The first December we spent in the Yucatan, we found ourselves driving through the pueblo of Xcanatun one evening on our way to dinner at Hacienda Xcanatun. We drove through the small town a little after dark and noticed that every single house had a shrine that faced the street. Every shrine seemed to have a string of lights or candles or spotlights and each framed a painting or sculpture or mosaic bearing the likeness of La Virgen de Guadalupe. We thought all the lights were in preparation for Christmas, so we wondered to ourselves, "where’s Jesus?".
But we soon learned that while he is revered and prayed to, Jesus doesn’t hold a candle (or a string of Christmas lights) to La Virgen around here. All the decoration was really in preparation for December 12th, el Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe. Earlier this week, while attending an informal talk by Carla Zarebska about her new book titled, Guadalupe, we began to understand why.
In her talk, Carla explained some reasons why La Virgen is so important to Mexico. As she explains it, when the Spanish conquistador Cortés arrived, many of the Aztecs and Native Americans from other tribes saw him as Quetzalcoátl, the god of the ancient Nahual traditions, who had returned as predicted. Through a series of misunderstandings and strange luck, Cortés was able to subjugate the tribes who lived in the central valley of Mexico. After a few years of rampant slaughter of their people and of seeing their beliefs and rituals destroyed or proven false, the indians who survived were discouraged and despairing. As Carla puts it, they felt that their gods had abandoned them. After all, they were no longer able to offer sacrifices, yet the sun continued to rise each morning.
They had lost their faith and they needed a miracle to rekindle it. In 1531 there was a solar eclipse. Then Haley’s comet appeared in the sky. And last but not least, a woman appeared who stands "in front of the Sun, steps on the Moon and dresses with the Stars". She presented herself as an agent of the true God, with a face that had mixed European and Indian features. And not only did she appear in that fateful year, but she asked that her church be built in the same place that Tonantzin, the Native American Goddess Mother – the Earth Goddess – had been worshipped and venerated for years.
There are those who believe that Guadalupe and Tonantzin are one deity… the mother goddess of all the Americas. There are others who think the Catholic Church appropriated Tonantzin in order to bring the indigenous population into the fold. But upon reflection, why can’t both arguments be true?
As anyone who has even an ounce of interest in La Virgen knows, she is said to have first appeared in 1531 on a hill just outside Mexico City to a man of humble origins, Juan Diego. (Juan Diego himself was declared a saint on July 31, 2002 by the Vatican). She told Juan Diego to have the bishop build a church for her on the hill of Tepeyac where she appeared. When the local obispo (bishop) required a sign, she obliged by providing Juan Diego with a bouquet of roses that did not grow in the area. Juan picked them and brought them to the obispo. The roses were just part of the miracle, however. Inside Juan Diego’s cloak was an imprint of her image that has not deteriorated for 475 years. Yes, you read that right… 475 years. You can still see the cloth at the Basilica in Mexico City where it now resides behind glass. She appeared to him a total of four times (a feminine sacred number) and after that, her basilica was built as requested, where it stands to this day. According to Carla’s book, only the Vatican is visited by more people every year.
Her words (among others) to Juan Diego were, "Am I, your Mother, not here? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not the source of your happiness? Are you not in the hollow of my mantle, in the crossing of my arms? Do you need more?" We saw these words today printed on a sign high above the altar dedicated to her at the church at San Cristobal, the center of worship for la Virgen de Guadalupe in Merida.
Unless you have experienced it yourself, it’s hard to imagine the ubiquity of the image of the Virgin of Guadaloupe throughout Mexico. She is everywhere: on houses, churches, tshirts, balloons, tattoos, candles, towels, hats, flags… and we saw most of those today as we began our exploration of her upcoming holiday.
Throughout Mexico right now and certainly crisscrossing the entire Yucatan Peninsula, young people (and some not so young) are running or bicycling as a promesa (promise) that they have made to la Virgen sometime during the year. These promises are personal and private, but the worship and sacrifice in the form of pilgrimage are performed in groups. As we drove around today, we saw groups running from Tekit to Sisal, Morelos in Quintana Roo to Progreso and Sisal to Izamal. The people we talked to were between the ages of 11 and 35. Some of them were wearing team-like uniforms. All of them wore at least a tshirt that indicated where they were running to and from, and bore an image of la Virgen. Many of them carry lit torches like Olympic runners and are called antorchistas.
We were told that the people in the pueblos suggest different places to go. The list is whittled down to three, and then the people of the town vote on where they will travel to. Each year they go somewhere different. The longer the distance, the better the sacrifice, although they did tell us that many of them do their treks on bicycles now because they cannot take too much time off from work, but they still want to impress La Virgen with their sacrifice of a long distance.
The bicycle riders seemed to be having the most fun. One group we passed had decorated their bikes with flags, colored balls of plastic on their spokes, lights and a bandana with a picture of la Virgen flying behind them. To add to the fun, they each had a different horn they honked or musical sound that they made as they passed by.
Usually, each group has a truck or car following ahead or behind (or both), to protect the group and to provide refreshments. Those who are resting in the truck cheer the runners or riders on with chants of "Si se puede!" or something similar. The trucks are also decorated with images of la Virgen.
The majority of the groups will arrive at the church in Merida’s Colonia San Cristobal (Calle 50 and Calle 69) sometime in the next two days. They will be joined by people from all over the city and the country… and we daresay, all over the world. (We’ll be there!)
Starting today all around the city, people are holding novenas (Catholic rituals of worship held in private homes that involve prayer and singing) in their homes or in their streets. The novenas will include fiestas with food and mariachi music. All of this takes place in front of elaborately decorated altars all centered around a statue of la Virgen. You won’t find these altars in the northern part of town where the ricos live or in the modern housing developments, but you will find them easily in the centro historico, the south and in the pueblitos surrounding Merida.
One group of altars we found, thanks to the directions of our friend Ellyne Basto, was tucked into the end of Calle 85 near Calle 81. Here, four families had decorated their houses with huge altars, flowing over with flowers, streamers and lights. Copal incense – a traditional element of Mayan worship – was burning in front of some of them. Framed pictures of La Virgen, sometimes reproductions of the original image from Juan Diego’s cloak, stood everywhere. Balloons were blown up and printed with birthday wishes to La Virgen as well. The women there told us that they will hold a novena on Sunday night at 7 pm, complete with a mariachi band. They also said they had been doing this ritual on this street for twenty years. They admonished us to come early so that we could find seats.
We’d like to tell you that this is all organized towards a big crescendo at the church of San Cristobal Tuesday, December 12th. And certainly a lot will happen that day at this church. But we talked to plenty of folks that were NOT going to end up there, but instead attend misas (masses) in their own towns. Still, the food carts are already set up in front of the church. The kiddie rides are being assembled. We imagine there will be quite a party on Tuesday. We are told that music, especially the singing of Mañanitas (the Mexican version of Happy Birthday), will begin as early as 3 am two days prior to el día de la Virgen.
The church at San Cristobal is hung with flags from different countries (including the U.S. and Canada, Colombia, Cuba and others), and the beautiful murals of the four visitations or Apparitions have been brightly repainted. A thirty foot high curtain of green, white and red hangs from the ceiling of the church around the statue of the La Virgen, crowned by her words to her beloved people. The brightly colored stained glass windows all contain images of La Virgen as well.
If we were to look down on the Yucatan from space in the next few days, there might be a concentration of activity around San Cristobal on Tuesday, but the entire Peninsula might appear to be dancing with light. Each town – and in the end, each individual – worships the La Virgen de Guadalupe in their own fashion, in their own time and for their own reasons. And she provides comfort to them all.
Here’s our video of Merida’s celebration of el Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe.
For a fantastic view of the Basilica in Mexico City, see it here on Google Maps.