Our Lady of Guadalupe

According to the legend, in December 9 1531 an indigenous Mexican peasant known as Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, an Aztec Catholic convert, was crossing the Hill of Tepeyac in a present-day northern suburb of Mexico City, when he came upon a young woman, who claimed to be Mary, the Virgin Mother.  She requested that a church in her honour be erected at that site.

Juan Diego reported his vision to the Archbishop in Mexico City, but he was not believed.

The next day, in a second vision, Mary told him to insist on her request.  He returned to the archbishop, who suggested that he should return to the hill and request a truly miraculous proof of her identity.

Mary’s response was to instruct him to gather some flowers from the summit of the hill, which was normally barren in mid-winter. There he found some roses growing, a flower not native to Mexico.  He gathered some and carried them to the archbishop in his cloak.  When he opened his cloak and showed the roses, they found an image of Mary imprinted on the cloth, an image that is venerated to this day in the Basilica de Guadalupe.

Initially, the location of the appearances was marked with a pile of stones and a wooden cross.  Eventually a small shrine was built to house the image.  In about 1660, the Capilla del Cerrito was constructed, and with the greatly increased number of devout visitors, the first Basilica was added in about 1695. Due to the eventual sinking of the foundations, a new Basilica was completed in 1975.

On the hill, the Capilla del Cerrito on the site of the original apparitions (internet photo0
Lower down, the old basilica (internet photo)

It was when I lived in Australia in the early 1970’s that a very devout Australian lady told me about Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. I became most curious about the legend.  I had already been to Lourdes and had in mind to one day go to Fatima, in Portugal, a still unfulfilled ambition.  All three locations involved a vision of Mary.

Today, the religious complex at Guadalupe is by far the most revered Catholic site in the Americas, and one of the most visited religious centres in the world. Reputedly, some twenty million people visit the site every year.

The new Basilica (internet photo)

My opportunity to visit the site came when I was travelling overland from Panama to the United States in April 1976. Like Lourdes, it seemed to have been taken over by tawdry commercialism, but the churches and chapels were impressive, and the obvious devotion of the visitors was sobering.  I left with mixed emotions when I returned to the city.

On the one hand, there was no surviving documentary mention of the apparition until 1648. Indeed, the bishop approached by Juan Diego was not consecrated until some three years after the event, and he made no mention of it in his writings. But of course, it is quite possible that such documentation has been lost or destroyed.

On the other hand, there is so much unexplained about the image.  The cloak (tilma) apparently shows no obvious sign of deterioration after almost 600 years. It survived intact from a bomb placed at its foot by an anti-Catholic extremist in 1921, a blast that destroyed much of the interior of the church. According to experts, there is no evidence of brush strokes or protective varnish, and when enlarged, several images can be seen in the eyes of Mary. In the opinion of many who have examined the image, it is inexplicable in human terms.

It is true that the Hill of Tepeyac was formerly the site of a Nahual temple to honour Tonantzin (‘Our Mother’), a Nahual goddess. Could the Catholic Church have chosen the site to convert superstitious Aztec peasants to the new religion, using an invented tale of mysterious appearances and a faked cloak?

What to think?  Was it truly a miracle or just a clever hoax of the Catholic Church?

Almost certainly, we may never know, but I feel sure that the academic debate will continue ad finitum.

Mexico City

April 1976

We arrived back in Guatemala City from Antigua in the early afternoon, (see Volcán Agua), and reserved seats on the Tica Bus to Mexico City departure of the next day.  That evening we went to a nearby pizzeria and early to bed; there was no water and the electricity supply was at best, intermittent.

At about 23:00, I woke in a sweat, with an excruciating pain in my bowels.  In the dark, I scuttled to the communal toilet, to which most of the other guests seemed to have preceded me.  With no water supply and unable to flush the toilet, the stench was diabolical; it was a trip to the toilet that was to repeat itself many more times that night and the next morning.

What to do?   We had already paid for the tickets to Mexico City on a bus with no toilet for a 1,400 km journey.  If my gut spasms persisted, could I hold out until each of the next scheduled stops, on average about every two hours.  I decided to go for it.

And thankfully I made it without undue embarrassment… but only just.  As soon as we arrived in Mexico City, I went to the first pharmacy that I encountered  and sought relief.  The pharmacist listened to my symptoms and gave me some pills that he was confident would eliminate the problem.  They certainly worked, almost instantly; I was totally blocked up for most of the next two weeks.

We found a room in a clean and inexpensive hotel, close to the two great plazas of the city: the Alameda and the Zócolo.  It was a perfect location in the historic heart of the city.

Nearby was the Alameda, a large central city park, with a complex layout of paths, statues and fountains.  Originally it was the Aztec marketplace.  At the eastern end of the park is the Palacio de Bellas Artes, an opulent building dedicated to the performing arts – music, dance, theater and opera, and exhibitions of art and photography.

The Alameda (photo from internet)

The Palacio de Bellas Artes (photo from internet)

To the east of the Alameda is the Zócolo, known as the Plaza de la Constitutión, a massive square measuring about 250 m by 250 m.  On one side is the Cathedral, on another the Palacio Nacional and on the other two sides various Federal Buildings.  In the centre of the plaza there is an enormous flag pole.

The Zocoló (photo from internet)

We went to the Palacio Nacional to see the murals painted by Diego Rivera.  Now I am not renowned for my enthusiasm for things artistic, but a friend had told me that I would find a visit to have been worthwhile.  I was not disappointed.  The murals were most impressive, covering the history of Mexico from the pre-colonial era, through the Spanish conquest and the modern-day rise of the working class.  I felt very small looking up at them from the stairs and the adjacent corridors.

Diego Rivera mural in the Palacio Nacional
Murals of Diego Rivera in the Palacio Nacional (photo from internet)

That evening we went to the Frontón México, an art-deco building that was the home of Jai Alai in Mexico City.  It is a few minutes walk to the west of the Alameda.

Jai Alai is based on a similar game originating from the Vasco region of north-eastern Spain.  It is played on a long rectangular court with walls on three sides and a high ceiling, similar to an elongated squash court, with one wall removed and glass screening to protect the audience.

The ball is rock-hard and is caught and slung against the end wall with a hand-held device called a cesta.  It is renowned for being the fastest ball sport.

Most of the crowd were there to gamble and as a game progressed, the odds were constantly changing.  The book-takers ran up and down the steps taking bets and issuing receipts.  The noise level was impressive and I entered the fray, with my small bank of pesos that I was prepared to lose as part of the experience.  I survived for a couple of hours, sometimes up, at other times down, until it was gone.  It was a fun night.

The Frontón México as it is today (photo from internet)

On the way back to our hotel, we went to the Plaza Garibaldi, a short walk to the north of the Alameda.  The Plaza Garibaldi was known for its mariachi bands and we were not disappointed, for there were at least a dozen of them.  Each one consisted of violins, trumpets and different forms of guitars, some with a harp, at times each musician taking turns to sing, at other times singing as a group.

A typical mariachi group in the Plaza Garibaldi

And here you can hear how a mariachi group sounds…

It was with the sound of a dozen mariachi bands reverberating in our ears, that we wandered back to our hotel in the early hours of the morning.

And my bowels slept serenely that night…





The Lottery Tickets

Mexico City, early 1977

I had spent several pleasant hours in Chapultepec Park and at the castle and was walking back to my room near the Zócalo, through pleasant tree-lined side streets, when I spotted it in a second-hand shop window.  It was not fancy, nor did it seem to be expensive, and I decided that it would make the perfect gift for Dale, who had been such a good and generous friend to me in Los Angeles.

After a protracted haggling session, more for my pride than profit, I exited the shop with a machete, wrapped in plain brown paper and tied up with string.  The machete had an ornate handle and was complete with a leather scabbard.  It had probably once belonged to a rich ranchero; it did not look as if it had ever been used for everyday work.  I was very pleased with my purchase.

A example of a typical machete

Early next day I checked out of my hotel and set out on foot to the bus station, that served the cities in the north of Mexico.  It was a long walk and I was thankful that it was still cool, although the traffic fumes were already barely tolerable. The air was thick and every horizontal surface seemed coated with a layer of dust.

I had been told that on a clear day, one could see Iztaccíhual and Popocatépetl.  At nearly 5500m they are much higher than Mont Blanc and much closer to the centre of Mexico City than Mont Blanc is to Geneva.  If I had not seen the photographs of the two huge snow-capped peaks, I would not have believed that they existed.

Popocatépetl on a rare clear day

Eventually I arrived at the terminal of Autobuses del Norte. It was situated on one side of a large plaza and I bought a one-way ticket to Tijuana, via Guadalajara.

I found my bus already at its stand, with the engine running, the air-conditioning on, and the driver in his seat.  As it was not due to depart for more than half an hour, the driver told me I could leave my bag on the bus if I wanted to go for a coffee.

I remembered that I had some lottery tickets I wanted to check, so I set off for the plaza, where I was sure there would be a lottery seller with a list of recent winners.  As I was leaving the bus I decided to take my machete with me.  Although I was confident that my bag of travel-worn clothes would be of no great loss to me if it were stolen, I did not want to run the risk of losing Dale’s gift.

Once outside the bus terminal I could see a group of vendors on the other side of the plaza.  I took my lottery tickets from my pocket and set off to see if I had won anything.  When I was in the middle of the plaza I suddenly heard a loud whistle to one side and another behind me.  I could see some men in uniform running in my direction with guns drawn and turned around to see who they were chasing, to find others running toward me.  Within seconds I was surrounded by several hostile faces, with their guns pointed towards me.

‘Put your package on the ground and raise your arms’, barked one of the uniforms.  Bemused and feeling sure that there must be some mistake, I obeyed.

‘What is in the package’ said the same voice, which belonged to a smarter uniform than the others.

I explained and one of the soldiers ripped open the package.

‘You are under arrest’ said the authority, not even asking to see my passport or papers.

‘What on earth have I done wrong?’

‘Since the riots at the university, it has been decreed illegal to carry a weapon in public’.

‘But I had no idea’.

‘Too bad for you, you can explain that to the judge. Take him to the barracks’.

And one of the soldiers grabbed my arm and led me off to a car park, while another hurried behind with the machete and wrappings.  Rather bewildered, I found myself shoved in the back seat of a grubby decrepit two-door car, with the two seedy-looking uniforms in front of me.

What to do?  How to get out of this? And my bus was leaving very shortly with my bag on board.  I had heard horror stories of drugs being planted on unsuspecting foreigners, large fines being demanded, and weeks and months of waiting for the wheels of justice to grind.

‘So what happens now?’

‘You will be held until the judge has time to hear your case’

‘And how long will that take?

‘Who knows – one week, one month, maybe longer’

‘And what will be the outcome?’

‘Perhaps a sentence, perhaps just a fine’

I was trying hard to remain calm and rational, but I could feel my resolve starting to slip way.  I had about $150 in a pocket and some traveller cheques in another, but once in the barracks they both would most likely disappear.  And very minute took me closer to the barracks and further away from the bus.  I felt I had to act quickly.

‘If it’s a fine, how much would it be?’

‘No idea’.

‘If I give you enough money to pay the fine for me, would that work?  If the fine is less, you could keep the difference´’.

‘How much do you suggest?’

I took the money from my pocket and counted out $125.

‘That’s all I can afford; I need the rest for food´.

‘The machete is confiscated’

‘That’s fine with me.  It has caused me enough trouble already’.

‘OK, let’s go’.

An immediate U- turn amid the blaring of horns, waving of fists and expletives, a handing over of dollars and a short time later we were back at the edge of the plaza.  They let me out, shook my hand, wished me luck and sped off.  I almost started to like them, thieves though they were.

I decided to walk cautiously around the perimeter of the plaza to the bus station.  I could see several soldiers and I did  not dare to risk another encounter with them.  I reached the bus with five minutes to spare.

‘Did you enjoy your walk?’, said the driver, recognizing me.

‘It was quite memorable’, I replied, going back to the seat where I had left my bag.  After what seemed like an interminable time, the doors closed and we headed out.

I don’t recall much of that journey north.  I was quite shaken by the recent experience and the taste of my new-found freedom was almost intoxicating.

After Guadalajara I dozed off and woke up just before Tijuana, dreaming that the bus had been flagged down at a roadblock, soldiers entering, searching for a foreigner without a machete.

It was not until I walked across the border to the US that I remembered that I still had not checked my lottery tickets.