“The Virgin in the back of a Pickup Truck”

On our first stay in Oaxaca we were plunged full body into Mexican, particularly Oaxaqueño, culture. We had rented an apartment in the northern suburb of Xochimilco.  Xochimilco was once a separate village, but the expanding city of Oaxaca has completely engulfed it.  We lived in a casita in the garden of a former mayor, or expresidente as he would be called in Mexico, of the city.  The apartment had undoubtedly once housed the domestic servants of the household, but our hosts the Calvos had only one “muchacha.” Josefina, and she lived in the main house. 

Our apartment was spacious—but rustic!  On our first night we ran out of water—the fault of a leaky toilet—and learned what we had to do to conserve it.  As is typical in Mexico, the apartment’s water supply came from a metal cistern, called a “tinaco,” on the roof.  The tinaco was filled once a day from the “red” (net), the system of pipes that delivered the city’s water supply, usually after 7 p.m.  If there was any water in the system!  (More about Oaxaca’s dwindling water supply later.)  Since when we lived on our sailboat “Escapade” we had carried only 40 gallons of fresh water, we had no trouble conserving it, except when we forgot to turn off the valve to the leaky toilet after flushing.

At midnight of our first night in the apartment we were startled awake by the sounds of fireworks, a brass band, and church bells ringing.  We lived across from St. Tomas, the neighborhood iglesia.  We learned the next day that the hoopla was celebrating the arrival of LaVirgen Peregrina, the virgin on a pilgrimage.  The beloved Virgin Mary of Guadalupe was making the rounds of Mexico in the back of a pickup truck, or at least her image was, and the celebration at St. Tomas marked her arrival in Xochimilco. 

We were sorry that we hadn’t got up to greet her.  To say that the Virgin of Guadalupe is the patron saint of Mexico is an understatement.  In 1531, Juan Diego, a Mexica (Aztec) Indian who had converted to Christianity, had two visions of the Virgin Mary.  On the second occasion, she caused a field of roses to spontaneously burst into bloom, even though it was the off season.  The amazed Juan filled his cloak with roses to take to his pueblo.  The roses left the lovely and detailed image of the Virgin of Guadalupe that may be seen all over Mexico and in Mexican neighborhoods in the U.S. Before the arrival of the Spaniards, the Mexicas had worshipped Coatulue, the earth mother.  It has been pointed out that in Nahuatl, the language in which the Virgin undoubtedly communicated with Juan Diego, Coatulue sounds a lot like Guadalupe.  In any case, there’s no question that when the Spanish priests brought Christianity, they found it convenient to allow the Christian saints to be identified with indigenous gods and goddesses.  The pagan overtones of Catholicism in Mexico are especially evident today in Chiapas.  We’ll write about that another time.  Mexicans adore the Virgin of Guadalupe.  She is certainly the dominant focus of religious fervor in Mexico, an in much of Latin America.

The image of the Virgin of Guadalupe normally resides in a basilica a few miles outside of Mexico City, but in the year of the millennium the church had decided to take her on a tour of the country so the faithful of all regions would have a chance to see her.  Encased in Plexiglas, she was transported from town to town, iglesia to iglesia.  The adoration showered upon her by the long lines of worhippers, many of them poor and indigenous, was moving to watch.

            (More about our life in Xochimilco in our next dispatch.)