Friday, December 12, 2008

The Virgin of Guadalupe

"Juan Dieguito"

San Cristobal de las Casas, 1990

I am wandering up the calle Guadalupe in San Cristobal under streams of plastic banners: red, green and white. Crowds of people growing thicker as I get closer to the church. Along the sides of the streets little stands are selling sweet bread and ponche, sodas and tamales. Popcorn, tacos, cotton candy, corn on the cob. Music blares simultaneously from mariachi and marimba bands as fireworks punch the night sky. Lights flash and blare from ferris wheels and bumper cars, A woman’s voice calls out the images of the Loteria games: El borracho! La sirena! El nopal! Enormous stuffed animals and plaster Jesuses and gold spray painted skulls are the prizes perched above the heads of hopeful players. Suddenly sirens begin to wail and a group of marathon runners clamber up the cobble stone street. ‘Para arriba, para abajo, a la bim bom bam! A la Virgen! A la Virgen! Ra! Ra! Ra!’ They shout in unison, carrying torches and flowers, the image of La Virgen stenciled in red and green across their sweaty tee shirts.
I climb up the steps to the church at the top of the hill, following clusters of Chamulan Indian women wrapped in dark wool skirts and blue striped rebozos, elegant Zinacantecan Indian men dressed in bright pink with ribbons streaming from their hats, and Mexican children in frilly dresses and little suits and shiny shoes. The air is filled with the smell of smoke and frying food and the aromatic carpet of pine needles beneath our feet.
Inside the church the crowds are huddled into pews and pressed into the aisles. Pungent lilies and dark red roses are on every corner and ledge, spilling out over the altar, where a larger than life sized plastic Virgin of Guadalupe rises up from the glow of a thousand candles, appearing before the astounded plastic peasant Juan Diego. Three green snakes writhe from beneath her feet, their tongues a string of flickering Christmas lights. Her cloak is dark blue like the night, carrying the constellations of the stars. Her white dress is tied at the waist with a knotted belt that symbolizes her pregnancy. She stands upon a dark crescent moon, rays of light radiating from her like great golden spears. I squeeze into a pew next to a woman wrapped in a dark shawl, and watch as Indians bring more candles to place at the feet of the Virgin. The floor is caked in pools of dripping wax. The Indians kneel before the altar, exposing their cracked and calloused feet. There among Indians and old folks and children and tourists, I suddenly begin to cry. I am surprised by the sting of my own tears and my heart’s sudden ache. Outside, I can hear the plinking of the marimbas. They are playing a tune that sounds strangely familiar. Then I recognize it as “Feelings” and laugh out loud, tears still on my cheeks. Once again I am caught up in the tragic comedy of Mexico, as the colored lights from the Virgin of Guadalupe blink and call to us from the altar.


Tepeyac, Mexico, 1532

In December of 1532, in the hills of Tepeyac near Mexico City, when Spain had conquered Mexico and Christianty was introduced to the resistant Aztecs, an Indian named Cuauhtlatoatzin, christened Juan Diego, turned toward the sound of heavenly music and saw before him the vision of a woman beckoning to him. She spoke to him in his native Nahuatl tongue, asking him to gather the roses that were suddenly miraculously growing in the bare hills around him in the middle of winter, and take them to the bishop to convince him to build a church in her name. He gathered them into his tilma, or apron, and when he unraveled it before the bishop the image of the Virgin herself appeared on the cloth. She is called the Virgin of Guadalupe. Some say she is named after the Spanish Guadalupe from the Moorish name that means “River of Love”, whose waters were reported to have aphrodisiac qualities. Some say the name derives from the Aztec language of Nahuatl and the goddess Coatlique, the snake goddess. Or from Coatlaxlpeuh, Nahuatl for ‘That Which Crushes Snakes.’ Indeed, her appearance occurred after the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, whose god was Quetzalcoatl, the winged snake. In fact Genesis 3:15 alludes to a snake being crushed by a woman. She is thought to have replaced the Aztec goddess Tonantzin, the mother goddess. The time of her appearance, whether miraculous or politically motivated, served to unify the Spanish and the Indians under one faith. Her followers include peasants and presidents, nuns and thieves. She is the spiritual mother of Mexico, of Mexicans, and of anyone who chooses to embrace her into their faith. Her saints day, December 12th, is a time of celebration and reverence all over Mexico and wherever Mexican people live.


San Francisco, CA 1992

In March of 1992 I was caring for a dying friend. One afternoon I took a much needed walk down the streets of his neighborhood to try to come to terms with my grief and exhaustion, having spent the past several weeks involved in the difficulties and heartbreak of his illness. While I was anguishing about whether to stay with my friend or return home to Monterey for some urgent business that needed attending to, I passed a basement window across which someone had strung a makeshift curtain using a towel with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe on it. As I stood there looking at it, I was suddenly filled with a feeling of great calm. My body relaxed and my head felt clear and at peace. Then I heard a voice in my head. It told me that there was no reason to worry, that all would be well. When I returned to my friend’s house I joined his wife and a few close friends as we gathered around his bed and held him as his breathing slowed and he passed away peacefully, released at last from his suffering, surrounded by the people he loved. I can’t say that I quite understand what happened that day, but ever since then I have held a deep reverence for the Virgin of Guadalupe. I like to carry the image as a talisman on my travels or tape pictures of her to my bathroom mirror or studio wall I don’t consider myself a religious person, and in fact am cynical at best, but sometimes I find myself sending out silent prayers to her in my times of confusion and sorrow, when I have given up on trying to solve the problems of my life and having to figure it all out myself. Somehow having a sense of faith in a loving being that is compassionate and wise relieves me of the burden of having to carry the weight of my life all alone. I suppose if one has faith in a higher power it doesn’t seem to matter whether the image that represents it is carved from marble or cast in plastic, woven in fine silk or printed onto a beach towel. It is still a reminder of my own humility and the miracle of the human heart.

No comments: