Ceremony & Celebration: La Virgen de Guadalupe

By Abel Salas

Between midnight and 4 a.m. in the historic center of Mexico City, the darkness is severed by taxi cab headlights. Overhead streetlamp glows catch on bicycle wheel reflectors spinning round and round.
With almost digital regularity, bike riders pump past in either direction, the brick-paved plaza a waystation on their route, a bio-friendly nocturnal sacrifice in honor of Mexico’s patron saint, La Virgen de Guadalupe. They are among thousands who have traveled to Mexico’s capital from across the republic for the December 12th commemoration.

The bicyclists, many with heavy, glass-and-wood framed portraits strapped to their backs, disappear into the early morning dark. One group of devout teenagers pedaling by has opted to wear cloth capes bearing the image of the Blessed Virgin instead. The eerie sight of Virgen capes fluttering in the breeze under the glare of a stray vintage Volkswagon Beetle taxicab headlamp has distracted me somewhat from the task at hand, the “velación,” or candlelight ceremony, which is my reason for being in the Zócalo, the town square in a city five times the size of New York, NY. Like them, I have come to participate in an annual outpouring of faith. As a non-Catholic, I have joined the ranks of those who recognize pre-Hispanic antecedents to the miraculous apparition alleged to have occurred in 1531.

So, I work diligently at placing eight thin candles in a circular order around a single candle in the center of a flagstone borrowed from close by. Four candles are attached at each of the four cardinal directions. Another four are placed just outside of each of these, near the stone's rim. These are attached by heating the candle bases over the “saumador,” a vase-like clay incense burner with triangular cut-out vents around the open cup crown. This saumador is filled with glowing coals where upon solid, pebble-sized shards of copal, a pungent, sweet-smelling incense believed to have purifying power, are simultaneously being liquefied then transformed into a thick white smoke some in our group line up to be cleansed by.

A candle-covered stone resembling a rounded bread loaf is set before a framed poster image of the Virgen de Guadalupe leaning up against the wrought iron fence surrounding the central Cathedral. I am told to follow a circular spiral order, waiting until each of nine “animas,” or spirit-guides, is invoked in song before torching each wick. The ceremony is an ancient one, maintained in a syncretic form by “concheros,” dancers who practice ritual worship rooted in signs and symbols that were old before Columbus. Our rag-tag group has assembled in the shadows of la Catedral, the large church built by Spanish Catholics directly over the site of the great pyramid destroyed by the newcomers shortly after a victorious Cortez had established himself in the city known then as Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztec empire.

Since I am new to “danza”—an ecstatic physical extension of the ceremonial worship—being chosen to light candles which represent the animas is an honor. Others are chosen to light the small votive candles placed in the shape of a cross a little further away from the image of Guadalupe. The subsequent part of the “velación” involves the creation of a flower-painting, the “ollín,” a Nahautl word signifying movement which is graphically depicted by two curved arcs, one concave and the other convex that cross one another at the center apex. These are manifested in the physical realm by respective bands of red-and-white blooms meticulously arranged at the center of a rectangular cloth over the flagstones, curving and crossing in arcs around an overturned bowl with a slender candle burning quietly in its middle.

Their labors are accompanied by the strumming of “conchas”—stringed instruments with wooden necks and bodies made from emptied and cured armadillo shells or dried, hollowed-out gourd as well as the call-and-response choral singing of “alabanzas,” traditional Catholic songs. The word “conchero” is derived from the word for armadillo shell, the “concha.” It is said that after the European invasion, the enslaved indigenous aboriginals were forbidden use of the drum. The sensual rhythms were deemed an extension of evil pagan rites. Seeing that the Spanish often used a guitar or a lyre to create music in their Catholic fervor, the indigenous Mexica quickly adapted, fashioning a compact, lightweight instrument resembling a mandolin and strummed in time to a traditional repertoire of unique ceremonial dances.

Today, the concheros carry gourd or metal shakers while they dance, and the drum—a “huehuetl” in the original Nahuatl—has been returned to the center of the circle. The concha remains a fixed part of the musical expression underlying danza. And the dance ceremonies themselves are quite often dedicated to Catholic saints. Toward the end of the velación, two women are chosen from the group to wrap the flowers from the ollín around two thin, wooden dowels roughly two feet long, tying them with a single piece of string. The vigil is finished when the two flower canes are complete. Despite the hour, I don't feel tired. We've taken breaks between portions of the ceremony to smoke, chat, or drink steaming “atole”—akin to “champurrado”—but made from guayaba. It goes down like a warm fruit smoothie. The singing has lifted our spirits, and in a final prayer, we apologize to the guardians for any mistakes or errors made in the elaboration of our ceremony.

A little after 4 a.m. we break for the long walk to the Basilica, a modern church built this century at the foot of the hill where the Virgen appeared to a humble indigenous convert named Juan Diego 464 years ago. The hike is long, and we carry the gear we will wear after sunrise for the day-long circle of dance. For a little over two hours, we march reverently toward the focal point of the celebration that has become a widely celebrated international holiday.

I am among several from the U.S. who have been invited to lend our strength and support to the formation of a new circle under the “capitanía,” or leadership, of a young writer and painter named José Antonio Cruz. Nicknamed “Tlacuilo,” Nahuatl for painter or artist, Tonio is not yet 30 and addresses us with humble gratitude. He has made danza a significant part of his life for the last 12 years and is among a newer generation of urban "hippie-tecas" who recognize how Catholicism successfully incorporated a number of native deities, adopting them and giving them new names in order to make conversion ofthe first peoples less difficult.

The Virgen de Guadalupe, for example, appeared to Juan Diego on a hilltop know widely as Tepeyac, a site which had long been consecrated as a place wherein a deity called Coatlicue, also known as Tonántzin, a grandmother guardian regarded as the ultimate giver and taker of life. According to common and now near sacrosanct ecclesiastical lore—Juan Diego was instructed by a Virgin Mary figure to visit the bishop in Mexico City. Manifesting herself for the first time in recorded history as a mestiza—with features that were at once indigenous AND European—and attired in all her celestial glory, she is said to have conveyed her desire to see a church in her honor erected precisely over the grounds where well-attended indigenous spiritual and ceremonial gatherings in celebration of an important Aztec goddess had been occurring regularly for centuries before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors and clergy.

Oddly enough, according to the legend, the colonial bishop installed at the time remained skeptical until Juan Diego returned with a cloak full of roses. Roses had never before, it is reputed, blossomed on that hill, much less in the days leading up to the winter solstice. Further still, the cloak—the tilma—in which he carried and delivered said roses as proof of her apparition bore a miraculous image of the brown-skinned Madonna, Mother Mary as an Indian maiden who’d come to care for her children in the new world. Since then, all manner of miracles and visions have been attributed to her. Her presence in Mexico and Latin America outweighs any other singular expression of faith, second only to Christ in stature.

We arrive at La Villa before sunlight, marveling at the number of charter buses and large trucks parked along the way. I count at least a hundred buses stationed on La Calzada de Guadalupe, the long avenue lined at its median with an attractive pedestrian walkway, trees, and benches. With lit candles in our hands, still blocks away from our destination, we pass scores of believers making their way on their knees alongside us. The thoroughfare’s terminus is a collection of structures that includes the small hilltop church built in the 16th Century upon bishop’s acknowledgement of the miracle apparition, a larger inaccessible cathedral at the bottom of the hill which has buckled into the ground at an odd angle as a result of the catastrophic 1985 earthquake. In contrast, the Basilica is a modern, circular temple that evokes Frank Lloyd Wright.

The crowd at 7 a.m. is overwhelming. On the ground, bodies litter every available inch. The temperature has dropped considerably, so people huddle under blankets. Hundreds of vendors hawk T-shirts, posters, portraits, paintings, glow-in-the-dark key chains, 3-D pendants, rings, books, calendars, pencils, rugs, handbags, pins, and prayer cards all bearing representations of “La Virgencita.” The quantity of Virgen paraphernalia on sale is staggering, beyond anything I could ever have imagined. She’s bigger than the Rolling Stones, I think to myself. Jagger and Richards have nothing on our Holy Mother. Then I chide myself for the inappropriate comparison.

Reporters from Televisa follow us as we wind our way to a less populated area and make our offerings to the four directions. From 8 a.m. to about 9 a.m., we rest. I try to sleep briefly, wrapped in a black leather jacket, shivering in a cold that bites, nonetheless. By 9:30 a.m., the machine-gun sound of drums in high gear is a signal to clear our own circle and dress in garments patterned after those worn by pre-Colombian indigenous ancestors. Around our ankles, we wear leather bands encrusted with sewn on seed husks from the “ayoyote” tree. Cut open on one side and dried, the ayoyote shells make a rattling sound that echoes the drum and the “sonajas” or hand-held rattles many danzantes carry to mark the complex beats, intricate rhythms and athletically challenging steps which comprise the dances our circle will offer.

Tonio keeps time on an improvised drum. Rather than carved wood, it is a metal barrel atop which a leather skin is stretched tautly. Around us, similar circles scrounge and hedge and jockey for space while making volume a significant aspect of an unspoken competition. Amidst the effusively religious zeal, the admirably entrepreneurial commerce, and the sincere efforts to recover ancestral indigenous traditions, the subtle rivalry among the many dance circles assembled isn’t all that surprising.
A noontime lunch break consists of corn tortilla tacos stuffed with potatoes, nopal cactus, and white crumbly cheese—queso fresco—a feast considering our states of exhaustion and hunger. By now, our circle has grown to include over 30 dancers. As the sun reaches its afternoon zenith, everyone has been invited to stepped forward to the center of the circle to lead individual dances.

By the time we close the ceremony and break the circle, it is after 4 p.m. Everyone is tired but aglow with euphoria. Helga García-Garza, the stout South Texas Chicana under whose guidance, mentorship and tutelage I have enthusiastically entered the danza circle, is teary-eyed as she thanks our Mexican hosts and counterparts for the opportunity to have participated in the powerful series of events I’ve just witnessed. For those of us from north of the border, it has been more than an annual December trek in homage to the Coatlicue-Tonántzin-Guadalupe trinity. It has been the best kind of homecoming, one that leaves us breathless, happy and feeling reborn all at once. 

A previous version of this article appeared in The Austin Chronicle, Vol. 15, No. 17, Dec. 22, 1995.



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