Today, in honour of the Feast Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe I felt it was appropriate to start my Mexico Retold Saint’s Series, and obviously there is no better saint to start with than the Virgin of Guadalupe, the mother of Mexico.
A few weeks back I took a trip to “La Villa”, the site of the Basilica de Guadalupe built on the hill where the Virgin first showed herself to Juan Diego an Aztec peasant farmer, 481 years ago in 1531.
I had been to La Villa de Guadalupe before but this time the visit really impacted me. Walking towards the entrance, we watched a lady walk on her knees with her arms open, eyes raised to the sky, reciting prayers and giving thanks to Guadalupe. She looked elated and didn’t seem to notice the pain she must have been in. Inside, I watched whole families doing the same, asking for miracles to be granted or giving thanks for miracles received.
The second thing that struck me was the demographic. It was wide. There were as many men as women, as many young people as elderly, there were people who looked rich and people who looked poor, there were people in “Western dress” and people in indigenous dress. There are not many places in the Mexico where you would see this diversity of people in one place.
We got talking to a group of men who had cycled 300 KM from Tlaxcala to get to the site, leaving at 4am and arriving at 2.15pm. They did it every year on the 10th November, whilst their wives and children travelled by car to join them. They seemed so contented and happy to be there.
Many people had obviously come in groups and were carrying the flags of their towns or wearing matching t-shirts. I saw a middle class couple carrying a picture of the Virgin to be blessed as the site. I witnessed people crying silently and others in floods of elated tears.
As a Sociologist of Religion in a previous carnation, I was fascinated. Most studies of religion that I examined show figures that women and older people are more religious, but not so when it comes to the Virgin, perhaps because she is a figure so entirely Mexican, the mother of Mexico and no other land. In that sense the Virgin is a uniting force in Mexico. Every Mexican can feel a connection to her, after all she chose to show herself to a peasant, Aztec farmer, not any of the Spanish elite!
The market at La Villa was an anthropologists dream. The virgin was plastered on everything from baseball caps, CD’s, bags, key rings and pens, as well as the more traditional paintings and idols. I purchased a picture of the virgin in a box frame with a blue light bulb inside to light her up. A true iconic kitsch piece.
Having enjoyed the market we went to have a photo taken with my nephew sat on a horse, with us around him wearing sombreros whilst the virgin looked down on us.
It constantly amazes me how the seemingly sacred and the seemingly profane sit side my side, or practically on each other’s lap in Mexico. Perhaps that is how Mexican’s can relate to the Virgin as a mother, sacred and saintly on one hand, but an earthly mother with whom you can have an earthly relationship on the other. Whatever it may be, today will see the arrival of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of pilgrims at the Basilica to honor the Virgin! Oh how I would love to be there!