Friday, May 9, 2008

Little Tiny Footprints

Hilda, our housekeeper, and her family should be back from Talpa today. As I wrote in my earlier post about our trip to Mascota, this past Tuesday, Hilda, her teenage son, her elderly mother, and husband Chano left early in the morning to drive to San Juan de Abajo, a small town north of Puerto Vallarta. From there, they were to join several thousand other pilgrims and follow the highway to a small town with big shrine dedicated to a tiny little virgin. All on foot. Three days of hiking. Footprints.

So what inspires such devotion? Hilda shared the history of the Virgin of Talpa one morning in our kitchen. She was scrubbing the stove and I was loading the dishwasher. Here's my interpretation of her account in Spanish. Obviously something might have been lost -- but more probably added -- in translation. Here goes:

Like many appearances of the Virgin, it started in a farmer's field. This particular farmer thought he'd found a child's toy, a diminutive straw figure, no more than a foot tall. He carried it home, and a few days later presented it to the daughter of a neighbor some distance away. But his first night without the small doll under his roof, he had a very vivid dream. The doll announced that she was the Virgin, Queen of Heaven, and that she belonged there, in his house. She was not to be removed. She further admonished him, that if he didn't wish her presence under his roof, he was to destroy the doll.

Waking, he of course thought “Whoa, weird dream.” But AHA! There she was, the very doll he had carried away to his neighbor's place. She had returned, leaving a trail of tiny footprints behind her right up to his front door. He stared into her face and wondered if what he had experienced the night before was indeed a dream -- or was it a bonafide vision? Hmmm, Let's see, he thought. Taking his cigarette, he placed the lit end on her cheek. And the doll began to cry. The trace of the tear is still evident on the right cheek of the image lodged above the altar in the shrine. Because, of course, a shrine was inevitable. What else is a peasant to do when the Virgin puts her foot down? Build a shrine! Build a shrine!

Forgive the tongue in my cheek. Perhaps it is the phalanx of "formidable protector" portraits -- all male of serious and heavy-browed countenance -- hanging on the walls of the church-sponsored museum just behind the shrine at Talpa that makes me raise my eyebrows with just a smidge of doubt. Here are the bishops, one after the other down the centuries, all charged with the care and keeping of the tiny little virgin. These guys have sold a lot of souvenirs and hosted a whole slew of pilgrims over the years. In fact, according to the Bruce Whipperman guidebook to Puerto Vallarta and environs, the bishop of the church at Mascota, jealous of the success of the church at Talpa, twice kidnapped the little straw virgin and installed her in his church. And twice she came running back to Talpa, leaving little tiny footprints behind her.

Have a look at the photo album I posted on Shutterfly. (To do this, move your cursor to the left column of this blog. Look under "Links to More Info about Life in Mexico -- and Me," and click on "Susan's Photo Albums." The collection of photos I took in Talpa is there, and you can bring them up as a slide show.)

What I found most fascinating in that museum were the pictures, hundreds of them, drawn with all degrees of competence. Each depicts an instance where people felt the Virgin was protecting them. They date back to the 1940's, and taken in themselves, present a rich cultural history of Mexico and the dangerous situations that the rural poor can get into. Lots of bus crashes, knife accidents, and slips of the machete, as well as a fair share of bad guys lying in wait to ambush unsuspecting farmers staggering home from cantinas. There are "Thanks to the Virgin" (TTTV's, I've called them) for saving people from disease, death, and temptations of all sorts. Signs indicated that the examples posted represent hundreds more in storage.

Now it's not that I disbelieve in divine aid. Not at all. I've had too much in my own life to doubt that when a longing heart asks for help, there’s an answer. And I believe that that help comes in the particular form each individual is ready to recognize and accept. Expect the Virgin. You get the Virgin.

My quibble – and therefore doubting eyebrows -- is about the original story where the Virgin appears to a peasant. And there are several versions and several virgins across Mexico. Who actually documented those stories? Why have they endured? How is it that it these stories continue to inspire and transform people? What is it that seems to make them grow in influence rather than wane?

After asking these questions, I realize that whether or not the stories are true or not, isn’t the real issue. A story, true or false, continues to be told because it is needed. The most factual, well-balanced story of something that actuallyreallytrulyhappened will eventually fade from collective memory -- if there’s no need to retell it.

But who is it that needs these virgin appearance stories?

First of all, it just seems very convenient that virgin appearances to native people in Mexico seem designed to establish organized and orthodox Christianity (read, Roman Church and Spanish Government) smack dab on top of indigenous religious practices. It was on the hill of Tepeyac near present day Mexico City that the Virgin now named Guadalupe appeared to the Indian peasant farmer Juan Diego. This is the Virgin of Guadalupe often referred to now as "Goddess of the Americas." Tepeyac was the hill where the pre-Columbian goddess of Mesoamerica was worshipped in a number of forms. Some of them.....

Tonantzín -- mother goddess and lunar deity
Tlaltecuhtli -- goddess torn in two by rival gods, half her body thrown skywards to create the stars, the other half left behind to create the earth.
Cihuacoatl -- fierce skull-faced old woman, keeper of snakes, who carries the shield and arrows of a warrior.

Pagan goddesses, displaced, but not forgotten.

How convenient that so soon after the conquest, Juan Diego's dark-skinned Guadalupe should arrive on the scene, advising (in the nahuatl language, no less) that Indians should convert to the religion of their pale-faced conquerors, and, Oh yes. Build a shrine. Make it a big one.

Likewise, the Virgin of Zapopán appeared at a critical juncture in the struggle between Spanish soldiers and the native population around Guadalajara. She convinced the soon-to-be-conquered to lay down their arms and accept Christianity. The shrine built to her -- one of the three "miracle shrines" of Mexico -- is the one where my dentist's assistant slacked off -- walking on her knees only from the church entry to the altar, rather than doing it clear across the city.

Why are these virgin appearance stories needed and retold? Who told them in the first place? Who is telling them now?

Seeking aid or answers from a power beyond ourselves is a practice as old as human life on the planet. We've been doing it since learning to walk upright. The ancient of ancients attributed that help to a feminine source, drawing parallels from the human pattern they saw every day. It was Mom who fed and clothed, comforted and caressed, righted wrongs and sent bad little children to the “time out” corner of the teepee. Dad was out slaying beasts, bringing home bacon, backslapping and bonding, giving high fives to the rest of the guys. Dad was tired when he got back.

And so it was, across the globe, that Great Cosmic Mother morphed into a pantheon of female images and icons, each with particular offices that mirrored the duties of earth mothers everywhere. And it was these images and icons that were eventually deemed "pagan" by societies evolving -- or perhaps devolving -- into the ethos of ownership and hierarchies. Hunter-gatherers started farming and fencing, taking possession of the earth instead of belonging to it. And down the centuries --

Ta dah! Enter tribalistic Jehovah worship. Enter the Church of Rome. Enter Taliban thinking in all its gory glory. God got macho. Exit Great Cosmic Mother, stage right.

Well maybe. Sort of. I’ve noticed something about the gentle people I meet around here, and perhaps it's true of people close to the earth as a rule. Except when they’re driving, they will do almost anything to avoid confrontation. I see what people put up with around here and think it’s a wonder Mexico ever had a revolution. Accommodation, compromise, say what makes the gueros happy. Smile. But under it all...... footprints.

It was several years ago I spent a week in Morelia and visited the historical museum there. Lots and lots of little clay fertility goddess images were on display. The guide said the Indians used to plant them along with their seed corn. This blatantly pagan practice was forbidden by the conquering Spanish, who proceeded to put the best Indian craftsmen to work fashioning images of the Virgin instead. These were installed in the churches going up all over Mexico. It was hard work, but Indians have strong backs. Soon the Queen of Heaven reigned over rural congregations across the country.

Images of the Virgin were sacrosanct, treated with great care, venerated at the altar, hauled out on feast days and paraded through the streets. But one feast day in Morelia the bearers failed. They stumbled, and the huge platform on their shoulders went tumbling. The image of the Virgin shattered in the street. And, like a giant piñata, things fell out of her. Clay things. Little goddess images doing ….. ahem …. fertility things. Now where did those come from? Who could have put them there?

Little tiny footprints. We know the story. And here I've retold it yet once more. But whose little footprints are those, really?

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