Wednesday, January 16, 2013

In Guad We Trust

                                                 bumper sticker

Living in Mexico has brought many surprises. One very special phenomenon that bears a mention is the manner in which the Mexican people revere Our Lady of Guadalupe. One can't help notice her ever-present existence in the minds and hearts of every Mexican national. Her shining image appears everywhere.... on bumper stickers, baseball caps, wallets, car windshields, truck mud flaps, mirrors,  keychains,

taquerias, jewelry, t-shirts, scapulas, votive candles,
 and the most obvious altars. Her saintly memory lives on, gracing young men's chests and biceps in the form of elaborate tattoos,

 as well as in people's kitchens, her angelic face decorating dinner plates, napkins, and  kitchen aprons. The beautiful Lady's image even appears as  life-sized murals on people's houses who hope that it's presence might discourage vandalism and graffiti.
                  photographed at the home of local artist, Anado McLauchlin

 Every December 12th, Mexicans celebrate La Virgen Morena or La Virgen de Guadalupe, also known as Tonatzin, Mother of all Gods.
I think it is rather important for my fellow ex-pats to understand the culture of the people that  they live with everyday. So here goes. As legend has it, on December 9, 1531 a humble Nahuatl Indian named Juan Diego was walking past the sacred hill of Tepeyac, on the northern edge of Tenochtitlan (close to what is now Mexico City) when he heard sweet sounds that brought to mind the singing of many  heavenly birds. As he looked towards the summit, he glimpsed a brilliant white cloud with light as bright as a thousand suns and surrounded by a rainbow. As he watched in awe, a beautiful lady appeared in lustrous garments. The lady told him,
“I am the Ever-Virgin Holy Mary, Mother of the God of Great Truth.”
(Nican Mopohua, 16th century Nahuatl document)

Our Lady of Guadalupe instructed Juan Diego to tell the bishop in Tenochtitlan that she wanted a church to be built on the hill to serve as a source of loving compassion to all who seek her guidance. Juan Diego followed her request and gave her message to the bishop, who was too busy to listen to the raging of a poor, indigenous man and promptly sent him away. Juan Diego returned to Tepeyac the same day and pleaded with Our Lady to find a more appropriate messenger, someone who might be believed. She advised him to return to the bishop and tell him that he was sent by “the Ever-Virgin Mary, the Mother of the God Teotl.” (Teotl is  the God or Goddess head of the Nahuatl-Aztecs).
This time, the bishop told Juan Diego to return to him with a sign that would validate his claims. The Virgin reappeared to Juan Diego, and told him to scale the hill and gather the flowers growing at the top. Once there, he found roses which were blooming mysteriously. They were a variety of roses only found in Spain that could not have bloomed in chilly December at such a high elevation. Juan Diego picked the roses and collected them into his tilma, a cloak woven of maguey (maguey is a plant common to Mexico that is also the source for the alcoholic beverage, pulque). The lady instructed him not to open his tilma for anyone until he was in the company of the bishop.

When Juan Diego returned to the bishop’s office and opened his tilma, the miraculous roses tumbled to the floor,
revealing an image of Our Lady inexplicably embossed  on the tilma, serving as unquestionable proof of her existence. The bishop and his assistants fell to their knees and cried for forgiveness to the Blessed Virgin. Later that day, the bishop journeyed to Tepeyac to see exactly where Our Lady had appeared, and before long the church and hermitage were built.  This site is  the current location of the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. One can visit this site today and see the original Tilma displayed.

 It is worth noting that this story led to thousand of conversions to Christianity and established  Catholicism as the primary religion in Mexico.

So where is all this leading? my humble experience in the hood, my little colonia, Olimpo. My neighbors take great pride in celebrating this great lady and the festivities go on for days. We have a total of three shrines to the Virgin in my little corner of the world. Each shrine is unique.

The artists paint the lady in similar fashion but, they tend to have a signature style that shines through. Each shelter that is built to surround the lady is different and very special.  The shrines are lovingly cared for by the local people throughout the year. Bouquets of fresh flowers and candles appear on a regular basis.

 The shrine around the corner from my house even boasts a working fountain with live gold fish.

Preparations  for this special day begin approximately a week before December 12th. All the neighbors bring pictures of the Virgin (dramatic images in guilt frames that normally hang  in a place of honor in their homes) to the shrine. These pictures of the lady along with photographs of the Pope are lined up against the wall and arranged in a pleasing fashion.

In our naivety, the first time my husband and I saw this practice from a  distance, we both thought that they were conducting an art sale. It wasn't until we got closer that we realized our mistake. Colorful paper pennants flap in the breezes, strung from house to house.

 A schedule appears on the wall which acknowledges the ladies of the neighborhood  who  will be leading the various prayer services for the week.

Next, benches appear where worshipers can gather to pray to our lady. Two days before the event, enthusiastic young men erect a greased pole, the width and height of a telephone pole, in the vacant lot at the corner. It will be used for a unique game called palo encebado.

The game involves young boys who struggle to climb the length of the pole to reach the top, where a special prize has been attached. Usually there are many failed attempts and much excitement before the young lads figure out a scheme where working cooperatively,  they climb atop each other's shoulders to reach the pinnacle to collect the treasure. Getting down is the most thrilling part of the  event. The larger boys gather at the bottom of  the pole and encourage the fellow  at the top to slide down the lard covered pole at breakneck speed like a fireman racing to a fire, in hopes of being caught at the last second. The only thought that occurred for me the first time I saw this happening was , "this stuff could only happen in Mexico" and "where's his helmet?"
On the day before the 12th, things move into full gear. The truck carrying an enormous rented sound system arrives as well as the sawhorses that will prevent cars from disrupting the proceedings.

 Firecrackers ( referred to as fuegos artificiales in these parts) begin to explode every few minutes. Their thunderous cracks set off my dogs, as they don't seem to appreciate the noise that reverberates off the concrete buildings. One dog hides under the bed while another runs to his post on the stairs where he answers the call with his high-pitched bark. The blaring ranchero music, that takes me back  to the days when I  danced the Polka back in Buffalo (the trigger is probably the accordions), begins in earnest and  people congregate for dancing and singing. This year was particularly joyful in that  we experienced a Locos parade that went down my street and then later, four hours of Indian drumming commenced.


The Indians wore elaborate costumes made of deerskin with headpieces constructed of feathers and animal bones.

They smeared war paint on their faces and arms and rythmically pounded enormous drums as they whirled about, dancing to the beat with practiced intensity. Even a tiny baby was seen strapped to one of the warrior's back, dressed in full regalia.

Later, the Locos (men dressed as women and various cartoon characters) staged a special dance.

As a bystander, I was almost dragged into the fray by an overly enthusiastic reveler. After my loud objections, I was reluctantly allowed to continue on my way. One enterprising individual had the presence of mind to erect a taco stand, doling out carnitas and  beverages to  the throng.  The music continued for  two days and  throughout the following night. As I drifted off to dreamland that evening, after much tossing and  turning as well as a fair bit of grumbling, the last thing I heard were the strains of the ever popular birthday song, Las MaƱanitas. Upon waking the next morning, to my surprise, that same tune was still playing.  I  guess the disc jockey had gone home to his family but, had forgotten to turn off the music. An hour later, on my way to the corner store for a carton of  milk, I couldn't help giggling at the sight of  one last straggler who  had finally succumb to all the fun and frivolity and possibly a bit too much tequila. He was blissfully asleep, curled up like a  cat at the base of the Virgin's feet, oblivious to the world around  him.

My plan for next year's party......a  nice pair of earplugs.