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LIFE IN SPAIN

IN IMAGES: Horses ‘purified’ with fire in controversial Spanish ritual

At full gallop, the horse emerges from the darkness and races through a string of bonfires in an ancient ritual to ward off sickness performed every January in a tiny Spanish village.

A horseman rides through a bonfire in the village of San Bartolome de Pinares in the province of Avila in central Spain, during the traditional religious festival of
A horseman rides through a bonfire in the village of San Bartolome de Pinares in the province of Avila in central Spain, during the traditional religious festival of "Las Luminarias" in honour of San Antonio Abad (Saint Anthony), patron saint of animals, on January 16, 2022. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)

Known as Luminarias, the festival takes place every January 16th in San Bartolomé de Pinares, a village perched high in the hills about 100 kilometres (60 miles) west of Madrid.

By the light of an almost full moon, several local officials are sweating copiously, despite freezing temperatures, as they pile branches onto the bonfires blazing along the main street of this village of just 600 residents

As the bells ring out, there’s a sudden clatter of hooves as the first horse and rider come charging out.

After the first horse passes another follows, then a group of them, sparks flying from their hooves as they gallop down the street, cheered on by hundreds of onlookers here to witness this mystical, medieval-like spectacle.

The tradition takes place every year on the eve of the feast of San Antón, Spain’s patron saint of animals, and dates back to the 18th century when an epidemic devastated the horse population.

“Before when animal died because of infection, they had to be burned,” said Leticia Martin, a 29-year-old physiotherapist riding a horse called Fiel.

“So when the epidemic disappeared, people began to believe that the smoke protected the animals.”

A horseman rides through a bonfire during “Las Luminarias” . (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)

Purifying fire

“These fires, which purify animals from all diseases, are lit on the eve of San Anton’s day, which is celebrated on January 17,” said Anton Erkoreka of the Museum of the History of Medicine in Spain’s Basque Country region.

During the feast, masses are held across Spain to bless animals.

(Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)

“Fire is always a purifying element and this festival asks the saint for his protection on animals.”

In other Spanish villages, bonfires are lit at different times of the year to remember earlier plagues and epidemics, although the global pandemic has given the Luminarias festival a slightly new dimension.

But locals such as Emmanuel Martín insist the tradition has nothing to do with Covid. It is only about blessing the animals and keeping them “healthy all year round as the smoke from the green branches purifies them”, he says.

“It’s not a show to entertain people,” insists this 26-year-old who first witnessed the event when he was two years old.

Urged on by the crowd, one rider crosses the bonfires with his arms spread wide in a cross, his horse’s mane plaited, its tail rolled up in a type of topknot, to avoid catching fire.

SPAIN-TRADITION-FESTIVAL-ANIMAL-RELIGION-HORSE(Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)

Adrenaline

Although the tradition is widely criticised by animal rights groups, Martín insists it doesn’t harm the horse nor the rider.

“You don’t even notice it,” says his cousin Andrea Lenela, who compares it to brushing a finger quickly through the flame of a cigarette lighter.

Every year, the event is attended by vets and firefighters brought in by the local authorities.

“If I thought there was any risk to the horses, I wouldn’t do it,” says local resident Mario Candil.

SPAIN-TRADITION-FESTIVAL-ANIMAL-RELIGION-HORSE(Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)

“Nothing has ever happened to anyone, ever,” insists Monce García, 49, who has come along to enjoy the “atmosphere, the smoke and the typical village tradition”.

Dismounting from her horse, a 46-year-old pharmacist Noelia Guerra speaks animatedly about “the emotions and the adrenaline” which flood through both horse and rider.

“You don’t have to force them, they just go on their own,” she says of the festival, which was celebrated this year for the first time since the pandemic began.

“We laughed about that, saying it was because we didn’t celebrate the Luminarias in January 2021.”

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LABOUR RIGHTS

‘A long way to go’: Spain’s domestics fight to end discrimination

For years, Aracely Sánchez went to work without counting her hours, always fearful she could lose her job from one day to the next.

'A long way to go': Spain's domestics fight to end discrimination

“They would always ask me to do more and more and more, as if I were a machine,” she told AFP of her employers at a house in Madrid.

Within a collective of domestic workers, this 39-year-old Mexican has been trying to assert her basic rights to have time off every week, to be paid for working overtime and to have unemployment cover.

But given the precarious nature of this type of work in Spain, it is a challenge.

“There are employers who are very humane and who respect us, but there are many who try to take advantage of the situation,” she explained.

“They say: if the job doesn’t suit you, there are plenty more where you came from.”

According to the Workers Commission union (CCOO), nearly 600,000 women serve as domestic staff in Spain where taking them on for housework, cooking or childcare is widespread.

Of that number, nearly 200,000 are undeclared, working in the black economy without an employment contract.

“Many of them come from Latin America and they don’t have papers and find themselves in a very vulnerable situation,” said Mari Cruz Vicente, the CCOO’s head of activism and employment.

‘Exposing violations’

Following a ruling by the EU’s Court of Justice (CJEU) and pressure from the unions, the government of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez adopted a reform this month aiming at ending the “discrimination” suffered by these workers.

READ ALSO: The new rules for hiring a domestic worker in Spain

Under the changes, dubbed by the government as “settling a historic debt”, domestic workers are now entitled to claim unemployment benefits and cannot be dismissed without justification.

They will also be covered by healthcare “protection” and be able to access training to improve their “professional opportunities” and job conditions.

“This is a very important step forward,” said Vicente, while stressing the need to step up efforts to register those who are working without a contract and don’t benefit from the reform.

“This reform was very necessary,” said Constanza Cisneros of the Jeanneth Beltrán observatory which specialises in domestic workers’ rights.

“Spain was very behind. Every day we have people coming to us whose rights have been violated. We have to end such practices now,” she said.

“Such situations have to be exposed.”

SPAIN-DOMESTIC-WORKERS

Around 200,000 domestic workers who are working in the black economy without an employment contract will not benefit from Spain’s new labour reform. (Photo by Ezequiel BECERRA / AFP)

‘Not seen as people’

Mexican home help Sánchez has often experienced such abuses in more than two decades of employment.

In 2001, she arrived in Madrid to take up full-time employment caring for an elderly person for €350 a month.

She then spent the next 15 years working in short-term jobs, almost always without a contract, despite the fact she had a valid residency permit.

“When I said I wanted a contract, they never called me back. They didn’t want to pay contributions,” she said, describing her work as “undervalued” with domestic staff seen as “labourers” and not “as people”.

Amalia Caballero, a domestic worker from Ecuador, has had a very similar experience.

“We often finish very late, or they change our hours at the last minute assuming we’ll just fall in line. But we also have a life that we need to sort out,” said Caballero, 60.

She also talks about the “humiliations” often endured by those who live with their employers.

“One time, one of my bosses asked me why I showered every day. It was clear he thought (the hot water) was costing him too much money,” she told AFP.

But will such attitudes change with the reform?

“There’s still a long way to go,” she sighed, saying many domestic staff “have completed their studies” back home and even hold a degree.

“People need to recognise that,” she said.

Cisneros agreed.

“Our work needs to command greater respect, not least because it’s so necessary. Without staff to pick up the children, run the household and look after elderly people, what would families do?”

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