Tuesday, December 13, 2011


This is the first year we've gotten to Puerto Vallarta in time to catch the last few days of the annual December pilgrimages to the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe. We'll try to take in more of it next year, but even if I never see it again, I'll never forget it.

The banner above, roughly translated, says that "to make our pilgrimage is to show publicly and through the streets our love of God, Our Lord, and the Holy Virgin Mary. We make our pilgrimage with love, devotion and respect." Understatement if ever there was.

The church overlooks Puerto Vallarta's small municipal square. Throngs of the faithful from all over the region descend on it by the tens of thousands each December, so many that it takes 12 days and nights to give each group the chance to make its processional through the cordoned streets of downtown and under the banner to greet the object of their veneration.

The people don't come with their parish congregations as you might expect. They come with the people they spend their work days beside. The groups are the staffs of hotels, stores, rural communities and associations. They are waiters, cashiers, housekeepers, farmers, sales people and all manner of other ordinary folks.

Some are costumed and stage little pageants as they walk along. Others ride on floats or carry elaborate icons. But many come only as themselves in their everyday clothes. The group in this photo represent the Puerto Vallarta "ejido."

An ejido holds a grant to occupy and use government land originally expropriated from vast private holdings nearly a century ago during Mexico's revolution. Signs these people carried described them as a united community of farm workers. Their faces declared that they were modest, self-reliant and familiar with disappointment and hardship, practical people who nevertheless sacrificed a work day to help celebrate an occurrence nearly 500 years ago whose authenticity and meaning are far from clear.

You can read about it in Wikipedia like I did, but in a nutshell, Our Lady of Guadalupe was a vision of the Virgin Mary said to have appeared in 1531 to a converted Aztec with the adopted name of Juan Diego. When his archbishop demanded proof, Juan Diego returned to the snowy hillside near what is now Mexico City where he had the vision and returned with a bouquet of Castillian roses that had miraculously bloomed at the site. He had wrapped them in his tunic, which was found to have been imprinted with the Virgin's likeness.

The priests who partnered up with the conquistadores to save the souls, if not the bodies, of the people of New Spain were notorious for selling Christianity by cutting and pasting bits of gospel onto accepted indigenous story lines. The Juan Diego narrative supposedly bears traces of an Aztec legend or two.

The story and the tunic have been closely scrutinized for centuries, but the people in the streets here and all over Mexico couldn't care less. Juan Diego's vision became so deeply woven into the cultural and historical fabric of the country that Mexicans don't think about it; they feel it as part of themselves. In fact, the priests were almost certainly right when they foresaw that the vision would owe much of its power to its pre-Columbian roots.

We could feel that power ourselves before we'd read a word about what we were witnessing. Day and night, street fairs and concerts surrounded our neighborhood non-stop. Amplified music clamored from every direction -- hymns, salsa, oompa bands, military ensembles -- and every few minutes the church's enormous bells pealed over all. It was pretty overwhelming, and after more than 36 hours of pilgrimage by proxy, our nerves were frayed.

But when we ventured down to the church early Monday, there was a lull in the noise and then the campesinos of the ejido passed slowly by. Something about them brought a lump to both our throats, and we had to wipe our eyes.

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