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Pilgrimage with La Virgen de Zapopan

From A House in the Sun, by Dane Chandos

Dane Chandos

La Virgen de Zapopan
The beloved Virgin of Zapopan.
Photo by Ute Hagen

Lightning is with us all the summer. It forks and it shimmers and it zips, and sometimes it pulsates for seconds on end. It is white and yellow and greenish and bluish and carnation pink. It has given rise to legends. They say that, in the seventeenth century, the storms in Guadalajara were so severe that repeatedly bell ringers in the churches were killed, so that at last they brought into the city the most venerated virgin of the neighbourhood, she of Zapopan, who is one of three similar images brought to Jalisco by the first settlers from Spain. Her sisters are at Talpa and San Juan de los Lagos, and all three wear much wealth in jewels.

Ever since that first summer, centuries ago, she has passed the whole rainy season in Guadalajara, from June through September, staying two weeks in each church. Since she began to make her sojourn the storms have never again been so violent, and when, in the first days of October every year, she is taken back to her own shrine outside the city, a great pilgrimage goes with her in thanksgiving.

There is nothing like a pilgrimage for displaying on a small canvas the character of a whole people, and when a Mexican makes a vow he sets about it in his own way. Not for him the crowded pilgrim trains and busy boarding houses of middleclass Lourdes, nor the remote intensity and rain-washed faith of misty Croaghpatrick. His own faith came from sunnier lands, and his romerías recall, rather, the splendid church pageants of Seville, Montserrat, and Loreto, or the autumn pilgrimage to Montevergine when Naples spills its vivid multitudes in murmuring thousands across the corn fields of Campania.

Clearly much of the spirit of the Mexican romería was imported by the conquistadors, yet generations before the day's of Cortez, Indios were traveling in their thousands from all over Anahuac to the shrine of the air god, Quetzalcoatl, on the summit of his forty-acre pyramid at Cholula, where later the Spaniards installed the Virgen de los Remedios. To this day, they answer the clangor of her bells as once they obeyed the summons of Teponaztli, the sacred drum of ancient Mexico. The change has, perhaps, been less fundamental than Prescott would have us believe, for Remedios too understand warriors and has witnessed the shedding of blood, and, like her rival Guadalupe, patron of the revolution, she held general's rank during the struggle for independence.

Our Lady of Zapopan wears a jewelled sword, for she too is a General, and her progress is as much a triumph as any enjoyed by Caesar or Pompey. Of course, the journey is a matter of only four or five miles, and the ardour and enthusiasm of the crowds are therefore unabated through fatigue or exposure. She is very renowned, for she has often crowned prayer with fulfillment, and this, coupled with her accessibility, has brought her numerous ex-voto pictures, little oil paintings on metal illustrating incidents in which her help was besought or recognized. So many has she received that they are stolen in quantities and sold to those interested in such things. I once saw a suitcase containing hundreds, all from Zapopan, two of which I have before me as I write.

One of them depicts a she-ass with the Virgin of Zapopan hovering in one corner and a legend stating that by her aid the animal, which had been lost, was found again, The other shows an improbable green hill over which a man in white pajamas is walking with a leisurely gait, while a yard or two behind him, three soldiers are in hot pursuit with red and yellow flames darting from the muzzles of their guns. We are told the man was not hurt!

"In the house of my aunt who lives in Zapopan there are many such pictures," Candelaria told me, "but they do not call my attention. My aunt is pious and rich; I have seen where she hides her centavos under the floor. But I shall not make the struggle this year. You see, when I stay with her I cannot sleep, for, imagine to yourself, Señor, though her bed is of the finest iron, little animals attack it all night."

Many Ajijic folk go to Zapopan every year, those who travel afoot or on donkey back setting out three or four days in advance, for though it is no great distance and the fiesta lasts officially one day only, the whole jaunt takes a week. This year Venustiano had taken a vow to make the pilgrimage, goaded as usual, I think, by his wife. I took Verna round to see him, and we found him in his yard pruning a castor-oil tree so as to let in the sunlight to a small, tired-looking begonia cutting.

"Oh yes, I'm going," he said, swinging his serape around him with the air of a Roman senator. "They say it's a very fine fiesta, if you care for things of that sort." Verna is keen on folklore in the same way that she is keen on antiques, lectures, local handicrafts, psychology, and most of those other subjects suitably close to the heart of the average well-to-do New England lady. She fell hard for the idea of attending Our Lady to Zapopan.

"I can't wait to see those quaint old dances and all the cunning costumes," she said. "And I still have a roll of Kodachrome. We could stop over in Guadalajara on our way to the border, Eliot, and then we could all go together. Couldn't we, Eliot?"

I have to go to Guadalajara every week to buy those things for the inn that Ajijic and Chapala do not provide, so it was decided that we meet in the city on the eve of the feast of Zapopan. I made an early start and spent the morning going about my various chores. At a little before two o'clock I called round at the hotel and found Verna and Eliot in the bar, arguing about something, and the air was such that I thought I wouldn't get myself involved.

"Look," I said, "I'm going to the market now. I can't do any more shopping round here because all the shops are closed until four."

"Isn't that crazy!" said Verna. Her fingers were pulling at the big emerald engagement ring on her left hand, and her bright blue eyes snapped critically round the bar, taking everything in.

"No, Verna," I said. "It isn't crazy. The Mexicans like it that way', and what you have just said implies, in a nutshell, why Mexicans fear economic control from the United States. They dread the intrusion into their private life and habits."

"Exactly," said Eliot, chomping on his cigar and not agreeing with me in the very least. "It's all a question of individual liberty, Verna. Free people don't like someone else telling them what they must do, and that is why I won't go all the way to Zapopan on foot."

We went to bed early that night and left word to be called at four o'clock in the morning. At half past, Verna and I met for a thermos of coffee downstairs in the lobby. Eliot had complained of a headache and refused to get up, and from the expression on Verna's face I decided it was prudent to let the subject drop.

Together we went out into the street. All night the crowds had made merry. The bars had been filled till a late hour, and the jingle of music had permeated every quiet plaza and patio in the city. Now began the drift northward, out of town. Up the fashionable Avenida Vallarta the people moved, an endless tide of variegated colour in the headlights of a thousand cars, which slowly nosed their way through the press. We joined them at once, for you must go early to see the best of the ceremony.

The Lady herself starts before dawn from the Church of San Felipe, riding in a carriage whose roof is surmounted by a huge crown of fresh flowers. Behind the carriage walk the plumed, caparisoned black horses, for they are never allowed to draw the Lady's coach, but are always replaced by pious human muscle.

For months now, in church after church throughout the city, she has stood in splendour, stiff and jewelled and adored, a flame of flowers and candles tiered in worship beneath her pedestal. Now she was going home to her white church amid the quiet groves of Zapopan. And she did not go alone. Around her and after her came the pilgrims, and before her they streamed in their thousands down the dark road: poor women muffled in shawls, some praying as they went, some kneeling down every ten paces; rich girls, with hair elaborately arranged under the black chiffon veil, with mother and aunts hovering at their sides to help them over rough places, for they were barefoot, having taken a vow; Indios lying down, rising, lying down again, measuring the whole road out from the city with their bodies; others, half naked, their flesh pierced by cactus thorns.

"They're cuckoo," said Verna,

A well-dressed city boy went by, his face, in the flare of a torch, long and yellow and solemn, out of a Spanish picture, his eyes fixed ahead high up in the darkness and his bare feet bleeding. Then there were the dancers.

All the way down the road the groups were scattered, thirty or forty strong, unearthly under the fire of torches, magic under the rainbow-coloured umbrellas of rocket-borne stars, each group in a different fancy dress, each doing a different step, each with its little band of musicians, fiddling, blowing horns and fifes, and drumming out on rattles its sharp, individual rhythm. The firecrackers snapped; the metal disks clattered. Nightmare faces appeared and vanished in the gloom - here, broad, mongoloid features smothered in lipstick and glittering sequins; there, a flour-white vacuous mask, glassy-eyed, whose long black beard rippled over its wearer's gnarled brown chest. All the way, amid gusts of incense and garlic, dancing and prancing, in faith and folly, wondrous and infantile and pathetic; all the way, out from the city to the wide gracious church in its great court among the cypresses; each year the lndios came dancing.

For centuries they have come stamping tum-ta-tóm-tum to a Christian shrine, and nobody knows whether they had been coming year-by-year long before that, long before the conquest. They were gallant and noble and dedicated, and yet they were a little sickening too, with their dressing up and their ritual air beating and their glad, profitless penance. And we too walked along with the pilgrims, Verna and I, upheld by no faith, dedicated to no penance, sightseers come to see a show.

"Look," said Verna. "Those are tight already."

The group of dancing lndios, aglitter in the torchlight with murky red and peacock, swayed and tottered as they stamped along, tum-ta-tóm-tum. Their faces were tense black masks, and only out of the shadow between brow and cheekbone there shone wild gleams that were their eyes. Yes, Verna, they are tight. But with what? With drink, or with exhaustion, or with fervour? For months now, in distant villages, they have practiced their steps, and here they are, those with Vow's to fulfill, and those who have come to buy, and sell, and cheat, and worship, and steal, and get drunk, and whore. A foot-high image, a satin puppet all be-diamonded, is a splendid pretext for a binge.

We were now more than halfway to Zapopan, and we climbed the high bank by the roadside to rest a little and watch the crowd go by. Already the eastern sky was smudged with the first streaks of tawny light. Behind us, sleek and green from the rains, calm and empty of people, stretched the most fashionable golf course in western Mexico. Before us, down the road, like a mountain river in spate, foamed and boiled the multitude of pilgrims. As the sun came up, the dark, sweaty Indio faces that had seemed masks became faces again, and the weird dresses - tinsel-banded trousers, shiny robes clasped on one shoulder, tinfoil crowns - seized real colours from the sunrise and stopped being momentary murky glitters. The twin spikes of turquoise light to our left, which had served as a beacon for the last two hours, faded into the ornate and silvery mass of Zapopan's domed and fretted towers.

It was now seven o'clock, some said the Lady would pass soon after nine. Verna and I walked on into the little town. Here the streets were crammed; the roofs were lined; every window was thickset with people. The crowd became almost impassable for a moment as we turned the last bend into the main street. By the side of the road was a cart that, judging from the leaves around it, had recently been full of sugar cane, and its enterprising owner, his pouch already stuffed with silver pesos, was earning a bonus by turning the empty vehicle into a miniature grandstand. Opposite, a loudspeaker blared out news, instructions, advertisements and rumbas in an unceasing flow. As we moved into the straight avenue that led up to the Lady's church, our footsteps were momentarily deadened. We kicked up some damp sawdust, and there was a smell of disinfectant. In spite of the festivities, the authorities had not neglected the precautions to be taken against the hoof-and-mouth epidemic.

"I suppose they'll make Our Lady get out of her carriage and walk through this," said Verna.

And now we were at the end of our journey. Between our selves and the massive carved portal milled ten or fifteen thousand people. All the way the road was lined with trophies of giant golden sunflowers bound up with sky-blue and white ribbons, the Lady's colours. On the sidewalk innumerable stall keepers traded in soup, candles, ice cream, balloons, coffee, nuts, coloured waters, tortillas, and confetti. Presently I was hailed from a rooftop by some Mexican friends. The door of the house was open, and the people were drifting in and out with the greatest self-possession in order to avail themselves of the drinking fountain, washbasins, and toilet. We went in and, finding a ladder, climbed up to the roof, where we were greeted by a number of kind people we had never seen. Verna fell silent, and we settled down to wait for the coming of the Lady.

From moment to moment the street presented scenes of ever increasing animation. Fresh bands of dancers continually passed. Our host told us there were about sixty groups in all. Now, in daylight, it could be seen that for the most part the costumes followed the traditional patterns of Indio and conquistador, in endless permutations, though here and there was a Roman soldier, and once Verna pointed out a small party of what we took to be imps. Still the crowd came pouring through. Little girls offered us streamers, flowers, and confetti to throw when the procession should arrive. A man with no legs went by, wielding his crutches with the utmost speed and agility, followed by his family of seven children, whose mother carried on her head a basket such as Tippet uses for a bed, in which reposed a mountain of tortillas and a very small baby.

By now the sun stood high and it began to get hot. For a while I found a little shade below one of the outspread branches of a tall araucaria that grew in the patio, but it was not easy to resist the lure of the street, and I was soon back again, sitting on the roof balustrade. Below me was a man in a costume trimmed with hundreds of wooden bobbins. I think he must have been a deserter from a group of dancers, for he was evidently feeling the heat more than his neighbours and had made an improvised parasol out of two sticks of sugar cane and a banana leaf.

Behind him came one of the more devoted pilgrims, a darkly clad middle-aged woman progressing very slowly, on her knees. It was clear she had come a long way like this, for she was tired to the point of exhaustion. Her face was gray and furrowed with tears of sheer fatigue, and after every two or three steps she would sit back on her heels and rest. A man held either hand, and friendly bystanders spread blankets and serapes before her as she shuffled painfully along. Presently she drew abreast of a party of dancers, and from the center of the group darted a cavalier in white and lilac satin with plumed hat and rapier at his hip. With a flamboyant, yet somehow reverent, obeisance he spread his glistening rayon cloak in her path, and in a second, I was transported from the sunny dust of Mexico to the cool turf of an English cathedral close, to the climax of a pageant, where as a small boy I had gaped in unstinted admiration as Sir Walter Raleigh tendered his humble duty to Queen Elizabeth.

"Here they come," said Verna, as a series of violent explosions interrupted my thoughts.

Smoke puffs filled the sky around us, and into the main street rode the first of the Charros. They came in single file along either side of the street, horsemen of every age, and from every town in the state, their jackets frogged and embroidered, their sombreros laced with silver, whips in hand and lariats at the saddle bow, joking with the crowd and slowly closing their ranks to clear the center of the road for the procession that was to follow. Their horses were plump and glossy: blacks, chestnuts, bays, roans, and skewbalds, with here and there an elegant blond palomino. One or two women rode with the men, dressed mostly in the wide skirt and flower-embroidered blouse of the china poblana costume. They faced inward and dressed their ranks smartly. All the spectators on foot were now excluded from the center of the road, though at one moment, when the mayor's car edged its way through the barrier, it was followed amid shouts of laughter, by a ragged urchin who capered gaily up the street, putting out his tongue at the dignified cavaliers to right and left.

Then came the procession. First a company of uniformed women - nurses perhaps - came marching up the street followed by two bands and cars containing officials. When the bands had passed, we heard the singing, the stately solemn measure sung by the Lady's escort as they bore her through the kneeling crowds up the last slope into the town. Dancers preceded her, and a great company of singing Zapopanos bearing her blue and white flags; and these were followed by a concourse of women carrying baskets of every sort of flower, small bunches and huge trophies alike.

Then came the Lady herself. She rode in a modest four-wheeler, but two hundred youths drew her along with ropes of Mexican sisal. The carriage was almost hidden by banks of white flowers - camellias, roses, and gardenias - and a brightly jewelled crown of many-coloured flowers adorned the roof. We could hear the clapping and the cheers down the street, and, as the carriage passed, the watchers crossed themselves and bared their heads. And now we had a brief glance through the open window at the Lady herself. She was wearing no high coronet of diamonds, she was encased in no gemmed stomacher, and they had girt her with no jewelled sword. She wore a pilgrim's cloak and a little traveling hat tied beneath the chin with ribbons. So she journeyed home - gray clad among her flowers, drawn by four hundred hands - home to the cool nave between the long columns that were fingers raised, not in admonition, but in triumphant thanksgiving for mercy, majesty, and glory.

"Just a doll," said Verna. "Of course, it's an antique."

Then we saw the American soldier. Among the drab clothes of the pilgrims and the gaudy costumes of the dancers, his uniform was the most exotic fancy dress of all. He stood there staring, and as the Lady went by, he gave her a military salute as if he knew she were a General. Maybe he should have bared his head like the rest. But he didn't. He saluted. Then, as the carriage rolled on and those who had lined the sidewalks swarmed to join the pilgrims, we lost sight of him.

We struggled down into the street. It wasn't easy to get near the courtyard of the church or through the gates in the iron railed wall. Above the mob, the leaves of the cypresses and eucalyptus trees stirred in a little wind, and the towers of the church were silver filigree against a sky of blue glass. All over the courtyard were groups of dancers, arranged in oblongs, half a group watching while half danced. Individuals who had vowed to dance all day stamped back and forth, stopping sometimes for a glass of lemonade or tequila. Hundreds of rattles banged; the church bells clanged. The dancers melted in their bright costumes, worn over sweatshirts and denim trousers. All to the glory of the Lady, they spun and belched and sweated; they stamped and burped and spat. Through the gates streamed the pilgrims, rich and poor, plenty of them people I knew. I saw the Governor and his staff go by. And then Venustiano came. He came with his free stride, this reader of Carlos Marx, and at the gate he knelt down, for that was the vow he had made, to go on his knees from the gates to the church doors.

Even on his knees he did not look humble, and his wrinkled face gave no window to his thoughts. I looked at the turquoise-clad group nearest me, where a man in a violet mantle of cheap satin was dancing alone, and suddenly his gestures were significant and his face was noble. After all, why not? All dedication is the same, and the nostrils of heaven snuff impartially burnt offerings and incense, sweat and gardenia. I saw the American soldier watching, the dancers parrot bright beneath his khaki shoulders. He was tall and golden as a god, a fair-haired Quetzalcoatl among his Indios, intent and solemn as they. It was as though this were something he understood, this striving and this dedication, as though the man in the violet mantle, and the Indio there kneeling his way along, and he himself were all pilgrims.

By now, inside the church, the Lady was enthroned again in a misty glitter of prayer and diamonds. She was a high symbol, a flag, and outside in her honour danced the lndios in their garish, gaudy uniforms, and the American boy watching in his khaki dress stared at them, and his eyes were huge as the ocean, solemn and lucid as the eyes of Quetzalcoatl, the god from across the sea.

A dancer fainted; they threw water at him, and he got up and went on dancing. I had forgotten all about Verna, but now I suddenly saw her. She was staring at them, at the man who had fainted and the man with the thorns in his palms and the American boy, and her face was no longer a fashionable face. It was intent as theirs. She looked at me.

"This is something," she said. "I guess I hadn't realized -".

And then, suddenly, she was gone. I followed her through the crowds to the church doors and into the church. The floor was thick with kneeling pilgrims, and up by the altar, amid the swinging tides of incense, moved priests in capes glittering like seashells.

I saw Verna threading her way between the Indios, stepping over them. She reached the great bank of flowers that hemmed the altar steps. The Indios were staring; the acolytes gaped at the foreign woman, with only a scarf tied crookedly across her hair; and one or two junior priests gathered in a little knot, as bouncers do. Verna passed between the banked flowers and up the steps.

Nobody stopped her. At the altar's foot, below the high place of the Lady, between the snowy flowers and the serried white shafts of the candles, whose flames shone all together as one flame in a vague haze of gold, she stopped. Her head was bowed, but she did not kneel. I saw her hands fumbling. And then there was a glittering in her fingers, and a ray of green flashed from her square emerald as she laid it on the altar.

Reproduced by Special Permission to Mexico Connect.
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Published or Updated on: February 4, 2007 by Dane Chandos © 2004
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