They say that if you tell a mejicano there is no God, he may shrug his shoulders and go about his way. God forbid you tell him that the Virgen de Guadalupe was merely a Spanish story made-up by los conquistadores to speed-up Catholicism in the New World. Ah, good luck with that….The Virgin of Guadalupe is the symbolic mother of mejicanos and their descendants. Everywhere. She personifies a peoples identity, history, culture and language. Andy Porras, La Prensa 12/7/2012
La Virgen de Guadalupe, the Catholic patron saint of Mexico, is without doubt the most deeply loved and revered religious presence there and among Mexicans everywhere. La Morenita-the Beloved Brown Skinned One– is also inextricably intertwined with Mexican national identity. She is a fusion of Mexico’s indigenous peoples with those of the European conquest, testimony to what writer Richard Rodriguez describes as the “absorbent strength of Indian spirituality.”
Her brownness, her constancy and her accessibility to those who suffer are her hallmarks. Yet those alone do not explain her ubiquitous presence and devoted following. It is not difficult to find images of the Virgen de Guadalupe at any time of the year in City Heights. Small stores on University Avenue sell blankets, key chains, candles, clocks, clothing and jewelry with her image. In the past it was not uncommon to see guys walk by on my block with a tattoo of the Virgen on their arms or shoulders. I was told that they were inked in prison. My own front porch has a now badly broken ancient plaster Virgen watching over the house.
La Guadalupana is a remarkably rich and complex cultural symbol. She not only understands the suffering of the poor, she is perceived as an active agent of the poor. The Chicano movement of the 70′s turned her into a symbol of resistance– the Undocumented Virgin, the Warrior Queen, the Proletariat Virgin. She is present in soup kitchens, jails and the poorest barrios. She has resonance with people who are not necessarily religious or Mexican–which is to say people like myself–an east coast eastern European transplant.
December 12th is the Virgen’s feast day. Here in San Diego, there will be church services starting on the 11th. The midnight service is particularly popular- it is when the traditional Las Mañanitas is sung. The churches will be packed.
Las Mañanitas A La Virgen De Guadalupe 2011 Basilica D.F.
The celebration in Mexico is something else. Thousands of pilgrims, carrying torches and images of La Guadalupana, make their way to the Basilica in Mexico City for the church service. Some of los peregrinos have walked for many days, joining an ever larger crowd as they approach the capitol. They will gather and sleep in the plaza around the church.
Closer to home, pilgrims in Baja Mexico walk north to the church, Catedral de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in Tijuana, which is specially decorated every year for the occasion. Open air stalls line the blocks around the church selling all of the components necessary to complete a nativity as well as images and statues of the Virgin. Further away there are stalls filled with talismans and charms that exist outside of the official church doctrine. Children are dressed as Juan Diego or as diminutive Guadalupanas. There is a parade and pilgrims arriving from throughout Baja Mexico, and there are mariachis in the church heralding their arrival.
Catedral de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, Tijuana, MX
Over the past decade or so I have made the annual journey to Tijuana to celebrate. A number of those journeys have been particularly memorable. Although I have never gotten the hang of when the parade would start and the church service would begin, every so often we have gotten it just right. Getting it just right is a thrilling experience. The Catedral is the fixed point of activities, with the constant press of thousands of people entering the church, shopping in the stalls along the perimeter or entering the combination mercado/restaurants/entertainment area in the blocked off streets in front of the church.
The other point of activities is along Calle Revolución. In the evening a parade of floats and dancers slowly makes its way along Revolución before turning toward the Catedral. The floats are sponsored by religious, social and union organizations. They are a bright visual feast. Many of the floats present some aspect of the Virgen’s appearance to Juan Diego. The children who portray these personages attempt to remain appropriately reverent and immobile as the float lurches along. One year a young Guadalupana was perched at the top of a very high “hill.” The height required careful maneuvering beneath the high tension wires suspended mere inches from the top of her head. The float would stop as men with long forked wooden poles lifted the wires an extra few inches above the child’s head, and the float would continue.
Rockets are set off from within the crowd, which adds an additional frisson to the experience. They are launched from what looks like five gallon plastic pails. I have no idea what is contained within the pail, but suddenly there is a whizzing sound and an explosion of falling stars above the crowd and we all applaud and are happy.
Celebración-Virgen de Guadalupe (Tijuana B.C. Mexico) 11 de diciembre 2011
There are dancers–feathered Azteca dancers. Once we saw the traditional dance of the Old Men- Los Viejos. The very best parade occurred the year when a line of commercial truck cabs passed before us. The cabs were spit shined and glowed in the lights. The drivers leaned upon the horns and the most wonderful joyful cacophony erupted from those beautiful machines. How could La Virgencita not smile down upon us?
At the intersection of the major streets in front of the Catedral, artisans have built dramatic “sets” enclosed on all sides but the front. They are large enough and high enough to accommodate a couple of seated adults. These nichos are decorated with plastic flowers, twinkle lights, fountains and large statues or images of La Guadalupana. Someone snaps a polaroid picture for a few pesos. Minutes later the photograph is presented in a makeshift cardboard frame, often with an image of the Virgen stamped upon it.
Each of these nichos is a unique interpretation of an old well known story that dates from the sixteenth century and at the same time they reflect current tastes and events. One year all of the nichos used sunflowers as well as roses. The year that Pope John visited Mexico was reflected in the number of his portraits displayed close to the Virgen. Always, there are the children, dressed up for the occasion, posed on a bench or sometimes on a fabricated donkey. The little boys have a dark mustache drawn above their lips, and the little girls have bright ribbons holding their hair. Qué lindo! Qué precioso!
The last block or so back to the Catedral is almost impossible to navigate. Churros vendors stand on the sidewalks with enormous vats of bubbling oil. The press of human beings is not for the faint of heart. Once I walked alone along this route. My friend had decided to stay in the hotel and I was determined not to miss the activity at the church. I had almost reached the steps in front of the church and I could feel something inside of me begin to waver. Instead of being swept into the church with the crowd, I stood there, rooted with the crowd swirling around me.
Then an old man came up to me. I couldn’t understand a word of his mumbled Spanish. I could smell alcohol on his breath. He took my hand. For a split second I wavered between “O shit” and “Why not….” Then he was pulling me along with him up into the church. He crossed quickly to one side and we ascended the steps into the upper gallery and sat looking down down down upon the people below. The old man and I smiled at each other.
The inside of the catedral was a beehive of activity. People walked through the long alcove on the first floor to light candles and stand before portraits of various saints. People continued to enter and leave. Then a group of men came through the entrance with a large tableaux of sorts on their shoulders. It was decorated with flowers around a statue of the the Virgen. The pilgrims had finally arrived and they had entered too, led by a mariachi band. This was the moment everyone had waited for.
The congregants sang and applauded. The priest, dressed in a robe with the image of the Virgen extending from his chin to his feet, had only a minor role, moving mutely back and forth in front of the altar. La Guadalupana, La Morenita had entered and she and she alone belonged totally to the people. The people belonged solely and totally to her. Faces shined with joy. People wept. The mariachis filled the cavernous catedral with the sound of their heralding trumpets, the caress of the violins. We continued to sing. A few penitents moved painfully on their knees across the floor below.
We laid down our burdens, our suffering. Put aside exhaustion. We opened our souls to the Virgen of Guadalupe among us.
Inside the Catedral Tijuana 2011
I asked a number of the SanDiegoFreePress contributors to send me their own thoughts about La Guadalupana.
“Even though I was raised Catholic, for the longest time I thought each of the Virgins, whether of Guadalupe or Lourdes or Santiago de Compostela, was… ANOTHER VIRGIN! I didn’t know which one was more important and after a while, when I got into my late teens I didn’t care. I decided to stay away from them… Ohhh…just thought of this: We have a great painting we bought a couple decades ago from a Baja artist named Pabel, of the Virgin surrounded by Navy parachutists, Charger fans and decadent angels whom she views with disapproval. When Pabel entered it in a major show on images of the Virgin in TJ so many people objected it was pulled from the show. “ Bob Dorn
“The Virgin was a distant presence for me. As a Jew growing up in Mexico, in a Catholic country, December 12 was an important, but distant celebration. It was in the Calendar, Día de la Virgén. But as a kid, it could very well happen on another planet. Years later, as a student of Mexican History, at San Diego State no less, the Virgencita took more of not just a religious meaning, but the syncretism of the two cultures.
It was no longer distant. The Virgin Mother became the Mother Goddess at the bottom of the great pyramid at the Templo Mayor in Mexico City, Coyoxualqui. The Great mother, creator of the fifth world and destroyer of it, as it emerged in this new post conquest world of the men of the cosmic race.
Do most people in Mexico see these nuances? No. It has also become something many in the chattering classes will give lip service to, but go to the Capilla on Dec 12 with those crowds? Are you kidding me? It is over a million followers of the Marian cult, coming to thank her for miracles, on bended knee. So no, the very wealthy and upper classes will not come to mix with the rabble.” Nadin Abbott
All images below by Richard Kacmar.
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