Monday, January 30, 2012


Since first coming to Mexico many years ago we understood the importance of the Virgin of Guadalupe to the national psyche of Mexico and to daily life.  The story of her appearance in Mexico in about 1531 is fascinating and one finds depictions of this event every where.   Guadalupe of course was a brown Virgin (maronita - the dear brown one), specially created for Mexico to attract the indigenous population to Catholicism after the arrival of the Spanish. It wasn’t until after the first revolution that she caught on so to speak, but now she is every where - on coffee cups, clothing, banners of marching bands, taxis, school emblems, painted on walls, and there is an endless supply of inexpensive trinkets (like key chains) as well as much more expensive painting, carvings and so on.
In much of Mexico Guadalupe overshadows Jesus to a large extent.  She is often the central image and Jesus is relegated to a side alter and she is the one many people talk to in order to ask for advise or favours.   It is argued that as a woman Guadalupe is more approachable than Jesus and therefor is more sought out for placement in alters and in prayers.  She is a friend while Jesus is the master, or the Patron.  Note:  all of this of course creates issues for men. 
Her birthday (that is the day she appeared before Juan Diego) is celebrated on December  12 of each year.   The celebrations in her honour are not very extensive in Pátzcuaro as she is overshadowed by the importance of the Virgin of health, one of the religious drawing cards of the city and whose birthday occurs 4 days earlier.

This year we had the opportunity to be in Mexico City, the site of the very important Basilica of Guadalupe, the most visited Catholic site in the world.   The Basilica was built as requested by Guadalupe on the site of her appearance, with final renovation completed in about 1709. The basilica holds what is claimed to be the original garment that Juan Diego was wearing when Guadalupe appeared to him in Mexico, leaving her imprint on his clothing. (There is a lively debate and some scientific investigation about the authenticity of the image - was it painted in 1535 or was it a miraculous impression).  So, this is the most important gathering point for December 12 and according to reports between 1-2 million people pass through the Basilica that day and over the month of December up to 10 million people may enter the doors.  Off we go¡
As we join the line of pilgrims images of the Virgin abound.

Many chose to carry the Virgin on their back.

We make our approach to the blessed site.

How do I get this thing home?

We arrived in Mexico City late in the afternoon of December 11 and as we travelled we began to see pilgrims walking in the direction of the city and later the Basilica.  Many of these had large, framed portraits of Guadalupe strapped to their backs and other were carrying smaller images.  Our taxi driver indicated that people were striving to get to the Basilica before midnight to participate in mañanitas (the first mass).   Should we too head out that evening, or wait for morning?  Not knowing what to expect, we waited for morning.   This may have been a mistake.
In the morning we asked about getting to the Basilica and after discussion decided to take a taxi as it was 16 km from our hotel, and either have the driver return to pick us up or to wait for us.  Like so many Mexicans the driver was a lovely man, able to understand our broken Spanish and we able to understand him.  He decided to get as close to the Basilica as possible, about 7 blocks away, and walk with us.  We now had a tour guide as well as a driver; the event would not has been as fulfilling if he had not walked with us.  One approaches the Basilica by way of the Calzada de Guadalupe (Guadalupe’s walkway) and we found an endless line of people walking, carrying images on their backs, small ones in their hands and one man with an image that was larger than he.   Along the way we noticed people lined up to receive bottles of water and at other locations food - these were free to the pilgrims and gifts of citizens and neighbors to the Virgin.   There were also decorated trucks along the side and one assumes that they arrived filled with pilgrims.  Others decorated their push carts (their food stalls) and there were large trucks parked ready to pick up returning bicyclists.  We were soon able to see the old Basilica ahead and a large banner over the street welcoming the pilgrims.
As we entered the gates this was the sight with the old basilica directly ahead.  The new basilica is to the left (not visible here).  To the left is the chapel and ex-convent of the Capuchinas (Franciscan nuns).

We were astounded by the size of the complex.  Numerous building including the old Basilica (opened in 1536 but with many expansions and renovations), now a little unsteady on her feet after 300 years,  as well as the new Basilica which opened in 1976, designed to seat 10,000, as well as an atrium, or open space, which can seat 30,000 more people.  There are also chapels, a museum, an administrative office complex, gardens, a seminary and probably more.   As you enter the gates you first become aware of the dancers; 100s of Aztec dancers with banners showing their origin fill the open spaces and a 1000 or more people at any given time flow through and around the dancers.  In places we found tired pilgrims who had probably arrived the previous day, sitting or lying on the ground, looking a little worn out.

We first entered the new Basilica to find all of the seats full and 100s more standing and spilling out the door.  The building is so large that one could hardly distinguish the priests in front and one would need binoculars to see the  famous image of Guadalupe hanging behind the alter.  Our guide tried to get us behind the alter so we could see the image but it proved impossible.  As the mass progressed, the masses on a cue unrecognized by us, raised their images above their heads.   We then flowed among the dancers, following the crowds to other building and chapels.  What strikes one about the dancers is their use of feathers (1000s evident this day) and animals.  Some of these animal figures may hark back to traditional gods but it left me wondering if they are like totemic figures one sees among Northwest natives.  In any event, this would not be a good place for wildlife conservation supporters to be.
The new basilica in the background with one group of Aztec dancers performing for the Virgin.

What strikes one is the presence of many young men and women.  They were predominant on the walk and now in the Villa itself they were everywhere.  Coming from Canada one is accustomed to the religious being the old or new immigrants.  Here the young people seemed genuine and indeed appeared to be making a serious effort to to get to the Basilica and to  display their faith.  The dancers on the other hand seemed to represent the middle aged but they too were making a sacrifice if you imagine that they may have walked and then danced in the sun for a good portion of the day.   I was taken by one middle-aged dancers who, while part of his group, appeared to be in a trance-like state as he performed in an enormous feather headdress.  It is somewhat difficult to understand the desire of the dancers to attempt to hold on to their Aztec (or native) heritage and at the same time to pay homage to the religion of their conquerors.  I understand that some of the dancers do refer to the Virgin as a Nahuatl goddess (Tonantzin), using a name that may or may not be authentic, but in the end it is Guadalupe one sees on their banners.  One needs to know what the images are that exist in their heads (does Mary become Tonantzin?) and the narrative they provide to account for their own arrival at the Basilica.  However, this was not the day to explore these matters.    But, thinking back to my last post where I referred to a rain dance, I again began to think that what one sees in native dances and fiestas is not a fusion of Spanish or Catholic values and ritual with those of the natives.  But, it makes as much sense to see that the natives have just wrapped their beliefs, rituals and gods in the blanket of the Spanish-Catholic conquerors.  It is an act of simple resistance to appear like one is a good Catholic while in fact the ancient is still primary;  going through the expected rituals provides a convenient cover but also a familiar way to express the ancient.
Dancers in front of the clock/bell tower.  (The new basilica at the back and the old basilica with yellow roof to the right.)
The dancers had many animal representations which looked to me like toteimc figures.  These animals give  hint as to the origin of the group.  These tiger may be from Guerro, others with deers heads may be from Nayarit, etc.

We  were moved by the display of faith and commitment and the magnitude of the exercise only added to the emotional punch of being a part of it all, even if  lapsed Protestants and observers.  Collective display of faith always turn me to mush and this day was no different.

As you leave the grounds one returns the real world of commercialism and a Disney like atmosphere.   Everyone is forced to go through a vast market selling religious “stuff” (trinkets, crosses, images of Christ and of Guadalupe, cups, key chains; indeed there was so much stuff it became absurd.  Before exiting you can also take a side alley to have your photo taken with a fake backdrop of a religious setting or the kids can have their photos taken on a horse with Guadalupe in the background.  But then you enter the world of the faithful again; you return to the walkway you came on and pass the endless stream of people still to enter the grounds.

Next year we will go to the Basilica on the 11th.  Needing to make my necessary reference to Max Harris, he gives a interesting account of his day at the Basilica, but it is only now that I realize he was there on the 11th and through the night.  I was taken by his account of the variety of dancers in the atrium.  As noted above we only saw the Aztec dancers and one wonders if the authorities haven’t intervened to separate the groups since, if we accept Harris, the Aztec dancers dominated the space and drummed out the others.  Next year we can answer this.

PS   I now realize I may have used some term incorrectly and should have been clearer to distinguish Conchero dancer from Mexica (Aztec) dancers.  If you want to explore this further I recommend reading Susanna Rostas' book   Carrying he Word: Conchero Dancers in Mexico City.

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