Last night I waited with my friend in a crowd of hundreds for the fireworks to begin. It was the day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and now after 3 days of cansados (street parades), blessings, food and gatherings, we were finally going to see the piece de resistance: a Castillo (firework castle) set alight. But only after the guys who were wearing “toritos” (little bulls) had finished scaring the crowd.
They were set up in the roped off area at the base of the Castillo and took turns wearing a structure shaped like a bull on their heads, constructed out of bamboo and paper, and with lit fireworks strapped to it. As they danced and spun these fireworks roared into the edges of the crowd and filled the air with smoke, lending an otherworldly atmosphere to proceedings. The perceived danger was of course that a rocket could shoot off at any moment into the crowd. My friend and I had already decided to hunker down the side of the (metal) lottery stall on the edge of the park in case anything went wrong…
The Virgin of Guadalupe is the patron saint and symbol of Mexico, and her image can be seen everywhere in Mexican daily life; as statues overlooking cash registers in cafes, as laminated cards gently swinging from the rear vision mirrors in colectivos, in frames keeping watch over tiendas and as decals on car windows among other places.
This week I was on a bus to Ocotlan and saw a giant sand painting, or tapete (ta-pet-teh) of her bordered by white painted rocks in mown grass on the side of a hill. Pope Leo XII crowned her Queen of the Mexican people in 1895, and in 1999, the Church officially proclaimed her the Patroness of the Americas, the Empress of Latin America, and the Protectress of Unborn Children. And December 12 is her day.
Appearance of Guadalupe
On December 12th, 1531, the Virgin of Guadalupe is said to have appeared to Juan Diego on Tepeyac Hill, bridging two worlds, that of the Aztec who saw her and that of the Spanish conquerors who now ruled his land.
According to tradition, she appeared to a guy called Juan Diego, first on December 9, 1531. She requested that a shrine to her be built on the spot where she appeared, Tepeyac Hill (now in a suburb of Mexico City). Mexico’s first Bishop, Juan de Zumárraga, didn’t believe Juan Diego when he was told of her appearance, and that was pretty much the end of things. The Virgin then appeared to Juan Diego again, asking him to go see the Bishop on Sunday. Juan Diego obeyed, but Zumárraga demanded a sign before he would approve construction of a church. The Virgin appeared for last time on December 12th, 1531, and spoke soothingly in Náhuatl. She told Juan Diego that she was his mother and he need fear nothing. She asked him to go gather some roses, which had never grown there, much less in the middle of winter. He wrapped the roses in his cape or tilma, and set off to see the Bishop. When Juan Diego opened his tilma in front of Bishop Zumárraga, the roses fell out and the image of the Virgin was imprinted upon the tilma. Needless to say, she got her church, and many more devoted to her since
Another (better) explanation can be found here
In the 2 days before December 12, parents take their children, boys dressed as Juan Diego, the girls in folkloric costumes, to the Church of the Guadalupe to pay their respects and to be blessed. Just outside the church are booths for parents to take photos of their children in front of large images of Guadalupe, or perhaps on toy donkeys – like our annual Santa photos. Thousands of people gather at churches which bear Guadalupe’s name on December 11th and 12th, to give tribute to her, to petition for a miracle, or to give thanks for one already received.
Once again, an entire covered mini-city has sprung up (literally overnight) in LLano Park, the largest park in the Oaxaca central city area. It is filled with sideshow rides and games of skill, a food area and the ubiquitous stalls selling shoes, cardigans, DVDs and Oaxacan sweets.
On Tuesday and Wednesday nights a procession of dancers, a walking band, monos (giant papier mache people) and flatbed trucks carrying children who were dressed as the Virgin, Juan Diego and assorted villagers was made through the streets of downtown Oaxaca, starting and ending at the Church of the Guadalupe.
At about 10:30pm last night the fiesta culminated in a giant Castillo (firework castle) being set alight. A Castillo is again made from bamboo and the frame last night stood about 3 stories tall. It holds about 5 different scenes (made from carefully placed coloured fireworks and flares) which are then visible to the crowd when those particular sections are lit.
Watching it was actually pretty incredible – the awe of the crowd, that underlying terror that the builders had got it wrong and it was all going to go up in a ginormous explosion once it got started, and then watching the amazing pictures come to life – there were even parts that revolved – propelled by flares.
The crowd stood quiet and we all just watched and marveled as the castillo finished it’s show – about 30 minutes in all, capped off by a revolving halo at the very top of the structure, which went around and around and then the rockets turned downwards and propelled the halo up and off the structure like a spinning top.
It was a pretty amazing end to what has been a very popular fiesta; the Virgin of Guadalupe, patron saint of Mexico.