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>Communion & Sundays in the Park

May 9, 2010


The photo in this week’s post was taken in 1976. My first wife and I, along with our two young children, drove from Seattle down to Costa Rica to visit Vicky’s family. We stopped in Guadalajara, where I took this photo in the park. Now, of course, I wish I’d taken dozens more. 


Fitting into Mexico and its culture meant fitting into the religious aspects of Mexican life. Mexico in the 1950s was ninety-five percent Catholic (a figure which has declined since then with the advent of evangelical Christianity.) I was exposed to Catholicism in many ways: Catholic school, religion class, First Friday Mass and religious holidays. I participated willingly in the religious life of the country, even though I wasn’t Catholic.
One of the great gifts Mom gave me was an open mind. Unlike so many Americans in Mexico’s second largest city, she had no problem with the country’s pervasive Catholicism. Part of it, of course, may have stemmed from the fact that she had attended a Catholic boarding school for several years. She was comfortable with the religion and didn’t feel that my sister and I were threatened in any way by going to Catholic schools and, in my case, attending weekly mass with Perico and Alejo and their family.
Fifteen minutes before the start of mass each Sunday the church bells rang out, ending with one loud, admonishing clang. La primera, the first. Five minutes later they rang out again, ending with two clangs. La segunda, the second. And finally, five minutes before the mass started, they rang once more, ending with three very loud, very final clangs. La ultima, the final. These communal calls to mass were heard for many blocks around and served to let people know just how late they were running.
I liked the fact that mass lasted only half an hour and then we had the rest of the day to ourselves. Services at the Congregational Church of the Chimes we had attended in Sherman Oaks routinely went an hour or longer.
The church we attended (and why don’t I remember its name? San Agustin?) was a large one and the twelve o’clock mass was the most heavily attended. Like Perico’s, many other families went to this mass, dressed formally, many even bringing along their household servants.
SNAPSHOT: You can see the backs, heels and soles of the two dozen people kneeling on the red velvet step in front of the communion rail in the church. Women and girls are on the left, men and boys on the right. Once again I stand out because of my lighter skin and hair. You can’t see in this snapshot how much I’m sweating from anxiety.
There was Holy Communion every Sunday and I had been curious for some time: What does the host taste like? And could the priest always tell when a non-Catholic is taking Communion? That’s what the guys said. I scoffed, but inside I wasn’t all that sure. Would the priest know? Would he know I’d never been to confession? Would he question me?
Finally, my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to find out for myself. It turned out, of course, to be another of those myths that live on among kids. (When I was younger my friends and I “knew” that carbon paper would make you blind if it touched your eyes.) But when the priest came to me he simply said whatever it is priests say, placed the host on my tongue (“For God’s sake, whatever you do, don’t chew it!” Perico had warned), and moved on. I mumbled a quick prayer of relief and managed to get back to my seat, still sweating from anxiety. Mission accomplished. The host had no taste, by the way.)
Sundays in the Park
The best part of Sunday came after mass. Many of the families attending headed down Avenida Guadalupe to the park in the glorieta about five blocks away to relax, socialize, and enjoy the day.
Like many such glorietas in Mexico, this one was large. Children played in the fenced-in children’s play area in the center and they bought ice cream and snacks at the little concession stand. In the play area were swings and slides – slides much higher than any I’d ever seen. There were three of them, spaced about ten feet apart. The first one was a spiral slide, the second a steep, straight slide and the third had two undulations in it, about halfway down. A lot of the little kids refused to go on these last two slides because they were too fast and too scary. If you weren’t careful, the bumps in the last one could actually catapult you into the air while you were still half a dozen feet off the ground.
There was also a piece of play equipment I’d never seen before. It was in a corner of the play area and supported by a center pole maybe ten feet high. The first time I saw it I thought of a hoop skirt, or at least the framework that supports the skirt. It consisted of six wooden planks (each of which can hold five or six kids) fastened together in the shape of a hexagon. At the end of each plank was a metal bar that extended diagonally to the top of the supporting pole. It was constructed in such a way that this whole platform sat about three feet off the ground and could be pushed not only around in circles, but could also be made to swing in toward the pole and back out again at the same time it was rotating. Little ones generally stayed away from this one, too, unless an older family member was there to make sure it was being rotated and pushed slowly and safely. When the older kids were using it, though, anything goes was the rule. (I came across a photograph once of a similar piece of playground equipment, taken in 1898 at Hudsonbank Amusement Park in New York, the only other time I’ve seen it.)
There were four large paths that radiated outward from the play area, like spokes in a wheel, connecting with an even larger path making the circuit at the outer edge of the glorieta. The paths framed grassy areas planted with flowers and there were benches where you could sit and talk and watch others strolling round and round.
SNAPSHOT: Two girls, one fourteen, one eight, walk along one of the paths. They’re dressed alike: black patent leather shoes, white socks and gloves, pink dresses and pale blue plastic tiaras. The older girl is very pretty, but scowling. Little sister is all smugness and smiles.
As people arrived after mass, girls, still all dressed up, left their families and formed little groups walking in one direction, while we boys, also still in our Sunday best, formed our groups and walked in the opposite direction. As the groups strolled past each other girls smiled coyly and dropped their eyes and perhaps a flower or a small, neatly folded piece of paper to be picked up by a certain boy. Boys, in turn, showed off the only way we knew how, by being boisterous and play-fighting.
When a girl was out of sight of her family, there was the opportunity to spend a few stolen moments with the boyfriend she wasn’t supposed to have. She couldn’t linger because her family is watching for her to come past again and if she doesn’t, somebody, usually a sibling (or, worse, papa!), is sent to see what she’s doing. Some mamas y papas tried to nip this in the bud by sending a younger sister or brother to walk around with the girl. Often the siblings could be bribed with ice cream or money to look the other way and say nothing. It didn’t always work, though, and you could tell which girls were unsuccessful in their bribery attempts. They were the ones who walked around refusing to enjoy themselves and scowling and yelling at the little chaperone.
The glorieta on Sundays drew street vendors with their food and drinks, and I always tried to have some money so I could sample them: chicharrones (fried pork skins) with hot sauce, sold in pieces a foot square; elotes (roasted corn on the cob) with hot sauce; fruits and vegetables (prepared the same way don Pepe did outside Colegio Cervantes); paletas (ice cream bars); tacos and tamales. For a toston (fifty centavos, or four cents American) I could buy a glass of agua fresca. Couldn’t just walk off and enjoy it, though, because the vendors used real glasses, not paper cups, and when the glass was returned it was simply rinsed in a tub of water and set out for the next person.
I also liked the strolling musicians, usually guitarists or sometimes an accordion player, who for a peso would sing any song you requested. (Well, almost any song; none could play “Rock Around the Clock.”) Young men who were getting serious about their girlfriend sometimes hired a musician to go over and serenade her, hoping her parents wouldn’t object and that it wouldn’t get her in trouble. The glorieta on a Sunday afternoon after mass was an experience for the senses, a feast of sights and sounds, tastes and smells. An anodyne for the soul.

One Comment leave one →
  1. May 12, 2010 6:12 am

    >Great story line and well done. Be out of the country for a few weeks but hope to be able to keep up on the internet. Keep writing.Old fan

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