Friday, December 12, 2008

La Noche de Guadalupe, Part I

It is midnight. I sit here in my cuarto, writing and listening to the BOOM of firecrackers going off. It is the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Patron Saint of the Americas, Madre de Dios, and the celebrations have already begun.


We arrive at the Basilica around five o’clock in the afternoon. There is an hour of daylight left on this, the Eve of the Fiesta de Guadalupe, but the sun is already making its descent. The street leading up to the Basilica has been closed to car traffic and instead is filled with people. On the left side of the street, behind temporary green barricades, a steady stream of people is making its way toward the Basilica grounds. We join them.

Four-hundred seventy-seven years ago the Virgin Mary appeared to the indigenous Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin in this very place. She asked Juan Diego to build her a church. Dutiful, he went and told the local bishop. Naturally, the bishop was skeptical, and asked Juan Diego for some proof of his encounter with Nuestra Señora. Juan Diego, ever the dutiful messenger, went back to the place he had originally seen Maria, and he passed along the bishop’s request for proof. She instructed him to gather some flowers nearby. The flowers were not Mexican, had never grown in Mexico before, had no right to be on that hill – but the bishop would know the flowers well. They were native to where he had grown up in Spain. So, Juan Diego gathered the flowers in his cloak, and carried them back to the bishop. By this time, though the bishop’s gatekeepers were having none of Juan Diego’s shenanigans. They refused to let him enter. Juan Diego struggled to get in, the bishop came out to see what was going on, and then suddenly it happened: The cloak fell open. The flowers tumbled out onto the ground. And on the cloak was a unique image of the Virgin Mary, which came to be called la Virgen de Guadalupe, proof of the appearance of the Mother of God in the Americas.

Today that cloak hangs in the Basilica here, the old rural hilltop long ago swallowed up by the voracious city. But Guadalupe’s image is no longer limited to that bulletproof/fireproof/bombproof-glass-protected cloak. It is everywhere, on street corners and t-shirts, in small home displays and in every Mexican Roman Catholic Church. And on this, her feast day, her ubiquity in Mexico takes on a new dimension entirely.

As we make our way toward the Basilica’s entrance with the long procession of pilgrims, we begin to notice large, four-feet-tall framed photos of Guadalupe strapped to peoples’ backs. Every once in a while we notice someone for whom the giant framed photo is not enough; instead they have a the virgen in a giant glass case – again, strapped to their back.

Others go a different route, and hoist up large banners with the Maria’s image on them. Usually these banners lead a procession of a particular group of pilgrims, the group recognizable by its personalized group t-shirts, kind of like those you see at 5K races or family reunions. They might be all bright blue or yellow or green and read “The Rodriguez Family Visits Nuestra Senora – Our 6th Pilgrimage” or “The Neighborhood of Tlalpan – Our 29th Pilgrimage” or any number of other phrases and always, always an image of the virgin and sometimes an image of the distinctive-looking Basilica, too.

And then there are the kneelers. There aren’t as many of them as I’d been led to believe – maybe there will be more tomorrow on the actual festival day – but they are here, scattered throughout the crowd. They are approaching the Basilica on their knees. Usually they have a giant picture frame on their back, too – though one kneeler appeared to be bearing a duffel bag full of bricks on his back like a cross. What kind of devotional penance is this? It was beautiful, moving, mesmerizing – and nearly impossible for us Protestants to comprehend.

Once inside the Basilica grounds we second-and-third-time visitors immediately notice something different about the landscape (other than the thousands of people): whole areas sectioned off and filled with blankets and sleeping bags and camping tents. People are sleeping here tonight? And, it looks like, slept here last night? Off to the side of the makeshift campground, space has been made among the crowds for a group of men and boys in feathered headdresses doing what we assume are indigenous dances to the beat of drums, drums, drums.
Our group splits up, factions heading in different directions. We agree to meet back at the Metro stop in an hour and a half.

My colleague Jen has been pining to get her picture taken at one of the “photo-op” places, where you sit on a plastic donkey with a sombrero on your head, Guadalupe (and sometimes, oddly, Pope John Paul II) in the background, all surrounded by the most vibrant collection of colorful flowers anywhere. We find one of these little photo-ops on the way up the hill. Like so many Guadalupe things we’ve seen, it should be unbearably tacky, and yet…when we stumble upon it there is a family standing and having their picture taken, the youngest child on the plastic donkey, clearly having this picture taken to be just what the photo-op claims to be: a memory of a trip to the Basilica. Amid the gaudiness of the setup the whole scene is oddly touching. As for us, well: Jen pays to have a photo of herself taken, and then she has me snap another one with her holding her Glamour Magazine for some kind of “Where has your Glamour been?” feature. (Glamour readers, I assume you know what this means.) We are gringos, it is true…

We head further up the hill. There are people going on their bare knees up the concrete stairs. It’s a rather high and steep hill; the knee-climbing looks painful. When we reach the top of the hill we enter the little chapel. There are too many people, so we cross ourselves and leave. From this spot on the top of the hill the view of Mexico City is incredible – I can recognize skyscrapers in the misty (smoggy?) twilight, and mountains off in the background. I call Chris to tell her how incredible everything is. I wish she were here to experience this with me – as well as to help explain all this virgin-devotion-pilgrimage stuff that surrounds us and that we have no idea how to begin comprehending. It seems to foreign to our practice of faith…but alas, our cell phones get cut off, and I am forced to save my questions for later.

We head back down the hill on the other side. On this side of the hill, Christmas lights are everywhere. I’ve hardly seen any Christmas lights lately, so these are striking to me, and I suddenly realize: It’s December. Christmas is coming! I feel eight years old for a moment, and the moment passes.

Our time is almost up, but, checking our watches, we decide we have just enough time to step inside the Basilica itself to see the virgin cloak and the beauty that now surrounds it in the sanctuary: a hundred candles, a Christmas tree, a giant Mexican flag (and lots of other little flags from other American countries, including the U.S. – she is the Patroness of the Americas, after all), and a choir in choir robes waiting for its moment to shine.

We take it in, then turn to leave. Except that we suddenly find that we can’t leave. A police officer indicates to us that the way we came in is now only an entrance, and that if we want to leave we have to leave by the official exit. To our horror, we see that the official exit is on the other side of the Basilica at the end of a massive and growing procession. The only way out is to join the procession.

We check the time: We need to meet everyone at the Metro stop in 5 minutes. But there is no way we are getting through this mass of slow-moving people in 5 minutes. We look for another exit. There isn’t one – all are blocked by armed police. Jen pulls out her cell phone to call and let the group know we’ll be late. Except that her there is no battery power on her cell phone, and it refuses even to turn on.

So we join the procession. Flags of Guadalupe are hoisted into the air. Families walk together. The procession slows to a crawl. Someone strikes up a chorus of “Las Mañanitas,” the Mexican equivalent of Happy Birthday for the birthday of the Virgin of Guadalupe. I join in on the part I know, which is the part that goes “something something something LAS MAÑANIIIITAS something something…”

We check the time again. We are already 15 minutes late. We continue in the only way we can: In little steps forward, crushed in by the crowd.

Suddenly we see an exit off to the left, and we ditch the procession and hurry out the door. We make our way through the Basilica grounds toward the way we came in. When we reach the gate, a policeman puts up his hand and points in another direction. Again we find that the exclusive entrance/exit thing is in effect again, so we head off to whatever exit the policeman was pointing towards. We leave through this exit….only to find that its path is gated off and leads right back into the Basilica! We are now 30 minutes late, and vividly imagining how angry everyone will be when we finally find them. We find the nearest policeman and ask him if there is any way to get ourselves out of here.

He directs us to the one place that leads out: the massive covered street market that surrounds the Basilica grounds. Fine. We enter it. It’s kind of like when you have to leave a museum through the gift shop, except that the gift shop is massive and is crammed full of people and is shaped like a crazy labyrinthine maze that goes on for blocks and blocks. We ask directions at least three times before we finally find our way back onto the street.

Which is exactly when another policewoman stops us, and directs us back into the market, shaking her head as if we were going the wrong way down a one-way street. Jen seems unwilling to believe this is happening, and decides to try and keep walking anyway, right through the policewoman’s arm. The policewoman is having none of it. We hang our heads and trudge back into the maze-like market.

We are now 45 minutes late. We brace ourselves for our waiting colleagues. Except that when we reach the Metro stop, the meeting point, no one is there.

We sit for a few minutes, trying to decide what to do. We try to remember what the plan was if any of us got separated: We were to make our way back on our own. At this point, since no one is waiting for us, we figure everyone else had come to the same conclusion and hoped to just meet us back at the Lutheran Center.

But there is a wrinkle: We had talked about going to the Zocalo on our way back, to see the giant ice rink. We had told everyone, including our group leaders, that we planned to do this. We decide to wait a few more minutes, just in case they show up. We buy some food and drink from street vendors. We make up our minds.

Zocalo, here we come…


Zach Parris said...

Sounds like quite an evening.

Jen said...

So I pretty much just laughed to the point of tears re-reading our mis-adventure... good times...