Monday, December 18, 2006

Celebrating the Virgin -- and the Mother

It's countdown time till Christmas. I'll be in Lubbock 12/24 -1/2 to spend the holiday mainly with Mom. She's in a skilled nursing unit, after some challenging times recently. I apologize for the length of this post. It's one of those firehose times I had in response to an e-mail I got from my sister Amy. She attached some notes Mom had made thinking about obituaries for her and Dad. Mom's obit had three sentences. Dad's had columns. I received it the morning after I'd spent with our housekeeper and her husband, celebrating the festival of the Virgin of Guadalupe. It washed over me that I'm living in a country which wholeheartedly celebrates motherhood -- not just on a commercially infused Sunday in May, but as a deeply ingrained part of the culture. Here, without editing -- because I just don't have the time right now to do it -- is what I wrote back to Amy and my sibs last Tuesday. P.S. -- Mom is MUCH better and not thinking anymore in terms of obits....

Hello All -- Larry and I are up early this morning, enjoying the quiet. It was NOT quiet all last night, as today is the Fiesta de la Virgin of Guadalupe. Yesterday was "Dia de las Veladas" and began before dawn with skyrockets going off. It was a day of keeping vigil with the Virgin and lasted until dawn today. I suppose as a way of keeping people awake during the vigil, there were fireworks and music throughout the night. I had to let Kody out three times last night. He spent the night panting and drinking vast amounts of water.

Now people sleep, a day of quiet rest and recovery. I'm all for that.

We weren't excluded from the festivities last night. Chano, our maid's husband, showed up at the door early yesterday morning ready to work for us. While we were both painting in the basement -- Chano and I -- that he invited us to a fiesta where he was going to dance. It was to be a traditional folk production with a group of dancers in celebration of the Festival of Guadalupe, just a short distance away. I accepted for myself and for my friend Jeanie. I knew she'd be up for it. Our husbands could keep each other company. Chano gallantly offered to come by for us in the evening.

He did, along with Hilda and twelve year old son Chuy. They came dressed elegantly, Chano in a white guayabira shirt, black trousers and suede cowbody boots. Their attire was spotless, despite the fact they had walked from their home in La Colonia, a distance of about a mile and a half. Jeanie offered to drive us all to the dance site in her SUV.

So exiting gringo gulch, on the inland side of highway 200 -- where only a few of the vast white well-designed homes are lit for Christmas, we plunged into a labyrinth of dirt streets and brilliantly painted square boxes flashing exuberantly with every color imaginable. (We'd met an anglo friend in the market last week. "We're looking for white lights that DON'T flash," she sighed. "There is no such thing here.") There was plenty to look at as we wandered farther and farther from the highway, Chano urging us on with, "cortito mas adelante." -- "only a short distance further."

But there was no dance. The chief musician had fallen ill earlier that night and was taken to the hospital. Panel trucks and taxis had brought people from as far as twenty miles away, but no fiesta. Would we like to go to a mass instead, asked Chano, in a little church, "cortito distancia" away? Why not? We were dressed up with no place to go, and Jeanie and I were up for folklore last night.

Thankfully the church was indeed "cortito distancia." Embedded in the neighborhood, it consisted of a foundation and two concrete block walls supporting a wooden and palm palapa, obviously a work in progress. On one of the solid walls was the altar and the image of the Virgin. Around her there were layers of filmy drapery, strings of blinking, running, and fade in/fade out Christmas lights. And flowers, at least four formal arrangements of carnations, gerberas and tuberose. And bowers of roses and rose and roses.

It was roses in the middle of winter which Juan Diego gathered on the hill outside Mexico City. They were the "sign" to provide the unbelieving bishop who had insisted the virgin would never appear to a common Indian, especially with instructions to build a church. Juan Diego gathered the roses into his mantle and carried them as proof to his eminence. Unfurling his cloak, the roses fell out. But on the cloth was emblazoned the image of the virgin, solid proof that Indians could indeed receive divine direction in their own native language without the mediation of Spanish priests. The Shrine of Guadalupe stands today in Mexico City, Juan Diego's cloak carefully preserved under glass.

There was not the benefit of a priest at this small church either. The congregation were all women except for Chano, Chuy and one old man. We sat on plastic chairs which, like the congregation, were of varied age, condition and color. Jeanie and I were offered nice white new ones. We sat down to hear the end of a homily -- delivered by a woman.

She spoke of how prayer isn't something we just offer in church, it's what we do every moment of every day, in our kitchens, caring for children, walking down the street. That it doesn't require great education to commune with the divine, that the Indian Juan Diego was proof that God spoke to humble, receptive hearts, and that we should look for the sacred in every place we are. Then she introduced the rosary portion of the service she was leading, telling us that as we went through the prayer, every "Santa Maria" was a rose (I wonder if that's the origin of "rosary"??!!) to honor the virgin, and that there couldn't be enough roses to honor her.

Well there were a lot of "roses." That rosary went on and on and on and on, thankfully at lightening speed. I counted at least six repetitions of the Lord's Prayer. Now, I know the words of Padre Nuestro, but there was no way they could come out of my mouth that fast. I just stood there with Jeanie and tried to look respectful. "The mother of my daughter's dad was Catholic," she said under her breath. "This is going to take a while." "Your ex-mother-in-law?" I asked. "Yeah," she replied. "I guess that's one way to put it."

But at last it did come to an end. Some one asked if they couldn't take the children home before the padre arrived and the mass began. We thought that was a good time to exit, and the five of us made our way back to the car.

"Would you like to go to a velada?" asked Chano. "It's only a short distance away." Is it in a church? Oh, no, it was in a house near the house of his cousin. And there would be hot chocolate. Magic words. We hit the road for Chano's cousin's neighbor's house.

Believe it or not, it was hot chocolate weather last night. I would never have dreamed a few weeks ago that I'd be surrounded by people wearing long sleeved black sweaters and jackets and wishing I had one, too. But the shrine set up at the end of the street where Chano's cousin Luisa lives was alive with candle flames and lights. We stopped at a little corner grocer to buy our own "velas," the white candles poured inside jars with the image of the Virgin on the side. (I thought it would be a good souvenir. Then I found it was bad form to take it away with you.)

Giant palm leaves formed an arched corridor along the cobblestone street for about forty yards. People were sitting and talking quietly in family groups as we approached the shrine at the end. It was about twelve feet tall and half again as wide. The banks of flowers were real, every color of rose in the rosy spectrum, and the air was filled with the smell of candles, flowers, chocolate, cinnamon and tamales. People were dressed in their Sunday best, and the children were well-behaved and quiet.

I was handed a styrofoam cup of hot chocolate and a styrofoam plate with two tamales. I sipped the cup and tasted heaven. No ordinary thin hot chocolate this. It was the chocolate version of atole -- made with the same masa de maiz that tamales are made of. It's liquid, but barely, thinned with milk and heavy with chocolate, cinnamon and sugar. The cinnamon remains in your drink in sticks which you suck on as you drink and then lay to one side. The tamales were light and fit nicely on top of the lasagna I'd had for dinner.

My goodness.....I've gone on and on! Larry just asked if I was going to the property owners' meeting this about thirty minutes. Yikes! Yes!

I think what sparked all this was looking at the notes Mom made for her and Dad’s obituaries. Hers is minuscule, and it shouldn't be. It's really pretty wonderful to see a holiday devoted to the MOTHER of Jesus. Mothers so often remain in the background and unmentioned. Let's give that some thought when we start giving honor to ours.

Love to you all. I'm off to meet my neighbors!


Amamos said...


I just logged on to your blog today, Susan, and loved reading it all. It is "so" Mexico. After returning from a week's vacation in Copper Canyon adventure I find myself wanting to go back to Mexico and experience more. The street vendors, the dirt roads, the simple life and loving, inclusive people.

O Susannah! said...

Love those dirt streets! And eating tortas and ceviche tostadas at the street vendors carts is the BEST!