Friday, December 17, 2010

The Virgin of Guadalupe Fiesta

La Virgen de Guadalupe at the Museo de Guadalupe near Zacatecas. The image of the Virgin of Guadalupe is an extraordinarily powerful religious and political symbol in Mexico. Every year in December, multi-day Fiestas de la Virgen are celebrated all over the country, culminating on December 12. I attended Ajijic's fiesta this year and it was solemn, charming, and fun--all at the same time. In this posting, I explain the meaning of the image above, tell the story of the first sighting of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and provide some historical and political perspective on the role the Virgin plays in Mexican society. Finally, I'll show you the lively, colorful fiesta. It's an event that, if you have an opportunity, you should not miss.

First, the image. The Virgin is always shown in the same posture, a standing figure, turned partly to the right with eyes downcast and hands clasped in prayer. She wears a blue cloak studded with stars and is entirely surrounded by a golden halo. She wears a simple shift, and she stands on a crescent moon supported by a cherub. There are occasionally other details added, but these are the main elements. This image can be found all over Mexico, within churches, on the outside walls and doors of houses as well as in small shrines inside. She appears also in street corner shrines, and adorning innumerable trinkets and knicknacks of every imaginable type.

The meaning of the image is very complex because it is a blend of both Catholic and pagan symbols. For example, the halo references a bible citation about a "woman clothed with the sun." However, the halo also refers to the Aztec sun god still revered by the indigenous people when the Virgin first appeared. Ironically, Huitzilopochtli, the sun god, was also the war god to whom countless victims were sacrificed. The crescent moon comes from the same bible reference, but also refers to the Aztec moon god who was a rival of the sun god. That the Virgin stands on the moon indicates the triumph of the sun god. The blue cloak she wears (sometimes it is blue-green or turquoise) symbolized eternity and immortality to Catholics, while the Aztecs saw it as the color of gods, royalty, life, and fecundity. The cherub supporting the moon is seen by Catholics as an angel. However, the meaning to Aztecs was different. It indicated royalty, or at least nobility, since only people of that rank could be carried on someone's shoulders. For a detailed description of all the overlapping Catholic and pagan meanings, click here.

The Altars to the Virgin and the story of Juan Diego.

During the fiesta, many people prepare and display altars to the Virgin of Guadalupe. I found this one on Calle Hidalgo, near where Carole and I used to live in the neighborhood of Seis Esquinas (Six Corners). This elderly gentleman had found himself a "ring-side" seat for the festivities which culminated just down from his front door. He kindly waved permission when I asked for a photo.

A classic altar display. This altar not only shows the key moment in the Virgin's story, but is crowned with a Mexican flag. It is very common to find the Virgin and the flag together, for historical and political reasons which I will detail later. The Virgin is shown standing on top of a hill called Tepayac, surrounded by cactus, with the figure of Juan Diego kneeling at her feet. This location is very significant. Tepayac originally contained the ruins of a temple to the Aztec mother-goddess Tonantzin. The temple had been destroyed by the conquistadores and the Catholic authorities to suppress native religion and culture so as to better control the indigenous people.

Closeup of the altar, showing Juan Diego at the feet of the Virgin. Juan Diego was a Chichimeca whose original Nahuatl name was Cuauhtlatoatzin. Although he was sainted by Pope John Paul II in 2002, there is some dispute among some senior Catholic clergy about whether he actually existed. According to the story, he was born before the Conquest in 1474. Cuauhtlatoatzin was baptized as Juan Diego in 1524, three years after the fall of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. This was a time of great turmoil as the empire of the Aztecs suddenly collapsed and the new Spanish overlords found themselves with vast possessions, but also in desperate need to find a way to subjugate millions of natives. While many of the Spanish at the time were no doubt sincere in their Christian faith (at least as it was practiced in Medieval Spain), Christianity was also viewed an a vital ideological weapon. Conversion would be the key to the conquistators' plans for enslaving the population. They knew they couldn't rule by the naked sword alone.

Ajijic's Virgen de Guadalupe Fiesta Parade

Altar Boys led the parade. The Fiesta involves a parade through town, led by Altar Boys. While they appear to be reverently looking to the heavens above, I believe they were more concerned about snagging their poles in the tangle of streamers above. According to the Virgin of Guadalupe legend, Juan Diego regularly walked past the old temple ruins on Tepayac hill. One day he heard birds singing musically, announcing the appearance of a young woman. Whether he thought he was seeing the Virgin, or the ancient goddess Tonantzin arising in the ruins, is a question I will leave to others. In any case, he reported his sighting to the Spanish Bishop Juan de Zumárraga, who initially disbelieved the indigenous man. After all, who was he to be encountering the Blessed Virgin? Juan Diego began shuttling back and forth between the Virgin and the Bishop in order to bring convincing proof of his experience. It being winter, Tepayac would normally have been barren, but the Virgin instructed Juan Diego to gather into his tilma (peasant cloak) the flowers that were miraculously blooming. In Some versions the flowers were roses, and that flower is placed on many altars to the Virgin to this day. When Juan Diego opened his cloak before the Bishop, the clergyman was astonished at the unseasonable blooms. Even more miraculously, the image of the Virgin appeared imprinted on the cloak. The original cloak is still on display at the Basilica of Guadalupe on Tepayac hill, and the location has become one of the most  important Catholic pilgrimage sites in the world, rivaling the Vatican.

Following the Altar Boys came a drum and bugle corps of young Ajijic students. As you can see from their solemn expressions, they took their roles very seriously. Try as I might, I couldn't elicit a smile. Although some of the musicians were very young, they were actually pretty good. Bishop Zumárraga was not the only one who had doubts about Juan Diego's vision, or concerns about the fervent and rapidly spreading cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Many prominent clergy at the time denounced the movement as a covert way through which the indigenous people could continue their idolatry. The Franciscan Order was especially opposed, while the Dominicans  favored allowing the adoration of the Virgin of Guadalupe to continue. Archbishop Montufar opened an inquiry in 1556 and came down squarely on the side of the Virgin, wresting control of the Tepayac site from the Franciscans and giving it to the Domincans.

A Virgin in a pickup. One of the few floats in the parade was a pickup truck with a rustic arbor in the back. A young girl in a simple shift stood in the traditional prayerful position of the Virgin. One cannot escape the suspicion that Archbishop Montufar's decision was at least in part political. The cult of the Virgin was spreading like wildfire. Not only had she been first seen by an indigenous man, but she was portrayed as brown skinned and was seen by the native population as the only one of the Catholic holy figures who specifically represented them. Ever since, she has been adored as the special patroness of the poor and the indigenous people. Like so many other pagan symbols such as the Christmas tree (symbol of the pagan Germanic god Wotan), the Catholic Church adapted to the Virgin legend in order to co-opt native traditions and enable mass conversions. Particularly in Mexico, if one peels back the veneer of Catholicism, one can find below it thousands of years of pagan religious traditions.

Danzantes dressed as Spaniards and Aztecs followed the pickup truck. Fitting the proportions of the time of the Conquest, there were only a couple of Spaniards among a mass of people dressed as Aztecs. The danzantes (dancers) whirled about as they marched, making their flags dip and sway. For hundreds of years the Spanish decision to gain the acquiescence of the masses by co-opting the Virgin was a successful strategy. It would eventually come back to bite the Spaniards, however. Notice the banner carried at the upper right.

The Aztec danzantes shook rattles in their right hands as they moved along the street. Twirling back and forth, they presented a wonderfully barbaric spectacle in the middle of this traditionally Christian religious scene.

Vino Blanco makes her appearance. Next to come along was a personal friend of ours. The little white burro with the pink hooves and stylish hat is named Vino Blanco (white wine). We see her around town quite often, pulling her little cart, or grazing by the Lake. She is quite friendly and especially enjoys having her neck rubbed and her long floppy ears stroked. I have found burros in general to be very amiable creatures, but Vino Blanco stands out even among them. The only times I have heard her plaintively braying are when she gets lonesome. The two little girls in the cart are apparently the daughters of the fellow in the huge sombrero. The girl on the left is dressed as a campesina (poor country girl). Her sister on the right wears the cloak of the Virgin and sits in a prayerful position.

The Moors and the Spaniards. These danzantes are performing a dance which originated 500 years ago to celebrate the victory of King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castille over the Muslim Moors. The Moors had invaded in 711 AD and conquered most of the Spanish Iberian Peninsula over a period of 300 years. It took the Spanish Christians another 400 years to drive them out. On January 2, 1492, the forces of Ferdinand and Isabella marched into Granada, the last Spanish stronghold of the Moors. Shortly afterward, the two monarchs funded the first voyage of Christopher Columbus. The discovery of the New World provided a handy outlet for the energies of all those battle-hardened Spanish soldiers, who were much too dangerous to keep unoccupied at home. So Columbus' discoveries and the availability of experienced troops and adventurous captains like Hernán Cortés led to the Conquest of Mexico. Notice that some of the masks are dark skinned, representing Moors and some are pinkish, representing the Christians.

Following the Moors and Spaniards came a large portrait of the Virgin. The Virgin is portrayed in the traditional manner, with a pot of roses at her feet. People often carry large portraits in Mexican parades.

Behind the Virgin came her supporters. Hundreds of people filled the street from wall to wall stretching back for a couple of blocks. While many of them appear solemn, there were also many smiles. People exchanged greetings with their friends and joshed each other as they moved along.

The end point of the parade was the Iglesia de Guadalupe at Seis Esquinas. The church is of a much more modern design than most of those in the area. The steeple above was festooned with streamers of red, white, and green, the Mexican national colors. A sign on the outside wall of the church states that it is the property of the Federal Government, a fact that seemed odd when I first noticed it a couple of years ago. After learning about the great struggles between the Catholic Church and the government during the periods of the Reform War of the mid-19th Century, and the Revolution of the early 20th, I began to understand. Especially during the Cristero War of 1926-1929, many churches, convents, and other properties were seized in an effort to break the economic and social power the Church had held over Mexican society since the days of the Conquest. Over time, the Church was allowed to reoccupy some facilities while the government maintained official ownership. Apparently this church had been seized at one time.

The Kids of the Fiesta

Kids are a big part of the Fiesta of the Virgin. Whether as members of the marching band, or as dancers, or as costumed children of the families attending, kids were everywhere. Above, this boy was fascinated by my camera as his dad waited to enter the church. He is dressed as San Juan Diego. In 1810, Father Miguel Hidalgo y Castillo raised the banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe as his battle flag when he issued his cry for freedom from Spain and the emancipation of the Indians. Whether this was shrewd politics, given the reverence of the poor and the indigenous people for the Virgin, or because he had to act quickly to find a flag and simply made a lucky choice, the Virgin of Guadalupe became the symbol for the War for Independence from Spain. The oppressed people of Mexico rallied ferociously to this standard, and the Spanish decision to encourage the cult of the Virgin finally came back to haunt them.

A shy mother and a Mona Lisa smile. The mom agreed to the picture, but was too shy to look at the camera. Her daughter, a bit more bold, gazed steadily into my lens, giving me an almost imperceptible "Mona Lisa smile."

A young girl reacts to the thunderous cohetes. Gringos are not the only ones sometimes less than enamored of these exploding skyrockets. Cohetes are ubiquitous at Mexican fiestas and religious events. They can be painfully loud if they detonate anywhere nearby. Launched by specialists called coheteros, their use goes back centuries. Their original purpose was to drive off evil spirits, but today they mostly function as a form of amusement. Philospher René Descartes said "I think, therefore I am." The Mexican version it seems to be "I make noise, therefore I am."

Young San Juan Diego poses in front of an altar to the Virgin. The boy's mother busied herself arranging his pose for her photograph. I slipped in behind her and caught a few shots myself. Although the Revolutionary government established in 1917 eventually came into conflict with the Church, in the early days of the Revolution the campesinos of Emiliano Zapata's Army of the South marched under the banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe, just as their predecessors did 100 years before.

The Aztec dancers were mostly children and youths. Like young people everywhere, they can't resist a group photo. When taking a photo, the Mexicans sometimes say "queso" (cheese) to elicit a smile, just like their compatriots up north.

Food, fun, and fireworks

After the solemnity of the religious observances came food, fun, and (of course) fireworks. The device above is part of a castillo (castle). The complex structure of fireworks is mounted upon a tall pole, about the size of a telephone pole but two stories tall, set into a hole dug in the cobblestone street. Mounted on the pole is a series of wicker wheels shaped like the spirals seen above. Fastened at regular intervals on the spiral are skyrockets, connected in series. When the rockets ignite, the wheel spins, shooting off showers of sparks into the cheering, laughing crowd below. There is usually one wheel on each of the four sides, with several levels of wheels mounted up the pole. All the wheels don't spin at once, but usually one at a time, or one level at a time. The whole thing is quite dramatic and entertaining. Unfortunately, castillos are usually set off fairly late in the evening, and I couldn't stay to see this one. By clicking on the link above, you can see some castillos in action.

A quiet chat over a steaming pot. A strong sense of community pervades fiestas like this one. The woman above was preparing ponche, which smelled wonderful and was the reason I paused and then decided to take the shot. At this point the church service was breaking up and people were streaming out into Hidalgo street. The coheteros were busy constructing their castillo, and the food vendors were furiously cooking their specialties in preparation for the huge party about to break out in all directions.

Ponche, up close and personal. Ponche is a traditional Mexican concoction, often associated with the Christmas season. There are countless variations, but one of the most traditional includes tejocotes (similar to a crab apple, but sweeter), oranges, guavas, sugar cane, prunes, pears, raisins, walnuts, cinnamon, whole cloves, piloncillo, and perhaps brandy or rum. Is your mouth watering yet?

Mexican fast food. This is a very common "street-food" sold even when there is no fiesta. The beans are garbanzos (chickpeas) and are stir-fried, salted, and sold in small plastic bags to be eaten with your fingers while still hot. I believe they cost about 10 pesos (80 cents USD). Quite tasty and filling.

And now for the main street-food course. The skewered meat standing upright is pork. The cooks carve off little bits at a time and chop it fine. Next it is cooked on the griddle until brown, then loaded into a maiz (corn) tortilla. The customer can load himself up with chopped tomatos and chives. Finally, there is a choice of salsas. Once assembled, you have a very inexpensive culinary delight.

This was one large cowboy. He dwarfed his comrades and looked pretty intimidating. I swallowed my misgivings and asked "con permiso?", gesturing to my camera in a request for a photo. At first he hunched his shoulders and gave me a ferocious scowl. However, his buddies immediately called his bluff and hooted at him to let me shoot. After a moment he broke out in this wonderful smile and I realized he had just been having fun with me.

Turn-about is fair play. The huge cowboy then insisted that all of his friends get into a picture. At first there were 4 then 6 and the group kept expanding, forcing me to back up again and again to get them all in the shot. My bearded friend (third from left) looks about the same size as everybody else until you realize he is standing in the street about 2 feet below them. I thought this shot really captures the mellow, friendly feeling of a fiesta in a Mexican village.

This completes my posting on Ajijic's Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe. I hope you enjoyed it and now know a bit more about this extremely important Mexican religious and political symbol. If you have a comment, you can leave it in the Comments section below, or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Hola, Jim... You've posted a nice variety of photos offering an excellent overview of the celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Gracias. Some years back, my wife and I took a two week trip to Mexico's colonial cities, including Zacatecas, to celebrate my 60th birthday. My birthday is December 12th, the same day as the Virgin of Guadalupe, so we were in Mexico for the festivities. While visiting Zacatecas, we found two places to be of significant interest. The first is Sr. Coronel's Museum of 2,000 masks. The other is the Eden silver mine. Que pasa buen fin de semana, Bill

  2. Fascinating! I love your well researched and photographed accounts of life in Mexico. I'm going to share this one on my Facebook page for my small folk art importing business, if you don't mind!
    Anne Damon
    Zinnia Folk Arts, LLC
    Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA

  3. Hola, hola, hola, Jim thanks again for all the wonderful photos and research you do about Mexico.Although I am sure you get some help from Carole, to me you are a one man band helping gringos and gringas understand Mexico and it's wonderful friendly people. David

  4. This is a great explanation of the fiesta. As a new Peace Corps Volunteer working in Guadalajara, I knew some of this material but I learned a lot from you. Your pictures are great as well!
    Barbara Dye

  5. I am so happy to have discovered this site, and I look forward to reading the many posts as we prepare to return to Mexico in the future.

  6. Great photos! If you took one of paraders wearing old people masks and dancing with canes, please post.

  7. Dear Anonymous, Glad you liked my blog. I haven't posted any "Old Men Dancing" photos. However, my good friend Jay Koppelman is a wonderful photographer and a real artist. If you go to "Other sites to visit" on my blog homepage, you will find a link to Jay's gallery. He has several Old Men photos there.

    Best regards, Jim

  8. Thanks, Jim. Catch up soon!


  9. Hello Jim: Enjoying all ifnormation you are posting, My brother, sister in law and I will be in the chapala area in october and would love getting some feed back from you in regards to your stay there in the area, do you feel safe and is the rental resonable for that area also.

  10. Dear Anonymous, I'd be glad to share my thoughts on your questions, either when you come to the Lake Chapala area or over email. My email address is:

    jcmx07 (at) hotmail (dot) com

    Drop me a line, Jim

    I just wanto to said that I love people who loves the culture of my town
    you are very nice writing abouot all this

  12. Wonderful wonderful wonderful. I love the way you do your blog, with lots of inline photos and short descriptions.

  13. Gringo/a in Spanish means foreigner. So you would only be in gringo/a in a land where you would be foreign- Mexico. Someone arriving in the United States from Mexico would therefore be the gringo/a.

  14. TO: Rose

    Actually, in Mexico, Gringo(a) primarily means person from the United States. It's unclear where the term originated, but some assert it goes back to the Mexican American War when some of the US troops wore green, thus green-go. More recently, it is often used as a term to describe foreigners from US, Canada, and Europe. However, this usage is generally in places where people from those other countries are heavily represented, such as the Lake Chapala area. A Mexican arriving in the US would definitely not be called a Gringo(a) by other Mexicans, and certainly not by people from the US.


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim