Tenerife’s secret livestock festival – San Antonio Abad

We heard that the next day there was going to be a fiesta (San Antonio Abad) in the nearby village of La Matanza de Acentejo (so called because of the magnificent slaughter of invading Spaniards by the native Guanches somewhere back in the 16th century), but there are no details of where or when or exactly what the party entails.

We stop and ask at the local farmers’ market.  A young girl selling earrings tells us to park at the Super Dino supermarket a few streets along and then walk uphill.  We did as she said and followed the trail of animal droppings up the steep road, along a plateau overlooking the great sweep of the north of the island, green terraces tumbling down from the snow-topped mountain into the sea two miles below.

The first sign of any fiesta is a trestle table set up outside a house, piled high with turron from the factory down the road.  A stout, dark-skinned woman winks at us as we pass: ‘Me compreis a la vuelta, eh?‘  We carry on up the potted road as the sun heats up.  I sling my jacket over one shoulder and, given the amount of caca on the floor, regret having worn ballet shoes. Every few minutes, we press ourselves into the wall to let horses and cattle jog past.

As we come into the village the turron stalls become a little thicker on the ground (from two firms, apparently bitter rivals) and, as well as the regular bars, garage doors are flung open, stocked with wine and named after the lady of the house. Coming into the centre of the village of San Antonio, 3 or 4 stone walled fields are full of animals.  Two, those closest to Teide, for horses, one for cows and another for donkeys.  The owners, mostly young, gypsy-looking (and sounding) men stand buullishly by their animals, thumbs hooked through their belt loops.  No-one is drunk, I think to my surprise.  Kids and adults alike wander up the thoroughfare, enjoying the spectacle. Groups of boys sit on the fences and joke with one another.  ‘Eh, guapa,’ a tall man with Canarian auburn hair touches my arm. ”Stas aqui sola?’  I nod towards my companion.  The man leaves without a word.

Closer to the church, the crowd grows even thicker and there are 4 enclosures for the small, spiral-horned goats typical of the islands.  In the pen closest to the church, they sit on their haunches and some doze in the watery light of late January.

One pen is manned by a pair of young dads – brothers, by the look of them, one maybe three or four years older than the other – who periodically grab one of the animals by the horns and drag it to the corner of the pen to be milked, the goat all the time staggering away towards its sisters, anchored to the spot only by the pressure of the boy’s thumbs on its bluish udder.  A kid tries to muscle in for a feed but is expertly knocked aside by the back of the boy’s hand while the fingers and thumb continue milking.

Old men from the nearby villages lean on the fence posts and talk slowly.  Some wear the traditional white fleece cloak of the island, others flat caps and others still wear ancient Nike airs, pumped up specially for the occasion.

We push past the goats, up the stone stairs to the church.  You have to shoulder your way in to see the queue of people bearing white cloths to be blessed.  On the street, makeshift toy stalls sell plastic guns for the boys and paper tiaras for the girls.  Stalls selling fried food compete for space – the aroma of oil fills the air – and men drink beer from plastic cups. A girl leads her brown ox, sad-eyed and hot, through the crowd, absent-mindedly winding a white cloth about its right horn.  The beast veers to the left and she hauls it back into the middle of the road.  She is magnificent: fully made-up , wearing a new black and pink tracksuit and stilettos. Her father, in a suit and tie, pulls a similar animal alongside her in a straight line.  People get out of the way.

Still further up the hill, yet more houses are turned, as if by some happy kind of magic, into bars and obligingly packed out by revellers.

We watch the animals some more and duck into one of the house-bars.  A tall boy of about my age serves us – home made wine decanted from a huge plastic tub into glass bottles – and runs out of the bar for no apparent reason.  We sit at a barrel and wach local men drift in, toast one another incomprehensibly, and drift out once more to the street.

Further information

The fiesta of San Antonio Abad (patron saint of animals) is held annually throughout Spain.  We went to the fiesta in the San Antonio neighbourhood of La Matanza de Acentejo, on the North coast of Tenerife.  The town is easily reached by car, but you can expect a good uphill walk to get to the fiesta as many of the town’s streets are closed.

The saint’s day itself is the 19th of January, but festivities tend to come to a head on the nearest Sunday.  Keep your eyes on the local press (including the town website) for more concrete details of local events, and ask around – word of mouth is the best way to find out about the majority of Tenerife’s festivals.

Written by Lucy Wilkinson Yates

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