Well, She came out to the lake again last Sunday. Driving in a specialized open car, The Virgin of Zapopan and the Bishop came from Her home, the Basilica of Zapopan to spend the day at the lake, bringing blessings, visiting friends and admirers in several of the lakeside communities. In all those lakeside communities, the people were asking the little Virgin to perform Her miracle for the lake again, as She had in 1956, when the lake was so low the prisoners from the island in the center of the lake walked into Chapala. The drought had been so severe from 1946 to 1956, that Guadalajara was experiencing unbelievable water shortages. The entire city, with the guidance of Cardinal Garibi implored the Virgin of Zapopan, who, for four centuries had protected Jalisco from misfortune, to assist in this drastic water shortage. That year, when the rains came, the lake rose to the level of the top step of the church, then receded to the its normal level. In 2000, the people came to worship, hoping the Virgin can help again.
Early Sunday morning, when the streets of Chapala are generally quiet and deserted, the decorating for the arrival of the Virgin was well underway. For several evenings, ladies of the community had been cutting 12 inch x 16 inch pieces of hot pink and white plastic into fringe. These pieces had then been glued to string, and were suspended over five blocks of the main street of Chapala, forming a fluttering colorful canopy to welcome the Virgin. The street was closed to traffic and parking, and had been strewn with freshly cut fragrant alfalfa, the combination of the green street, pink and white ceiling and glorious blue skies with puffy white clouds was spectacular!!
By 9 a.m. hundreds of the faithful, the not so holy and the hung over, were gathering at the north end of town, ready to form a procession behind Her special car, to follow Her for a number of blocks to the open air altar on the patio at the Church of San Francisco in Chapala.
The pilgrims waiting for the Virgin in Chapala were not alone. In La Floresta just at the edge of Ajijic, they were preparing an outdoor altar for the service to celebrate Her arrival. All through the villages they would wait in the summer sun to be there when She arrived, whenever that might be, no matter how long it might take. It would make little difference to these people for having the opportunity to see the Virgin, to be in Her company is always a very special occasion, special enough to warrant any kind of sacrifice.
A visit from the Virgin was once a a very rare occurance, but this is the fourth consecutive year She has come to the lake, to lead the townspeople in prayer and hope for the lake’s recovery. Always her visits are heralded with pomp and circumstance that could vie with a royal English wedding!!
When the Virgin made Her first visit to Ajijic in her 455 year history, I was drawn to participate in my first religious procession. Presbyterian girls from Iowa farm communities are not prone to the exuberant emotions expressed in Mexican processions, but there I was right in the midst of it, tears in my cheeks, and goose bumps on my arms and cheeks.
It was 1997, and unbelievably, the Virgin of Zopapan, while making trips to Chapala since the 1950’s, had NEVER come to Ajijic. It was a beautiful afternoon, the entire village of Ajijic fluttered with lovely hand cut Madonna blue and white decorations over the streets. For blocks and blocks and blocks, the decorations were spaced every foot. Every half block, there was a large, flower covered arch over the street, which, for the entire length of the village, was covered with alfalfa.
I walked out almost to Seis Esquinas (6 Corners) to wait to see the Virgin. We chatted, we talked, we gossiped, we leaned on buildings and went to corner stores for a soda. It was like waiting for the 4th of July parade, always anticipated, and always late in Bedford, Iowa. While we could hear a skyrocket explode every second, and while they were coming closer, there was still nothing to see, other than the mass of people lining the streets in both directions. Then a local woman took a microphone and said in Spanish, “Give me a M!!!”
The crowd, to my delight roared “M”
“Give me an A!!” “A”
“Give me an R!!” “R”
“Give me an I!!” “I”
“Give me another A!! “A”
“What does it spell?”
This was followed by a “SSSSSSS Boom Ba, Rah Rah Rah, ¡¡¡¡¡¡¡MARIA!!!!!!!
One of the village characters, a very elderly man, struggled across the street and up onto the curb. His rheumy, nearly blind eyes were moist, he once again, had had a bit much to drink. Clutched in his hand was a little bunch of crumpled flowers. When he stopped to mop his brow, we asked, ” Tio (uncle) are you going to see the Virgin?” “No mijas (my daughters),” he replied, “I won’t be able to see Her, but I hope to encounter Her”.
Then, as the skyrockets came closer and louder there was a subtle change in the atmosphere, a surging forward of the people, and suddenly, amidst honor guards, uniformed security guards, drum and bugle corps, there She was, a 14″statue, safely protected in a glass case, displayed in a silvery blue bubble top car. The object of all this fervor, love, attention, affection and hope. The Virgin of Zapopan.
Following the car, to celebrate Her very first visit to Ajijic were thousands of upon thousands of townspeople. The street was massed from side to side, filling the street and the sidewalks from building to building for blocks in each direction. The people were of all ages and social stratas. The tiny infants in arms were there, toddlers with their heavily pregnant mothers swaying from side to side. Teenagers were walking slowly supporting very elderly grandmothers, anxious to “encounter Her”. At a point when I could no longer see either the beginning or the end of the throng, I lost my tongue-in-cheek attitude, and with a lump in my throat, I stepped off the curb into the sea of joyful pilgrims, following the Virgin to the Church of San Andres in the center of Ajijic. At the conclusion of the Mass of celebration, when the village priest and the Bishop held up the glass case for all to see, when the people shouted out Viva! Viva!! Viva!!!, when the Virgin was carried into the simple little church and the people cheered and the volley of skyrockets shot up, I cried.
Friends have said, “Why do you go? Are you Catholic?” They say, “Well, I don’t believe in that religion stuff.”
What I do believe in is what I saw that day, and each day She has come to visit since. I believe in the love I see as a teen in baggy jeans and a huge white tee shirt, his cap on backwards, so carefully guides and supports, his tiny frail grandmother. I believe in the faith I see as a woman in her 80’s struggles to her knees on the sidewalk to pray . I believe in the community, as men, women, children, work together to prepare for these processions. I believe in the joy and pride I see in the eyes of the townspeople when the Virgin passes before them. I believe in the Miracles that THEY believe happen when she comes to visit. I believe in the rain that falls each year on the day she is here.
WHO IS SHE?
The Virgin of Zapopan was given to the Indians of the area during the first year of foreign settlement, 1542. The Indians called Her “The Evangelizer” after the tiny figure worn by the Franciscan Friar Don Antonio de Segovia in his visits from place to place, talking with the Indians. The Indians hid the little Virgin when they became concerned that She might be taken from them and sent to Rome once miracles began to be attributed to Her in the early 1600’s.
She has long played an important role for the people of this state, although there was the time when She almost lost Her title as the Patroness of Jalisco to a rival Virgin – the Virgin of San Juan de Los Lagos, the Virgin of Salud. After a lengthy “Battle of the Virgins” and intense negotiations, the slightly less appreciated Virgin from the high counties just out of Guadalajara withdrew with good grace to continue to reign over her highlands home area, leaving The Virgin of Zapopan Patroness of the State of Jalisco
Her position was strengthened when in 1734 She was taken to all sectors of Guadalajara, hoping to stop the tide of pestilence. The Royal Court of Justice declared a miracle had happened, when the pestilence stopped immediately following her visitations and She was named Patroness of thunderstorms and epidemics.
The Virgin of Zapopan, is called the Patroness of all Jalisco, the Protector of the State. After independence was proclaimed in Tlaquepaque in 1821 and achieved without a drop of blood being shed, she was named the General of Arms by military leader-in-chief Don Antonio Andrade who placed into her tiny right hand the baton denoting her command of the armies of Nueva Galicia, now later called Jalisco.
This tiny statue has been visited by and honored by heads of state, city and state officials and dignitaries, and finally in 1979, received her most devoted pilgrim, His Holiness Pope John Paul 11.
It is still customary for The Protector of Jalisco to visit each church in the Guadalajara Dioceses, returning to the Basilica in Zapopan in a triumphant procession each October. Millions of persons line the streets of the city as the Virgin makes her way from the Cathedral in the center of Guadalajara to her home altar. The joyful procession escorting Her back home is marked with groups of dancers who continue the tradition of the pre-Columbian Indians, and at least a half million devotees.
If you enjoy Judy’s articles, then don’t miss her new monthly magazine Living at Lake Chapala…Mexico Makes Sense, available now at