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Virgin hair for the Madonna's new wig

Jenny McGill

The Virgin of Talpa
The Virgin of Talpa

Many of you know August is the month when Talpa de Allende's image of the Virgin begins walking the back roads, visiting and blessing the ranches, cattle, crops, ponds and creeks along the way. She is accompanied by her devotees for six weeks on this summer trek.

Her approach to the ranches is announced by singing and fireworks. Dogs, chickens, little babies and foreigners object to the loud noise. It seems to be a wanton waste of money when it could be used to put bread on a table or buy a book for a child. However, the proceeds from some of the sales of the pyrotechnics might actually buy a piece of bread or a book.

One of Talpa's retired clergy still lives here and he is well-known for his generosity to the needy. It is rumored he might be one of the wealthiest men in the village. His house is higher up the mountain than ours, and it covers a lot more ground. One day, after one of the fiestas, I baked him a pie made from the fruit of our neighbor's blackberry patch. As he showed me around his big garden, I asked him, "Padre, why don't you leave town when these fiestas are at full peak? The noise from the fireworks must drive you crazy. Such a waste of money! What they spend on those big boomers in one fiesta could feed a family of five for a whole year!"

"I know. I've tried to discourage them over the years, but it is difficult to break tradition. I've suggested that they buy a small amount, but each year they seem to shoot more," he replied.

We rounded a corner and came to a new building on his hilltop.

"Come; let me show you my new storeroom we finished this week." He chose a key from the heavy ring of keys he was carrying and opened the door.

As the door swing open, I saw shelves from floor to ceiling neatly stacked with what could have been the town's arsenal! My eyes must have bulged and my mouth opened to express my astonishment. He shrugged his shoulders and allowed, "Tradition is tradition."

After six weeks, Little Shorty, as she is affectionately called, is dirty and dusty from her travels. She is ready for a bath, a new dress and a new wig. There is a woman in Talpa who makes wigs for the Virgen's images in Talpa de Allende, Zapopan and San Juan de los Lagos, Jalisco, and where do you think she gets the hair for those wigs? From selected young damsels in the village!

A recently cropped young girl gave me a pedicure. I asked her, "Panchita, what happened to your hair?"

"I gave it to the Virgin," she told me.

"What do you mean; you gave it to the Virgin? Is that like taking flowers to church, or what? How can you give your hair to the Virgin? I get mine cut and Sandra sweeps it up in the trash and throws it away. I'm done with it! Why would you take yours to church? What did you do, lay it on the altar along with a candle?"

"No, Señora, some of us cultivate our hair for the Virgin."

"Cultivate hair? That must be a new fad. I met tourists this winter who are letting their hair grow so it can be made into wigs for cancer patients who have lost their own due to chemotherapy. What does the Virgin do with yours?"

"We make a promise to the Virgin we will grow our hair for a new wig for her and hope she will appreciate it enough to bestow good vibrations on us."

Hmmmm . . . perhaps I had better go back to Deep South Bible School.

"How does this happen?" I asked.

"It must be virgin hair from a virgin. You can't get a permanent or put highlights in it. You can't use different colors. You can't even use sprays or gels. It must be virgin hair."

"How much did they cut off?"

"Forty centimeters." That's about sixteen inches!

"Is there a special ceremony that goes along with the hair cutting?" I asked.

"Yes, we go on a three-day retreat into the nunnery. We fast, meditate, pray and keep silence for seventy-two hours."

"Jeeze, how can you do such a thing? Do you know any of the people in there with you?"

"Yes, two other girls from my school gave hair when I did and we've all known the nuns since we studied the doctrine on Saturdays when we were ten years old."

"Are you telling me that you are stuck in there for three days with people you've known practically all your life and you don't speak to them? After the nuns go to bed, don't you huddle together and whisper about your boyfriends or new clothes or the latest disco opening?"

"No, we are kept in separate rooms."

"Do you see each other during this time?"

"When we walk in the gardens during time of meditation."

"Don't you lift your head and try to catch the other's eye?"

"No. Señora, we are in the time of meditation."

"When you gather for prayer, do you not glance at your classmate? You must pass each other in the halls on the way to the bathroom or dining room. What do you do? Avert your eyes?"

"Señora, this is only a three-day retreat. We are dedicated and we've been growing our hair for our Virgin for at least two years."

"So then, what happens?"

"A nun comes to our rooms, dresses each of us in a snow white bathrobe and escorts us to the Blessed Bathroom and invites us into the shower where we clean our hair with a special shampoo made by the nuns. Then they comb our hair to get rid of the tangles before they cut it."

"How do they do it? Just whack it off and let if fall to the floor? Surely not?"

"No, one of the nuns puts a clean white cloth around our shoulders and gathers up the hair in the cloth while another nun cuts off forty centimeters."

"That's it? Zap! That's the end of it? That's all there is after cultivating sixteen inches of hair for perhaps two years?"

"No, each of us is given our own hair bundled in the white cloth and tied with a white ribbon. We go back to our rooms, get dressed and then we are escorted to the main church for a mass. That is when we make our special offering and lay our bundles of hair on the altar."

"Then what happens after the mass is over? What is the first thing you do?"

"Most of us have already made an appointment with hairdressers for a professional cut and maybe a few highlights."

"Tell me something, Panchita. When you go back to church after September 10th to see the Virgin in her new clothes and wig, do you sit there staring at her and thinking, 'That's my hair up there on the pedestal.'"?

"No, because we don't know whose hair went where. Mine may be here in Talpa or it might be in Zapopan or San Juan de los Lagos. We never know."

The woman who makes the tiny wigs weaves these virgen offerings of virgen hair into little skull caps, and then she gives them a permanent! All these images have curly hair. The Virgen can get a permanent, but the hair cultivator can't.

Published or Updated on: September 1, 2008 by Jenny McGill © 2008
Contact Jenny McGill

Longtime Mexico resident Jenny McGill and her husband moved to Puerto Vallarta in 1973, where she served as the U.S. Consular agent for 14 years. Her book, Drama and Diplomacy in Sultry Puerto Vallarta, is a poignant, riotous read describing the town, its people and her own resourcefulness when people needed her help. It is a portrait of a simple Mexican beach town and a quieter time, gone forever.

The McGill's gracious home in the cool mountain town of Talpa — Casa Jeni — is for sale. With commanding views of town and sierra, the four bedroom house is fully furnished and beatifully decorated, ready to move right in. It could be used as a bed-and-breakfast. You can view it here.

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