Saturday, May 3rd was an important day of celebration in Teotitlán. Known as La Fiesta de las Cruces, or Cruz de Mayo, the day has religious origins from the 16th Century, and is primarily observed by miners, masons and construction workers.
Traditionally in Mexico, a cross decorated with flowers and paper is placed on the highest point of a building under construction, which will then protect those who labour below it. This same premise is followed in Teotitlán, and a large cross is placed on what the locals refer to as Brother Mountain; Picacho, the peak that overlooks the village, so all living below it are kept safe. It is customary on May 3rd for the entire community to climb Picacho in celebration, and to ask for continued protection.
Starting the night before, a new cross is carried up Picacho, and placed next to the one above the altar at the summit. A special Mass is held up there around midnight, and some people will sleep up there all night. To symbolize the protection on the mountain, a bright light is shone from the summit all night, visible to all in the community below.
Very early in the morning on the 3rd, entire families will make the climb to the summit, bringing smaller crosses to be blessed, food, drinks and offerings such as flowers and decorations for the cross. You could see people making their way up the hill, torches shining in the dark as they picked their way over rocks and under trees to the top.
As I slowly climbed the hill the next morning, I marveled at how hard their climb would have been before dawn, wrangling their loads, children and the uneven rocky path on a very steep incline. It was a strenuous effort to get to the top, following dusty paths marked with arrows of ground phosphate. I sat at intervals, covered in sweat and breathless – staring at the view below me, accompanied by the incessant drone of cicadas the size of marker pens and the random explosion of cojetes echoing across the valley.
On my way up the mountain, I met people who had been up to the summit already and were returning back to their homes and businesses for the day. Each time I was greeted with a cheery “Buenos dias” and promises “casi, casi” (almost, almost).
I met fathers and sons walking hand in hand, groups of teenagers who had made the climb together pre-dawn, mothers carrying babies on their backs, abuelas walking in traditional Zapotec dress with rubber sandals and a group of 3 local women dressed in jeans and sweatshirts running down the track. I asked them why they were running, and they said it was excellent exercise. Which, unless you fell off the hill, I guess it was. Not something I would want to climb every day though, let alone run.
It took a little over an hour to get to the top with legs trembling, and I was amazed to find there was a full on party taking place at the summit. There were families everywhere I looked, eating and chatting together. Donkeys were tethered to trees and the newest arrivals filed their way around the rocks to touch the altar or to drop an offering off at the crosses.
The donkeys had bought up a sound system, complete with industrial size speakers, and there were also drums of tamales being offered around to all that climbed, along with beer, horchata and agua de jamaica. Families were settling in for the day, people chatting together as they offered each other food and drink. One family was busy in the shade of a tree with a needle and thread and wonderfully scented flor de mayo flowers – making a garland to adorn the cross.
After a while soaking in the views and the activity around me at the summit, I decided to head down before it got too hot (and before my legs decided not to work). As I walked down again, knees screaming from bracing against the incline, I was able to now tell the people on their way up, “casi, casi”