Saturday, December 13, 2008

Día de Guadalupe, Guadalajara-Style

(Editor's note: The following is a post from Chris, reporting on events in Guadalajara! Enjoy!)

Matt has already posted on the activity at the Basilica de Guadalupe, which is the epicenter of Guadalupe activity on December 12. But Guadalajara is known for being the most Catholic city in Mexico, and though millions converge on the Basilica on December 12, not all Catholics make a pilgrimage there every year. Those who stay at home make a visit to the Guadalupe shrine closest to them. There happens to be a Santuario de Guadalupe in the heart of Guadalajara’s historic downtown.

I saw the first signs of celebration when I got off the bus this afternoon. The sidewalks were packed with people. Vendors lined the already narrow walking space along Guadalajara’s main artery. Families were moving slowly down the street, carrying small children and holding their hands as they toddled along. Almost all the children were in costume, the girls wearing braids with ribbons, colorful skirts and white cotton blouses, the boys in white cotton (known as manta) some with ponchos, others with embroidery of the Virgin of Guadalupe on their front. Several chubby cheeked toddlers had black mustaches penciled on their upper lips. My friend María from Indiana University had told me about the tradition – the children dress as Indians for December 12. I don’t know the history of the practice, or exactly what the story is behind it, but the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared over 500 years ago to an Aztec convert to Christianity, Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin. When he couldn’t get the bishop of Mexico City to believe his story about the apparition, her image was miraculously imprinted on his tilma, or cloak. These kids dress up as little Juan Diegos and Marías, María being the first name of a female convert to Christianity.

Although I saw that people were out in celebration of the Día de Guadalupe, I didn’t know where the center of activity was – people were moving in both directions. So I headed toward the cathedral, which seemed empty, and sat down to text Matt about the cute kids. When I look up, there is a cute kid standing right next to me, not in costume, and he asks me if I speak Spanish or English. Both, I say cautiously. This is usually the start of a sales pitch or a request for money. But it turns out the kid just wants to talk, and when I answer one of his questions in English, he runs back to his grandfather, shouting “oh my goodness she said something!” This gives me an opportunity to start a chat with his grandfather, who recommends that I check out the lucha libre (Mexican wrestling) match that’s going on tonight behind the Cathedral, that I should go to the Hospital de Belén, which is a graveyard where people get married at night (it’s a tradition, he says), and that I should see the Santuario de Guadalupe, because it’s beautiful and only about nine blocks away. I thank him and walk off, thinking, wow – random conversation with a stranger and I get not only a great story (marriages in a graveyard) but the location of the local Guadalupe shrine. I head up the street.

As I get closer, I can tell that the vendors are set up for this day. They are selling children’s soccer uniforms, socks, toys, little Juan Diego outfits, a few things for adults, and refreshments – potato chips, cold squirt with chile, buñuelos (a Mexican carnie food in the elephant ear family), and as we get to the last block, roses. Roses are the Virgen de Guadalupe’s flower. Guadalupe told Juan Diego to take roses to the bishop when he didn’t believe his story, Spanish roses that were miraculously growing on the hill where she appeared to him. It was when he offered the roses to the bishop that there was a blinding light and her image appeared on his cloak.

The churchyard outside the Santuario is a carnival. Literally. There are carnival rides for the kiddies, carnival games to win prizes, and more carnival food: cotton candy, special carnival sweet breads, and more potato chips. I am hugely tempted always by street potato chips. They look amazing – big golden slices of potato, always larger and thicker than the Lay’s variety, only slightly curled. Anyway. I get on line to enter the sanctuary, along with tons and tons of families.

Today, as at the Independence Day celebration, I am surprised by the number of small children. I’ve been living among students the last several years, and so I don’t spend much time with children. But I don’t feel like they are out in public space as much in the U.S. as they are in Mexico. This may be because Mexicans are just in public space more than Americans are. I also wonder if part of it is that Mexicans think of having a family as matter of fact. You have kids and you keep living life. At home, it’s like you’re supposed to do stuff before you have kids, because you can’t do anything after that, because you’re a parent. I don’t know… it’s a working theory. And Mexican parents make parenting look cool, some of them because they look like they’re having fun with their kids, but some of them because they are quite simply young and hot and quite comfortable in a halter top with a baby on their hip.

As we approach the gates to the church, we can hear a loudspeaker, which starts with some “vivas!” to the Virgin of Guadalupe. The response gets weaker as the vivas move on to a viva for the Catholic Church. The priests begin to recite the rosary. The woman behind me recites along with them. I know the Lord’s Prayer almost by heart in Spanish. It starts to get to me – the families, the mass of people in line to enter the church, the prayers being said over them. I try not to start crying. It seems kind of lame for the lone gringa chick to start weeping at this moment, since the Virgin of Guadalupe isn’t part of her tradition, since she’s the outsider here.

We get inside the church. Pews have been moved aside to make a bigger central aisle. There are people stationed every few feet to collect donations. The church is opulent, beautiful and well maintained. And the altarpiece, below Guadalupe’s portrait, is completely covered with flowers. About halfway up the aisle, the smell of roses overwhelms me. We approach the rail at the front of the church, and people beside me start crossing themselves, the Mexican way, of course, with the extra kiss of the hand at the end. And as I walk out of the church among the mass of believers, I again fight back the urge to cry. A couple teenage boys hand me a card with the rosary on it on my way out.

As I move back through the carnival, I think, Wow: Catholics really know how to bring the party.

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