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December in Mazamitla by Ralph Rodriguez with Alan Cogan

Allan Cogan and Ralph Rodriguez

The following article is essentially a letter which a friend of mine, Ralph Rodriguez, a resident of Guadalajara, wrote to his children some years ago. It concerns an annual festival which is held in the town of Mazamitla, Jalisco, every December. It's a pretty interesting time to visit and make the 90 or so minutes drive from Guadalajara. The crowds that attend regularly attest to that.

When I read Ralph's letter I found it interesting and it seemed to me to be a prime candidate for an appearance in Mexico Connect. I tried it out on the folks at MexConnect and they agreed. I hope that you agree, too.

Alan Cogan

December 12th is a very important Catholic holiday in Mexico. It's the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Apparently, in 1531, the Virgin Mary appeared on several occasions to an Indian named Juan Diego (something similar to what happened in Fatima, Portugal and Lourdes, France) and ever since then... well, you know the story. There's a huge Basilica north of Mexico City dedicated to the happening and every year hordes of people from all over Latin America make pilgrimages on December 12th. It's a major national holiday and everyone who is anyone wants to be there. It's televised all day long and on every station. This year there were celebrities from all of the Americas, except the U.S. of course, (which doesn't recognize religious holidays at the national level), including Canada. This was the first year in which all of the Americas were invited to participate. It's difficult for us, as Americans to appreciate something like it.

Anyway, Mazamitla is a very small mountain town whose inhabitants consist mainly of ranchers and farmers, and farming at this altitude is not very productive. The town has this annual nine-day festival and the last two days this year happened to fall on a weekend. Our hosts had already gone up earlier in the week and we were to come up on Saturday morning. The final days, we were told, are the best.

Mazamitla is the kind of town that if you happened to drive into the central plaza, which is at the heart of every town, you might just look around and say, "Uh huh, let's move on." It has a very pretty and stately church, all white with blue trim, which dominates one side of the plaza and a very pretty jardin (garden) with a bandstand at the center. Two other sides of the plaza consist of two and three storey buildings that contain small hotels, restaurants and cafes… all as rustic as the rest of the town. The fourth side of the plaza houses the town hall, police station and the tourist offices. Most of the streets in town, except for the one leading to el centro, which is paved, are made with stones closely packed together. I wondered where all of those stones were obtained.

As you drive around to the very hilly outskirts of the town, you begin to see many newer developments of log cabins. Mazamitla has become a very popular vacation spot, first because of its proximity to Guadalajara, second because it's very cool - especially during the hot summers, and third because it is quite rustic. All of the many cabin developments, which are all in thickly wooded areas, are for rent and sometimes one needs to rent far in advance in order to find accommodations available.

We were going to be staying at the home of long-time friends. They live in Guadalajara but have an ancestral home in Mazamitla. We arrived and settled into our room. Their home is next to the corner house in which the entire family grew up. Although vacant at present, it's still there awaiting a prospective rental tenant. And next to their present home, on the opposite side, is a plot of vacant land used by some neighboring farmer to keep his cows... our alarm clock of the morning (moo!). They moo shortly after the cocks' crow. Beyond this lot, there are more homes for the rest of the way down the block.

There's one thing about homes in Latin countries: They are often very nondescript, almost ugly on the outside (giving you the impression that the occupants are very poor), but once inside the homes are very well kept and often very well furnished with the latest of everything. And then there's always that very beautiful tropical garden/courtyard or backyard, which is usually incorporated (with often no wall between it and the home) into the home. Of course here, due to the altitude, there is a wall, but their backyard consists of many different fruit trees and flowering shrubs. There's even a giant poinsettia tree growing there, which at this time of year is in full bloom.

After settling in, we were told that we were invited to visit with our hosts' elder brother, Ralph, who lives a few blocks away on the other side of the plaza. Most all of the brothers, except the two who moved to Mexico City and Guadalajara, are still ranchers. We'd been to Ralph's house in the past and we were now expected for afternoon comida or luncheon, along with Ralph's son and his family. The interior of Ralph's home is very comfortable and has all the latest in comforts and furnishings. The home was also beautifully trimmed for Christmas. Ralph is one of many Mexicans whom we have met who tried their luck living in the U.S. for a period. He and his wife went north, settled in Oakland, California, worked and had a family. But when the children began to reach school age, they decided that it would be better to raise and educate them in Mexico. You'd be surprised at how many families we've met who've done the same. So they moved back to Mazamitla and Ralph went back to ranching. Every morning he drives out to the ranch, about 20 minutes away, and milks all the cows by hand. Then he returns home, showers, dresses and, except for looking at his hands, you'd never know he was a rancher. He's also a member of the town council, as are most of the local prominent ranchers.

Their children, all educated locally and now living in Guadalajara, were also there for the holidays. Almost all Mexicans return to Mexico to be with family over the Christmas holidays, this despite the often-extreme hardships occasionally encountered by those returning north across the border. Ralph's children and their families all live and work in Guadalajara. They are now accountants and attorneys. Needless to say, we partook of a fabulous and rather intimate family holiday dinner. What a crowd it was and what a feast!

After dinner, we went to the plaza. There was a pilgrimage procession scheduled to come into the plaza at about 7 p.m. and we wanted to be there to see it. All of the streets surrounding the plaza were now closed to traffic. There was a huge altar/platform set up in front of the church because there was to be an outdoor mass at 7:30 presided over by the Bishop. We strategically located ourselves at the corner of the plaza and watched as the procession proceeded onto the plaza. The procession this day was to include the local ranchers and their families. First, there were the local bands and school groups with classes of all ages - the kindergartners doing their dances, then the first graders doing their thing, and so on up to the higher grades. Some of the dances were very elaborate, particularly the costumes, all home made. And many of the dancers were barefoot on those cold stone streets!

Soon the ranchers and their families came (with Ralph among them), each man carrying a very tall stalk of corn, which was in itself impressive. Of course, the better off ranchers led and the poorer ones came behind, but everyone was represented. Finally, there came a group of Aztec dancers from the University of Guadalajara dressed very elaborately and doing what the Aztecs must have done many years ago. It was all very colorful and impressive. Everyone proceeded to the base of the altar in the plaza and was blessed by the Bishop as they passed. Then they proceeded beyond to disburse.

It's interesting to note that, although this day had been set aside for the ranchers' procession, a similar procession the day before had been for the returning sons and fathers (those who have gone to work in the U.S. the rest of the year). The day before that had been for the local farmers and the next day, Sunday and the final day, would be in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

At about 7:30 p.m. the outdoor mass began. As cold as it was becoming, the plaza was nevertheless packed with people. Every other time I'd seen this plaza, it had been so open and empty; now there was hardly a space to stand. There were literally tens of thousands of people there. And despite the cold, it was a very solemn affair. By the time it was over, I was freezing. I never came to Mexico prepared for cold weather. After mass, we all managed to meet among the crowd and proceeded to one of the three-story bars across the plaza. One of the boys had slipped out of the mass earlier and was saving a set of tables for us that overlooked the plaza. At first, we asked for coffee to try to warm up. "This is a bar," we were told. "How dare you treat my guests like that?" Ralph demanded indignantly. "Please bring some coffee" and the waiter finally walked away and brought us coffee. Of course, once we'd warmed up, it was back to tequila like everyone else.

Marta and Francisco, our hosts for the weekend, were born, grew up and married in Mazamitla. They know everyone in town. In fact, for many, many years Francisco, as a young kid, operated the local movie theatre (long since gone, thanks to videos) for the priests who owned it. All the men remember Francisco because he often let them in for free when the priest wasn't looking. He's very popular and they've never forgotten. He plans to retire in 2000 and then move back to Mazamitla, from Guadalajara.

Anyway, we were all sitting up there on the third floor watching the activity on the plaza. As if by rote, suddenly, without any indication whatsoever, the women in the plaza all began walking in the same counterclockwise direction. They just seem to flow, and all in total unison. Two-by-twos, some three-by-threes, still others four-by-fours. Almost simultaneously, the men began walking in similar fashion, but in clockwise direction, forming an outer ring. The plaza is a huge square and each circuit is like walking around a big city block. From where we sat, it was like looking down upon a group of ants walking in line, the line sometimes wider, sometimes narrower.

This, of course, meant that with each circuit the walkers got to see the same people twice. And if a man or boy liked a girl he would join her in her direction and begin a conversation. And this is how folks met one another in these towns during these festivals. Then there were the vendors who were selling eggs that had been filled with confetti. You'd buy them to throw at a person you liked in order to indicate your interest. If you were met with a smile on the next circuit, the man (always the man) would then join with the woman in her direction. It was fascinating and it went on until 10 p.m., round and round, colorful confetti all over the place. One wanted to go down and join, but we were warned to just watch this evening.

At 10 p.m., a band arrived at the bandstand and began to play dance music. Needless to say, those who had met as well as those who already had partners (such as married folk and boy and girlfriends) began to dance in the plaza - countless couples, all dancing cheek to cheek. The walking circuits simply got wider and the dancers danced between the music and the inner circuit. This went on until 11, when a corner of the plaza cleared of people. The fireworks were about to begin. On this corner there was an erector-set type contraption set up. It was about three storeys high and it looked as if it were constructed of half-inch thick strands of round wire. It was a colossal monstrosity. Until I saw it close up the next afternoon, I simply thought it was an oversized hanger to dry out wet wash. But at 11 p.m. this contraption was ignited at the bottom and for about 15 minutes we were treated to a series of continuous fireworks displays. Spinning wheels, bursting rockets, bombs, fiery flags, the Virgin outlined in flaming embers, sparklers… you name it - it was there. And just when you thought it was all over, it would begin again. I kept thinking to myself that for a display like this in the U.S., the plaza would have been blocked off. Not here. The closest spectators were only about 30 feet away. And beneath the tower, the littlest children kept running about with paper bags over their heads. Then, at 11:15, it stopped.

It was time to let the bull loose.

All evening long, we we'd been forewarned about the bull that would be let loose after the fireworks, but no one would divulge any more information. However at 11:15, three quarters of the people in that plaza suddenly cleared. They went to the far corners and into the side streets. Suddenly, from behind the church, a man ran out. Over his head he was holding a wooden bull by the two front legs. The four legs were nothing more that short broomsticks, but the bull was filled with fireworks. If you light one on the ground, it's like a rocket gone haywire. You never know in which direction it will go (vertically or horizontally) and it constantly changes direction, forever whooshing until it burns itself out. So this "bull" runs all over the plaza, first this way, then that way for about 15 more minutes. And before it, people scramble like you wouldn't believe. I needn't tell you what would happen if one of these went up your pants leg, or your dress, or whatever. So one runs like hell. Watching this from the safety of the third floor was lots of fun. After the bull runs out of "energy," the festivities are over until the next day and everyone begins walking home or back to their vehicles. What an amazing evening!

The next morning, on Sunday, everyone was up at 4 a.m. except me. I simply couldn't make it. They were off to church for the 5 a.m. mariachi mass! This was a three-hour mariachi mass, also in the plaza. I slept late and everyone arrived back at about 9 a.m. except Francisco, who'd come back earlier to be sure I had breakfast and hot water. At least that's what he told everyone. Secretly, I think he'd had enough mass for one weekend. After breakfast, I learned that we'd been invited to Martha's other brother's house for comida. It was not only the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, but it was also his mother-in-law's 80th birthday. This brother lived about a half hour away and down in the valley. It was so far down that the valley was filled with sugar cane plantations (sugar cane only grows in very warm climates). The town of La Garita was one of those dirt poor towns with no paved streets just off the main roadway. We parked in the street and walked to the house. Once through the gate, we walked on a dirt path to a back patio, which was covered. There were actually two patios in the shape of a "V." Beneath each covered patio were tables lined up in one long row with seats along both sides. I'd say that perhaps as many as 60 people could be comfortably accommodated, and as time went on, every seat was filled.

As each male guest arrived, he brought a bottle of tequila under one arm and his spouse on the other. Children, if any, trailed behind. Soon the food began to flow. Then, a 12-piece mariachi band arrived and they played continuously for many hours. First at this table, then at the other. We must have listened to mariachi music for at least ten hours that weekend. We drank tequila, we ate till we couldn't anymore and we danced the day away. Best of all, we met so many people. including one guy who had just driven directly from Chicago, almost non-stop, to get here for the occasion. Many were friends and relatives who had returned from the States for the holidays and many were locals who were invited because it was "the holiday". Some of the visitors would be returning the next day (like us) to wherever they came from and others would be headed out to the sugar cane fields the next morning. That's the big industry in the area. But today they were clean, well dressed, polite, well mannered and all having a great time. They'd been to church in the morning along with everyone else in the nation and now they were enjoying a magnificent fiesta in honor of the Virgin and here, their friend's mother-in-law. It was an unforgettable day and it wasn't over yet. I still had to drive back up to Mazamitla.

We arrived there in time for Sunday's procession into the plaza. Naturally, we went to watch but this time, since there was no evening mass, the walking circuits began earlier. This time, we all joined. I even purchased some "eggs" and "confettied" your mom as we passed by the women. I felt young again walking the circuit and watching all the flirtations. Francisco, Ralph and I would stop occasionally and purchase some "punch." I never knew what was in it, but it tasted sooo good and it was sooo warm. Later we danced by the moonlight in the plaza.

At 11 p.m. we went to the comer of the plaza along with everyone else to watch the final night of fireworks. And then the "bull" came out once more. We all became as we ran for cover. Your mom hid behind a pole at the corner. As the bull approached, some heavyset woman got behind your mother and held her around the waist as if she was the pole. I had hidden between two cars that were parked side-by-side. And I stayed there and watched as people scrambled all over the place. Suddenly, the bull left the plaza and began running down a side street, but only a little way. Then he turned back. How the people scrambled!

You had to see them. It was so funny, but it was serious because you could get hurt. Suddenly, the damned bull turned towards where I was standing. It was as if it said, "What are you doing there?" When I realized that he'd be coming right through where I was standing, I ran like a bullet around to the other side of the car and immediately fell to the ground to roll under the car. It was funny as hell, but as that thing approached, I could see that "the body of the bull" was like a roaring oven. And those damned "things" just continued to come flying out in every which-way direction. We all laughed had a great time. We'll never forget that weekend.

We drove home the next morning, but not before visiting the home of another brother. This one, and his family, live about a half-hour from Mazamitla in a town called La Manzanilla, on the way back to Guadalajara.

Being in Mazamitla that weekend was one of those gifts life occasionally offers that changes the course of the river. It was a renaissance of the spirit. Here was a town not yet cannibalized by progress. The small town culture was still alive and unbroken. Here there was no crashing back into everyday life. This was everyday life.

Published or Updated on: December 30, 2005 by Allan Cogan and Ralph Rodriguez © 2008
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