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Many may not know the story of Juan Diego that led to the belief in, and the establishment of the Virgin of Guadalupe as the Queen of Mexico.This post is about the week of the fiestas for the annual celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Ajijic, Jalisco.
Welcome back to my blog. I have been away on vacation and have come back with new stories and photos of my favourite country: Mexico.
The story of Juan was told to me by a Mexican guide in Mexico City on a previous trip and relayed the origin of the strong belief in the Virgin by the Latin population all through the Americas. Juan was an Indigenous man, who was converted to Christianity by the Spanish missionaries and left behind his belief in the gods and spirits of his ancestral nation–the Aztecs.
It was 1531 and Juan Diego was on his way to attend mass in the city, Tlatelolco–the ancient site of this Aztec city, later called Mexico city. He passed by a mountain when he heard celestial music and saw a bright light. He stopped when he heard a female voice asking him to climb the mountain, so he did. There he saw a vision of a lady dressed in a blue mantel and he believed it to be the Virgin Mary who asked him to tell the bishop of Mexico to build a shrine to her, the Mother of all mankind, right on this same spot.
In awe of the apparition, he went to the head of his new religion and told the bishop what had happened, but he was not believed. Juan returned to Tepeyac mountain and another apparition of the Virgin occurred, as he had hoped. The Virgin insisted he would go back to the bishop and repeat her request. So Juan did, without result. The bishop asked him for a sign that the Virgin really had appeared to him.
Juan returned to the mountain and heard the Virgin tell him to take the flowers to the bishop as proof. When Juan looked down he saw many beautiful roses bloom in front of him and he gathered them in his coat–this was a first miracle as no flowers could reasonably bloom in this bare desert environment on top of the hill. Somewhere during this process another miracle happened when his uncle was dying and stalled his mission. When he told the Virgin why he was delayed, his uncle was miraculously healed.
He returned to the bishop and showed his flowers. Then the bishop noticed that on the inside of Juan’s mantel an imagine was imprinted of the Virgin Maria of Guadalupe. He then believed Juan’s mission and followed through: the first shrine was built on this site.
The imagine is famous and believed to be the exact same that is now displayed in the cathedral devoted to her on the hill, that is now located within Mexico City to where many pilgrims travel to pray to the Virgin. The date was said to be December 12 so this is considered the anniversary of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
The painting/imagine is of a brown skinned lady with a serene and kind face, with rays coming from her whole body around her and a blue mantel covering her shoulders. She is obviously Indigenous-Mexican. No wonder that all Latin Americans prefer to pray to an intermediary that looks like them and whom they can relate to.
The Virgin of Guadalupe proved to be a natural replacement of Mother Earth that all Aztecs and other indigenous peoples already knew and believed to be a deity, or spirit, and a force for good. The Roman Catholic priests then reluctantly incorporated this belief as a new form of Maria, the mother of Jesus, and accepted the Virgin of Guadalupe into the religion. Since 1513 the shrine was proven unable to hold the increasing numbers of worshippers and over time 6 churches were built with the last one built as a large modern cathedral. Regardless of what one believes and in spite of modern research by scientists that puts many doubts on the validity of the story and Juan Diego’s existence, the belief in the Queen of Mexico has flourished.
As many Mexicans cannot afford to travel to the city, the custom of reproducing little altars for the Virgin where they live developed. All over the town of Ajijic, many such altars sprung up during the week leading up to Dec 12.
Although Mexico seems to be in a mood for rehabilitation of the indigenous population and many events include a colourful display of that pre-Hispanic past, it still seems not as easy for many Mexicans to acknowledge their Indigenous (Indian) heritage as owning up to a Hispanic (Spanish) background, and I suspect this is still related to status. The funny thing I observed is that in North America Hispanic/Latin people are not considered “white” by Caucasian Americans. How odd… In Europe, where I grew up, a Latin/Hispanic identity is seen as European, and the Spanish and Italians in Europe would simply be very surprised by a notion of not being considered “Caucasian” or “white’.
During the 3 days before December 12, a procession of believers leaves each day from the main church in town and moves to the Temple of the Virgin of Guadalupe, where a mass takes place. The procession carries an imagine of the Virgin, and depending on the day, different parts of the population are represented.
These mananitas are not just religious events, no, far from it: it involves much fun, fireworks, musical groups and bands playing all through town during these days and during the procession; a big band follows each procession. Sometimes even at 12 at night a band with trumpets and always a large tuba plays traditional Mexican music on a street corner, just for practice, with fireworks and bombs going off at all hours of the day and night. Most of the ex-pat Americans, with Canadians in tow, make themselves scarce during those times and might leave town for a side trip, as they prefer their sleep undisturbed.
At the end of each mass, the bands perform a serenade to the Virgin inside the temple of the Virgin: a fiesta for the senses by the variety of music, and the many flowers brought into the church, while respectful attention is paid by all attending. The second last mass that started at 6 AM (before people go off to work, as it was a regular school/work day) and ended around 7 AM was attended by eight different groups including a fully appointed and dressed Mariachi band. Afterwards cinnamon tea was offered outside to the attending crowd (standing room only) by the specifically assigned men of a certain trades union, appointed to carry the large pots and disposable plastic cups. I saw some men in the band also add some more traditional, gold liquid to their cups that starts with T.
The hand-made paper decorations only last a few days and by the time another fiesta rolls around, they will have naturally disappeared.
The occasion of this Dia de la Virgin de la Guadalupe needs to be celebrated as a milestone and parents take photos of their children at the procession’s end: babies as young as two years old with the Virgin in the church yard, all dressed up to be little Indians. The girls have a symbolic kitchen on their backs complete with pots and pans and the blessing of the Virgin is sought.
The church photo was not sharp, as I felt reluctant to use flash and had no tripod. Anyway, it suffices to give an impression of the modern temple of the Virgin in Ajijic with the bands playing their hearts out in the front before the altar and the painting of the Virgin.
After the spiritual, the more mundane but not less joyful aspect of life–eating–takes place, with kiosks and taco stands having sprung up within the last hour to feed the crowds.
And afterwards: the so-called castillos: large towers of fireworks that are hand made and set up right on the spot. On the last day four of them were set off, to everyone’s delight.
Mexico: a moveable feast.