Before Oaxacans begin the Christmas festivities, their attention is focused on the veneration of three of their most beloved religious icons, the Virgin of Juquila, the Virgin of Guadalupe and the Virgin of Solitude.
It is the latter occasion that is celebrated in Puerto Escondido, where three days of events culminate in a seagoing procession in which a statue of the virgin is placed in a local fishboat and carried to La Punta and back.
La Virgen de la Soledad is Puerto Escondido’s official patron saint, as well as that of the city of Oaxaca. The miracle of La Soledad originates in the 17th century, when Oaxaca was on the main trade route between Veracruz and the Pacific coast. According to legend, a mule teamster was puzzled to discover an extra animal, with a strange wooden chest, as part of his team.
As he arrived at the monastery of Saint Sebastian the mule fell down and resisted all efforts to get it on its feet. Authorities were sent for and the mysterious box was opened, emitting a strong smell of gardenias. Inside was an image of the virgin and a wooden icon of Christ.
A miracle was proclaimed and a temple dedicated to the Virgin of the Soledad was erected at the site of the mule’s demise. (You can visit the Basilica of the Soledad and its adjoining museum in the city of Oaxaca.)
Puerto Escondido´s celebration of its patron saint reflects its history as a fishing port. On the actual feast day, Dec. 18, the statue of La Soledad is carried from the church to the beach, hoisted aboard a boat and a flotilla comprising the entire fishing fleet, crammed with the faithful, cruises out to sea, accompanied by lively music and rockets.
But events begin two days before, on Dec. 16, with a calenda, or parade, and a cultural program with fireworks on the 17th at the Agencia Municipal. An important feature of the program is the castillo, or castle, and the toritos, or little bulls. Both are pyrotechnic displays that create a dazzling light show and send showers of sparks landing among the crowds of onlookers.
The castillo is a wooden structure at least 15 meters tall with layers of pinwheels that are ignited by a fuse, layer by layer. The climax comes when the crown at the very top of the castle is ignited and lifts off into the night sky.
The show is a spectacular one but potentially dangerous: beware of flying sparks.
First on the calendar of the celebrations of the three virgins is that of the Virgin of Juquila on Dec. 8.
Santa Catarina Juquila is Oaxaca’s Lourdes, a place that attracts believers from all over Mexico, who make their pilgrimage to repay a blessing, to seek a cure for illness or to renew their faith on foot, bicycle, bus, truck, car and motorcycle.
The devotees join the never-ending services in the town church and visit the nearby sanctuary of El Pedimento. A crazy-quilt collage of cultural artifacts are deposited on the shrine here every day: bank notes, crutches, tiny representations of hearts, limbs, houses, cars, and other symbols representing hopes or thanks for health and prosperity.
The veneration of Our Lady of Juquila dates back to the early 17th century. The small statue of the virgin was one of the first images carried through the area by Dominican missionaries.
Many of the pilgrims travel on to Puerto Escondido after paying tribute to the virgin and enjoy a holiday on the beach. They can be identified by the convoys of vehicles bearing wreaths on the front which sometimes accompany pilgrims who have made the journey on foot.
Next on the calendar is the celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe on Dec. 12.
In December of 1531, according to legend, the virgin appeared on several occasions to a humble Indian, Juan Diego, eventually leaving an impression of her image on his tilma, or cloak.
These visitations occurred on the hill of Tepeyac, site of one of the most important pre-Hispanic religious centers in central Mexico. The temple on the hill at Tepeyac (today the actual site of the Basilica of Guadalupe where the image is housed) was dedicated to the worship of Tonantzin, “Our Mother.” The religious authorities tried in vain to eradicate this tenacious cult, and perhaps decided instead to Christianize it in the form of Guadalupe.
The image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s national patron saint, is one of the great religious enigmas. This rough handmade garment has lasted nearly 500 years. The normal lifespan for a rough cloak of agave fiber would be 10 to 20 years.
The symbolism of this image in that nonliterate colonial society was powerful; it said that this woman was greater than the moon she stood upon and her blue-green cloak meant that she was an ambassador of the sun god. The stars on her cloak formed the constellations as they appeared in the sky on December 12, 1531. At her waist was a black sash, as was worn by pregnant women at that time.
Most important of all, unlike the paintings and statues in the invaders’ churches, this messenger from God had a coppery brown skin tone, not unlike that of the indigenous people. Guadalupe was embraced as the protector of the Indian and Mestizo masses under the harsh conditions of colonial rule.
Her recognition by Pope John Paul II as “Mother of the Americas” and the canonization of Juan Diego in 2002 spread the veneration of La Guadalupana far beyond her ethnic and religious roots: artists around the world depict aspects of her in every medium. She represented justice in immigrant protests in the U.S. and many non-Christian women have embraced her as a symbol of feminist empowerment.
El Sol de Puerto