross of the humilladero indicating the way to the Sanctuary. Then after several bends in the road we came across the second, the one on the hill with views of the Sanctuary, and eventually, coming down the gentle slope which led to the holy place itself, the third, situated right in the entrance. The humilladeros were the crosses where the pilgrims stopped to pray and ask forgiveness for their sins, in order to approach the Virgin with a clear conscience.
The May sunshine was already making itself felt when the cavalcade went down to the Sanctuary gate. They tied the horses' bridles to the rail in the entrance, in the protective shade of a large tree. I didn't miss a single detail. The front courtyard looked like an Andalucian country house, surrounded by doors and rooms. I saw for real everything that the other children had fantasised about. Father Manuel told me that the church was very old, from the 17th century, but that previously there had been another one, of which only the front door remained, leading into the olive grove. On the stone steps of the entrance was the mark of a hand, which according to legend belonged to a thief who wanted to steal the Virgin's jewels in the small hours of 12 September, the eve of the festival of the Sweet Name of Mary, when the statue had already been bejewelled ready for the procession next day. When the thief slipped, he put his hand on the step and remained stuck to it, unable to free himself. The next morning they found him weeping and repenting. Naturally, this is just one of many legends attributed to the Virgin.
From the courtyard we went up some stone steps to the church. On entering, on the left hand side, I was caught unawares by the famous Andalucian shepherd boy, who they say had met with the Virgin, dressed like an altar-boy in preparation for Mass. At his feet was a large plate, for alms. As he turned towards the shrine of the Virgin of the Saints, a ray of light penetrated a window and illuminated his face. The image of that simple, friendly, beautiful face stayed with me for life. I would be able to recognise it amongst thousands of images. The walls on both sides of the church were hung with pictures and devotions dedicated to the Virgin by people asking for favours.
Father Manuel was very pious, and said Mass in a pure trance in front of the image of the Virgin. Forty years later, when I was a teacher in the Campo de Gibraltar, I met him one day in a popular restaurant in La Linea. It was owned by a woman from Alcalá called Dolores, and was situated opposite the market square. I went in to eat, and found Father Manuel there with Dolores. They told me that now and again the two of them would meet to talk about Alcalá and the Virgin. Dolores assured me that whenever Father Manuel spoke about the Virgin of the Saints, tears would fall from his eyes.
When the Mass at the Sanctuary was over, we sang the Salve and went to the olive grove to eat platefuls of splendid Alcalá food. Ever since then my favourite food has been fried asparagus. Afterwards the older ones sat round for an agreeable social gathering. The horses were relaxing by the fence, and a mischievous idea came to me. I untied the harness of the horse that Father Manuel had been riding, led it to a stone, and mounted it in one jump. I took hold of the bridle, shook it, gave the animal a kick in the sides and it shot off like a bullet. The horse went crazy, jumped for joy and headed for the gulley at the nearby cortijo. From there it returned to the Sanctuary. In the entrance everybody was waiting for us, afraid that there might had been an accident.
When we got back to the town, I was full of life and had the feeling that I had passed though the barrier of pre-adolescence. In La Victoria, Father Manuel scolded me for my naughtiness, but the men laughed, knowing that it was a good horse and wouldn't ever harm a child.
Translated by Claire Lloyd
1. A religious procession, with a party atmosphere, that takes place each September from Alcalá de los Gazules to the Sanctuario de Nuestra Señora de los Santos, 5 km away.