MEXICO CITY: Blessed by Our Lady

I have never seen anybody purposely smash themselves into a pile of glass. That is the kind of thing that should happen in a disaster, not for a handful of change from passersby. That afternoon, though, as I made my way to the Basilica of our Lady of Guadalupe, I was fascinated by a woman who threw her backpack to the ground. The crunching sound of shattering glass reverberated through the crowded Metro train, and my neighbors became silent. She fell to the floor and spread a towel onto a small section of available space. With this task accomplished, she proceeded to dump the contents of her bag on the towel. Glass shards poured out. There was a relatively intact wineglass that seemed to offend her, so she punched it into smaller pieces. Growing concerned for her safety and for the safety of everybody else on the train, it was impossible to take my eyes off her. I knew it was coming, but there was no way to mentally prepare for what she did. She began thrusting her face and arms and body into the glass. Any bit of exposed flesh that she had was put in contact with the deadly shards. Somehow she didn’t cut open every vein and artery in her body. It was fascinating.

Nobody else seemed quite as taken aback as I did, so she didn’t receive very many tips. She shrugged, this didn’t seem to surprise her. She simply rolled her towel up, shoved the contents back into her bag, and got off at the next stop. My skin still hurts remembering the moment. I tipped her. That was quality entertainment. I truly appreciate when beggars work for tips, it may sound elitist of me, but I never give change to people just sitting…unless they have a cat, then they get all the change I have and sometimes more.

This was my introduction to a new part of Mexico City. Late that morning when I finally roused myself from my endless slumber, I decided to go and see the most visited pilgrimage site in North America. I was off to see the site of the apparition of the Lady of Guadalupe, a vision of the Virgin Mary that occurred shortly after the Spanish conquest of modern day Mexico. It’s important to have a bit of background, so here we go.

An Aztec peasant, who had converted to Catholicism, named Juan Diego was wandering through the hills one day. Suddenly, a beautiful woman appeared to him and said that she was the mother of Jesus and that she desired a church built to her on the spot. Juan was mesmerized and delighted by this, so he hurried to tell the local priest. The priest, of course, did not believe that this ex-heathen could have seen a divine apparition and assumed him mad.

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Juan Diego [source: http://www.ncregister.com%5D

Nothing Juan said could convince the priest that he was speaking in earnest. So he returned to the spot and the Virgin appeared again to ask how things went with the priest. (I’m making a much simplified version of the story, by the way.) When Juan relayed the bad news, the Virgin didn’t seem too upset, so she told Juan that she would give him a sign to show to the priest.

The Virgin instructed Juan to climb to the very top of the hill and pick the roses that were blooming there. Juan was confused by this, but didn’t question her. It was early December, so there was no reason for flowers to bloom. Still he trusted, so he climbed the hill and was amazed to see resplendent roses of all colors blooming in profusion. He picked as many as he could to fill his poncho, bunches and bunches of perfect roses. He hurried to the church to show the priest these flowers, though Juan had no idea why this would convince him of anything.

The priest allowed Juan Diego to show the flowers, so Juan threw open his cloak. To his amazement, there was not a flower to be found. In some miraculous way, the flowers had woven themselves into the cloth of the cloak to form an image of the blessed Virgin. The priest was flabbergasted and so was Juan, and the church was soon constructed.

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The Virgin appears to Juan Diego. [source: mercyhour.com]

The cloak, with the image of the Virgin, became a relic, and is one of the most recognizable pieces of Mexican art in history. The Virgen de Guadalupe, as she is known there, is everywhere.

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The image is recreated on buildings as graffiti, in posters for personal altars, on the sides of candles as above, and even in my hometown of Perry. There’s a new mural featuring her, and it is lovely, and I smile fondly whenever I drive by to the burrito truck. I love burritos.

People from all over the world make pilgrimage to this church so that they can be in the presence of the cloak and bask in the protection and glory of the Virgin. I couldn’t wait. All my long life, religious history has called to me. Don’t know why. The denomination isn’t at all important, I will happily read and research Judaism, Islam, and all the world’s ancient religions. There is just something utterly fascinating about what people believe is divine and what the connections are between the religions of the world. There really isn’t that much different about them at their core, which is perhaps the most intriguing bit. People have spent centuries slaughtering each other over fundamentally identical theologies. I’m not going to go off on a religious history tangent on you, don’t worry.

The train ride out to the basilica was lengthy, and I delighted in the changing crowds, the people smashing themselves into glass, the scenery passing by with beautiful mountains in the distance, and most wondrously, vendors. I love vendors. Mexicans have the greatest business minds in the world. They turn absolutely any location and any opportunity into an occasion to make a sale. On the half hour I spent on the train, I saw a man selling fingernail clippers and fidget spinners — a bizarre combination. Another sold USB cords to charge iPhones. Yet another was selling gum and potato chips. And one street urchin (is that offensive? I don’t think it is because it sounds adorable.) was selling little packages of marzipan. I bought chips and marzipan. It was fabulous.

The train reached its destination, and I hopped out into another wondrous world.

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Look at that beautiful McDonald’w on the right! I was swooning.

Mexico City is so absurdly vibrant and diverse. It was rowdy and raucous as ever, and the streets were lined with people selling religious artifact. I have never seen so many rosaries, so many icons, so many velvet paintings of Jesus in all my life. It was divine. My favorite pieces were life size recreations of the holy family poorly rendered in plastic with flickering electric candles sticking out of their scalps. Never have I ever seen anything like it.

Delicious aromas wafted past as I made my way to the entrance gates of the religious complex. I can’t fully recall what I imagined this place would be like, but it was nothing like my forgotten imagination drew it. It was like Disney World…but for Jesus.

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The new basilica.

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The original church that housed the holy image.

To my right was an old basilica and to the left was a newer soaring church that looked more like a soccer arena than a place of religious devotion. This intrigued me immensely and it was the first destination on the usual pilgrimage. Dozens of doors permit entrance to the building and I must admit that what I saw on the inside flabbergasted me.

Now, I have been in many of the great and beautiful churches of Europe, I have been inside Egyptian pyramids and deep inside the crypts of the ancient dead. I have been on luxurious ships and the finest hotels. I have wined and dined in sumptuous surroundings on many continents, but nothing in my life could have really prepared me for this place.

Once past the doors, all flung open to the outside, I was presented with a huge circular room filled with pews that faced the center of the room. The seats were filled with the faithful and the devout. Surrounding these worshippers were hundreds of people standing around listening to the mass. There was nothing but a path for visitors to weave through the throng to the back of the church.

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I stood for a long time amongst the people, a curious mixture of deeply religious pilgrims on their knees, holding beautiful rosaries, and curious onlookers who seemed out of place and confused. I was a mix of both. Like I mentioned, religion has been a topic of constant intrigue for me, so I was familiar with the process of the service happening in front of me, but because I have never been gripped by religious fervor, I can’t understand the depth of feeling that the people felt as they rested there, eyes closed, listening to the sermon.

On the altar, a bishop stood, orating in beautiful Spanish. The melodic words washed over me, and I understood the feeling more than the words. As I have mentioned before, Spanish is quite close to French and Italian, and since I grew up surrounded nearly constantly by Spanish, I understand the intent of the language very well. I could transliterate, I suppose, but hardly translate it word for word. It didn’t matter, though, for my attentions were soon captured by the cloak framed above the center of the altar.

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There she was, resplendent, holy, glorious, the Virgin. She looked exactly as I expected, and yet somehow more real. I honestly don’t believe that this is a divine creation, and scientific study confirms that it was painted at the time the legend dawned using commonly accessible pigments. It matters not whether or not the image was really crafted by the hands of the Virgin, though, it only matters that it inspires piety in others. I have no issue with people who are religious, truly I don’t, I only take umbrage with them when they start forcing their views into law or down the throats of others. I have absolutely no time for that.

Still, standing there in the back of the huge basilica, there was something special about being so near to the image. As an amateur historian, I appreciated the icon for the impact it has made on culture and civilization.

A procession of people were disappearing behind the altar, and my curiosity aroused, I followed suit. To my utter delight, behind the altar was a trio of slowly moving conveyor belts. People stand on the belt and gaze up at the sacred image or take selfies with it. I appreciated this. I adore selfies. (I won’t get deep into why because it’s a lengthy rant, but again as an historian and student of culture, there’s nothing so remarkable as the level of documentation humans have created in modern times. In ancient history we’re lucky if we know somebody’s name, but now we have images and records of so many people. Nearly all of humanity! It’s magical. We have their DNA, a detailed summary of their lives, and government information so that they will never fade away forever into the unconscious of humanity. It’s marvelous.)

And I rather delighted in standing there amongst those people. Very often, especially when you visit locations where you look nothing like the populace, you get odd looks and stares and are perhaps followed. You should have seen the curious ensemble that followed me around the West Bank of Luxor a couple years ago when I was walking to my friend Hassan’s home. Nobody was rude, mind you, just in a world of robes and turbaned men, a tall man in Western garb who was not part of a dig was a bit of an oddity. It was even more so on the ferry across the Nile. I was the only foreigner there, and when I first ventured over that famous river, I had nothing but queer looks directed at me, but once people were accustomed to my presence, as they always are through my persistence, I was a part of their world.

In sites of pilgrimage or great religious devotion, though, nobody gives you a second look. I find this true in almost all instances. The people are not there to stare at you or wonder why you’re there. To the believer, a person is at a holy site because they were called there. Every visitor is a pilgrim, after all, so it doesn’t matter where you come from or where you’re going or even sometimes what you look like. If you’re respectful and kind, you will blend easily into the crowd.

Staring up at the famous image, slowly sliding to the right on the moving sidewalk, packed tight together beside complete strangers was wonderful. The thrill of the location was intoxicating and you could sense the deep belief and faith of the people surrounding me. I rode that sidewalk several times and never tired of the experience. Highly recommended.

Around back of the main altar of the church is a crowded shop full of religious articles. These were of a much higher quality than the ones in the shops along the Main Street, and came at a much higher price. But nothing was truly exorbitant. I had a fabulous time looking at the different rosaries that were available, and I decided that I needed to have one for myself. I wanted something elegant and gilded, something that would last long after my death and leave my descendants wondering where on Earth it came from. That was one of the better parts of cleaning out my grandmother’s home following her death. In obscure corners and in boxes full of junk were occasionally spectacularly beautiful mementos. I have several of them now in prime places in my home, and whenever I look at her brass cigarette holder that she bought in Berlin or a snuffbox from the French Riviera or a caricature done by a street artist in Paris, it takes me to the moment when she was there. I want to inspire that same wonder in my descendants.

But none of the rosaries spoke to me. None were right. And so I carried on. I was sure that I could and almost certainly would find something in one of the markets outside of the church grounds.

So I moved on and entered the original basilica that housed the image. It was a site of major devotion and was too small to admit the throngs of worshippers. And, Mexico City is built on the bed of a lake, so things tend to sink and become unstable. Because of these two things, the new arena-like basilica was constructed beside the original.

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It was like entering a fun house. Although the floors look level, they slope up at an extremely unexpected angle. It was oddly fun to climb up towards the altar, listening to the priest offer perpetual devotion and looking at the stunning religious art. Few things, aside from Egypt and foreign languages and Harry Styles and travel and being thin and fashion delight me more. Don’t know why, because as you all remember I’m hardly religious, but I love seeing the way biblical stories are rendered on canvas. Jesus and Mary were everywhere, staring down with love, other times sternly, always sending a message to the viewer.

There were more churches and chapels than I anticipated, and of course I attempted to visit them all. I couldn’t manage it, so I will have to try on my next visit to this wonderful nation.

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Juan Diego presenting his collection of roses.

Stepping outside of yet another house of worship, I followed a group of nuns who were ascending the most spectacularly beautiful staircase I have ever seen. Flowers hung from every surface, and the gardens to the sides of the stairs were immaculately manicured. Roses of all colors blossomed in profusion. As I poorly translated the plaques along the way, I realized that I was following the legendary path of Juan Diego. This is the hill that he climbed to find the flowers that the Virgin had caused to blossom. This is the site of the origin of the story, and whether it is myth, legend, or factual, it’s still a remarkable spot to be.

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The hill went up and up and up and I have a hard time calling it a hill. It was more of a tiny mountain. But no matter how many steps I climbed, the number of flowers never let up. Finally, after a few breaks, I ascended to the very summit, and with my thighs burning, I took in the marvelous vista that spread out around me.

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I thanked whatever god might be out there that I had the opportunity to see this sight and that my thighs were going to look great after that climb. The golden dome of the old basilica glinted in bright sunshine, the green roof of the new basilica reinforced my comparison to Disney’s Space Mountain, and all over, as far as the eye could see, stretched buildings and homes, boulevards and streets. It was utterly beautiful and my breath was swept away. What a charming nation, what a rich culture, and how lucky I was to be here in this moment to experience it.

Time, as it always does, was flying by much too quickly, and soon it was time for me to descend the stairs and finish my tour of the religious complex. I came upon a shop that sold the same things as the basilica shop, but with twice the merchandise. And there was hardly a crowd, so I could peruse the wares for sale without being pressured to move quickly on by the other eager buyers. After a lengthy study of the rosaries on offer, one finally captured my eye. It was plated yellow gold with lovely beads. The woman behind the counter showed it to me from behind the glass case, and it really was perfect, so I treated myself.

The gates of the facility were closing, so I returned to the busy streets outside. My nose led me down the main road and stopped me in front of a fast food restaurant called Pastes Kiko’s. Using my handy dictionary, I found that the treats for sale were essentially Cornish pasties. I was ecstatic and gladly waited in line to order a spicy cheese and mushroom variety in addition to a black bean one. What happened next captivated me completely. The order was given to a woman standing beside a huge oven and she automatically grabbed little paper pouches, each labeled with the desired variety. She would then use her tongs to open the bags and quickly thrust the desired variety inside. She did it rapidly, never missing a beat, and I thought of people speedily sorting recycling or telephone switchboard operators. It was amazing, the rapidity of her actions and the confidence that radiated from her. If I ever move to Mexico, it might be quite nice to work here. It would certainly teach me better Spanish!

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In just a few moments, my tray was ready, and I eagerly found a seat that looked over the crowd and out into the busy street. I examined the contents and then took a bite and then I about passed out. The cheese and mushroom was divine, reader. It was one of the best things I have had in such a long time. Inside of a wonderfully flaky crust was a creamy blend of cheese and mushroom and onion and a bit of chili. The combination was remarkable and I devoured it gladly, flakes crumbling and piling up on the table around me. The black bean one was just as delightful, but not on par with the first. I was deliriously happy.

I wandered through the vendors that filled up either side of the road. They were all interconnected like the shops at Disney World. And much like that place, you can easily get lost in the twisting and turning alleys and inviting shop fronts. There was nothing that I wanted, though.

I finally found the way out, and back on the street, I decided I had better go into a popular looking shop that sold every agua fresca variety I had ever conceived of. I delightedly ordered a gigantic cup full of jamaica. (This turned out to be a terrible decision, but I don’t regret it, and I’m not entirely sure I will share why…just know that it wasn’t with me for long and it came back where it came from and I soon befriended my local pharmacist.) It was so delicious. Beyond fabulous. I took it out to a sitting area between the two busy roads and sipped my drink with complete satisfaction. I was so happy to be there. A stray dog came and sat down beside me, and reader, I could not have been happier.

With the delicious liquid swimming (temporarily) around in my stomach, I took the train back home.

I made breakfast for dinner, watched Murder, She Wrote, played with the cats in the courtyard, and all in all, I was living the definition of my best life. How could I not have the time of my life when the neighbor’s cat, Patrón (my name for him) was hanging out with me?

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I must admit, though, that I felt some kind of bizarre confusion. All my life, and it’s been a lengthy one, I have been informed that people come to America for a better life, for a more secure existence, to get more money. I understand the differences in currency, but it doesn’t seem a worthy trade off. I know that there must be something I’m missing. Why would anybody ever want to leave? Of course there is poverty and drug violence and corruption — but isn’t that everywhere? I couldn’t then, and I still can’t, fathom what would propel families from this glorious world to the cold doldrums of Perry, Iowa. Money can buy happiness, of course it can, but I don’t believe that it can ever purchase contentment. I would never give up this life if it were mine.

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