“At the very rear of the procession walked the penitents. All of them walked barefoot; some crawled along their hands and knees; many had been walking all night. For the most part, it was the women who walked barefoot on the searing pavement, though one of my informants told me that men would do this if their wives insisted. In his words, ‘You do that, or you don’t get any food.’ Women bore huge and very heavy altars of candles arranged in tiered circles (‘like a wedding cake,’ one of my East Harlem sources told me) and balanced on their heads with the poise that had enabled them and their mothers to carry jugs of water and loaves of bread on their heads in southern Italy. Sometimes white ribbons extended out from the tiered candles and were held by little girls in white communion outfits. Some of the people in the rear had disheveled hair and bloodied faces, and women of all ages walked with their hair undone. Some people wore special robes–white robes with a blue sash like Mary’s or Franciscan-style brown robes knotted at the waist with a cord; they had promised to wear these robes during the procession, though some had promised to wear their abitini for several months, or even a year. Although the rear of the procession was the area designated for these practices, a penitential motif characterized the entire procession and, indeed, the entire day.
“This behavior was governed by the vows people made to la Madonna. The seriousness with which these promises were made and kept simply cannot be overemphasized. All my East Harlem sources told me, matter-of-factly, that people did all this, that they came to East Harlem–and kept coming even when Italians grew frightened of Spanish Harlem and knew that the neighborhood was no longer theirs–because they had made a vow. One of my sources described the promise like this:
You see, these elderly women would make a vow, you know, they would pray for something, say, if I ever get what I’m praying for… you know, a son was sick or someone had died [at this point, another former East Harlem resident interjected, ‘Like some kind of a penance’], and they would amke a vow… they say, maybe for five Mount Carmels we would march with th eprocession without shoes. In other words, do some sort of a penance to repay for the good that they’d gotten.
“In later years, as the older generation passed away or became too sick to come to the festa, their children came and kept their promises for them.”
Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street, pp. 9-10.