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June 6, 2010


The castillo mentioned in this post can be of many different  shapes and sizes. Some are far more elaborate than the ones I witnessed, some considerably smaller. For photos, check out    or
La Virgen de Zapopan
A month or so after returning from our trip to the border we moved out of the house on Juan Bernardino and into one on Avenida 12 de Diciembre, 1007. Our first house was located just a short distance from the entrance to Colonia Chapalita. (December 12th is a celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe. In 1531 she is supposed to have appeared to a peasant boy named Juan Diego. When he told the story to the Spanish bishop, the Bishop asked for proof. Juan Diego returned to the spot and the Virgin told him to gather flowers at the top of the hill, even though it was winter and no flowers were blooming. He gathered Castilian roses (not native to the area) and as he carried them to the bishop, pressed against his cloak, her image miraculously appeared on it.)
 Our second house was right in its heart, around the corner from my friend Valentine’s house and half a block from my three Mexican friends.
SNAPSHOT: I’m poised to cross Avenida de las Rosas but there’s no way to do so without stepping in rushing water up past my ankles. We’re five minutes into a torrential downpour and the street is flooded, curb to curb. Several people are huddled under the large outspread fronds of one of the palm trees dotting the avenida’s median.
            School is out, we’ve just marked our one-year anniversary in Mexico and the rainy season is upon us again. Like clockwork, we can count on two rains a day, one in late morning, one in mid-afternoon, although they are not always as torrential as the one above.
This summer I also learned more about just how deeply religion reaches into Mexican life. There is a small town outside Guadalajara called Zapopan. (Small then; its population is now over a million.) Its size belied its importance, though, as it was (and still is) the year-round home of La Virgen de Zapopan. She is revered as the embodiment of the Virgin Mary, much as Our Lady of
Guadalupe is, the difference being that while Our Lady of Guadalupe is a national icon, the Virgin of Zapopan is regional.
SNAPSHOT: People line both sides of Avenida Tepeyac, watching as the six men strain to pull the ropes attached to the brand new light blue Cadillac. Their destination is the church a block away.
            Every June she was taken from her niche in the church, placed in a brand new Cadillac and taken to all the principal churches in the greater metropolitan area, including ours. She was not driven, however. Ropes were attached to the car and pulled by half a dozen men from one church to the next, surely an honor.
Her stay at each church lasted one or two days and a special mass was celebrated in her honor. In addition to the mass, ongoing celebrations and festivities marked her presence. I watched her arrival at the principal church in Chapalita, fascinated by the sight of men pulling the car, and intrigued by a manifestation of religion I’d never seen or experienced before.
Perico, Alejandro and Ramon had been talking about her arrival for days and I was beginning to share their excitement and enthusiasm. Even before she arrived, booths and stalls were set up along the sidewalk in front of the church and on the wide, grassy median strip that ran down the center of Avenida Tepeyac. The closer to the church the booths and stalls were, the more business they were likely to get. Every possible spot was staked out.
We recognized many of the vendors who plied their trade at the glorieta on Sundays. There were other, more elaborate food booths selling tacos, tamales, churros, birria (goat stew), carnitas, and menudo (tripe). There were also booths with games, some familiar some not. You could toss darts at balloons or throw quoits over pop bottles. Some had packs of cigarettes set up on shelves and for fifty centavos you got a pop gun and three corks. If you knocked over a pack, it was yours. One element missing was the street musicians. Not only was it too crowded, it was too noisy for any music to be heard.
During the day there was little going on. People came to the church to light candles and pray to the Virgin, or maybe buy some food. Around six o’clock, however, a sense of expectancy and excitement began to build. People were home from work or school and they began making their way to the church, stopping along the way to invite friends or other families to go with them. By seven o’clock it was difficult to make your way through the crowd.
For girls it was a great opportunity to become “accidentally” separated from mama y papa and slip away for a while with a boyfriend. “But Papi,” she protests upon returning and finding her family, “we got separated. I looked all over for you but I couldn’t find you.” Papi, of course, knows full well what’s going on, having met his girlfriends under similar circumstances many years ago, He lectures her nonetheless and threatens her with dire consequences if it happens again. And it will, the next night.
SNAPSHOT: Ramon and I stand side-by-side at the counter of a booth. Four shelves line the back. Several packs of cigarettes, six inches apart, have been placed on each shelf. The back of the booth is a heavy velvet maroon curtain, a fist-sized tear in one corner, unidentifiable stains combining in unique patterns. We each shoulder a cork-gun rifle.
SNAPSHOT: So many people in front of the church it’s almost gridlock. Somebody has lit and dropped a buscapie in the middle of the throng. The snapshot has frozen the crowd in a moment of sheer panic.
            My friends and I were there both nights of the Virgin’s visit, wandering around, trying our hand at winning some cigarettes (I’d started smoking, although Mom didn’t know – yet.), eating food and looking for girls. Fireworks were cheap and plentiful and we had our pockets stuffed with them, mostly Chinese firecrackers and buscapies. The word literally means “foot seekers” and that’s just what they did. Light it, drop it and it careens wildly through the crowd, throwing off sparks, emitting an eerie, ear-splitting, screech. It does its job well, colliding with people’s feet. It was a very dangerous activity, of course, not only because it could get caught in somebody’s stockings or pants leg or dress, but also because people ran, jumped and dodged to avoid it, running into and over others in the process. We thought it was great fun.
Saturday was the Virgin’s final day at our church and it was eagerly anticipated. In addition to the socializing, the foods, the games and the special mass to be celebrated in the evening, there was the traditional castillo, or, literally, ‘castle’.
Around four o’clock several men cleared an area in front of the church and started to erect the bamboo framework for the castillo. It measured about ten feet on a side and rose fifteen to twenty feet in the air, criss-crossed with a lattice-work of more bamboo pieces, all held together with ropes and wires. Over the next three hours fireworks were attached to the completed scaffolding, placed symmetrically so that if there was a pinwheel six feet above the ground in one corner, the other three corners also had pinwheels six feet above the ground. When they finished there were rockets (large and small), pinwheels, Roman candles, firecrackers and many other kinds of fireworks. Four fuses hung from the bottom support poles, one in each corner, and when the appointed hour came, usually ten o’clock, four men simultaneously lit them, then stepped back.
The whole display lasted no more than a few minutes but it was spectacular. I’d never seen anything like it. Different kinds of fireworks went off at the same time and there were always at least four, often more, of each kind. The air was filled with sound and fury, smoke and fire as each set of fireworks put on its own show while at the same time igniting the set directly next to or above it. Minute by minute the fiery, colorful display climbed the framework, increasing in complexity. Each level was different from the one preceding it until it reached the climax at the top. This was a wheel about fifteen inches in diameter with small but powerful rockets attached all around its edge, parallel to the ground, all of them facing the same direction. The wheel was mounted on a short vertical axle. As soon as the first rocket was ignited the wheel started to spin, slowly. As the rest of the rockets ignited, the wheel picked up speed, emitted a high-pitched shriek, and multi-colored sparks showered down onto the crowd below. In no time at all it was just a blur of sound, sparks and speed. Soon it was spinning fast enough to take off and shoot high into the air, sparks cascading everywhere, its shriek fading as it gained altitude. The four of us, along with all the other boys, watched to see where it would come down so we could make a run to grab it. With no wind it usually came right back down into the crowd, all burned out. If there was wind it could be blown a couple of blocks away and a crowd of us ran full tilt to be the first to retrieve it. We had no use for it, of course; it was a trophy.
The castillo marked the end of the festivities and people said their good-byes, clasping each other in big abrazos, and walking home, maybe stopping for a last glass of agua fresca or a plate of churros. The four of us hung around, not leaving until everything was shut down. As the crowd thinned out we scoured the sidewalks, the street and the median strip looking for anything that might have been dropped or overlooked. If we were lucky, we’d find a few treasures: a pack of cigarettes from the popgun game or some coins.
The next morning, the ropes were attached to the Cadillac, the Virgin placed in her seat of honor and the long haul (literally) to the next neighborhood started.
The culminating stop on the Virgen de Zapopan’s tour was Lake Chapala, thirty miles south of the city. Mom, Val and I had a chance to see this pilgrimage one year. We drove out to Chapala to spend the day visiting friends at the lake and toward evening we all went to the highway to watch the Virgin’s arrival.
Here, again, the car was pulled the entire way to the lake. There were crowds of people who made the journey along with her, most, but not all, walking slowly behind the car. More than a few made the trip on their knees, doing penance or fulfilling a promise to the Virgin. Once arrived, she was taken to the church where another special mass was held, this time to pray for rain. Since her visit took place just before the rainy season started it was a pretty safe bet that the prayers would be answered. One year it rained so much that the lake rose, flooding part of the town, and the Virgin had to be brought back out to Chapala so people could pray for the rains to stop (this part of the story may be apocryphal but, if true, I doubt she made the second trip in a car pulled by ropes.)

 Another example of how deeply religion reaches into Mexican life came a few months later when somebody in Tlaquepaque, a small town on the other side of Guadalajara, happened to see a near-perfect representation of the Crucifixion in the bark of a tree and the positioning of a couple of its branches. Word traveled fast and the next day classes at Colegio Cervantes and many other Catholic schools were canceled so everyone could go and see this “miracle” – and we were expected to go. I went, as did many others from the school.
We had to take three buses to get to the site and even then, when we arrived, the crowds were so thick with people from all over the region our bus, as well as others, had to unload passengers up to half a mile away.
Perico, Alejandro, Ramon and I got off the bus and made our way slowly through the congestion. Many people crossed themselves as they arrived and attempted to make their way forward; others crossed themselves again as they left. Large numbers of people were praying: some quietly, some wailing loudly, some on their knees, some on their feet. Some of those on their knees were making an impromptu pilgrimage of penance to the tree. There were large numbers of priests and nuns from many different orders. Add to this all the vendors with their baskets and carts full of food, drink, cigarettes, religious objects and other things and it made for a memorable and remarkably orderly gathering. We finally got close enough to the tree to observe it and, by golly, it wasn’t at all hard to see the Crucifixion. The details were striking: the outspread arms, the crossed legs, the head off to one side, even the crown of thorns and the wound in the side.
We came. We saw. We left.

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