Thursday, February 23, 2017

Original Villages | Xochimilco: Xaltocán's Virgin of Sorrows, Flying Men and Aztec Dancers

In our initial post on the Delegación of Xochimilco, we related its indigenous origins. Around 900 CE, the Xochimilca people—considered one of earliest of the seven Nahuatl-speaking tribes to migrate into the Valley of Anahuac, now the Valley of Mexico—settled on the south shore of the lake that would come to bear their name.

Xochimilco was originally settled on an island near the southwest shore
of Lake Xochimilco

The altepetl, city state, of Xochimilco was founded in 919 CE. Over time, the city came to dominate other areas on the south side of the lake and across the mountains to the south, toward Cuernavaca in what is now the State of Morelos. In 1352, the tlatoani, "speaker", Caxtoltzin moved the city from the mainland to the island of Tlilan. Possibly, this was done to make it more defensible—like the island city of the Mexicas, Tenochtitlán, which was coming to be a rival. 
At the core of present-day Xochimilco are some sixteen barrios that formed the original indigenous altepetl on the island of Tlilan. To the south of them are another fourteen or so pueblos that were originally settlements along the lakeshore. The contemporary delegación or borough also includes newer colonias.
In this Amble, it is to one of the barrios in the center of the original city that we return.

Xaltocán
Xaltocán (shahl-tow-KAN) is a relatively large barrio that begins a few blocks southeast of the center of ancient and contemporary Xochimilco. From a most helpful local website that lists the numerous fiestas of the barrios and pueblos of the delegación, we have learned that two Sundays before Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the Easter Season on the Catholic Church calendar, there is a fiesta in Xaltocán. So on that recent Sunday morning, we head there.

Getting there


As it happens, our taxi driver turns out to be young and new at the job, so he doesn't know how to get to the center of Xochimilco, a very rare occurrence. So we have him take us down the Calzada de Tlalpan, the route of the former Mexica cuepotli, causeway, to San Lorenzo Huipulco, another orginal pueblo that we visited last August on its saint's day. From there the way turns east. We leave the cab and take the Tren Ligero (lee-HAIR-o), Light Rail Train, to our destination, at the end of the line.

We don't know the location of Xaltocán's church, so from the Xochimilco station we walk north and east toward Centro, looking for Avenida 16th de Septiembre (commemorating the anniversary of Mexican Independence), the barrio's western boundary. As always, some helpful people standing at a street corner tell us the avenue is two blocks straight east.

Arriving there, we turn south looking for streets that enter the barrio and for papel picada, cut paper (or plastic) decorations hung above the street announcing a fiesta. We also keep our ears out for cohetes, rocket-style firecrackers that are another indispensible announcement of such festivities. We neither see nor hear such signs, so we query people walking along. They tell us the church is just a couple of blocks straight south. The church isn't in the usual location at the center of the barrio, but at its edge.

Very soon, as we reach a major intersection, we see a large number of  juegos mecánicos, fair rides, and puestos, street stalls, selling all kinds of traditional food and filling what is evidently a sizeable plaza. So we know we have reached our destination, la fiesta de Xaltocán. We still don't know, however, what saint is being honored, as it isn't included in the pueblo's name and the website gave none. We do know that it somehow relates to the approach of Lent, the forty days of fasting and penance preceding Easter.

La Iglesia de la Virgen de los Dolores de Xaltocán, The Church of the Virgin of Sorrows


To the rear of the plaza, at its eastern end, above the so typically Mexican batiburillo, hodgepodge, we can see the steeple of a church.


We wend our way through the labyrinth of puestos and find the entrance to the church atrio, atrium.

Portada de la fiesta
"May you be blessed, Little Mother of the Sorrows"

The entrance is marked by a portada, a colorful, temporary arch celebrating the fiesta. This one is not made of flowers, either fresh (our favorites) or plastic, but it is colorfully painted in the same folk art style as the flowered ones. It is clearly less expensive than one of real flowers, but, to our taste, much prettier than ones of plastic flowers. It also tells us who is being honored, the Virgin Mary in her status as the suffering mother of the Christ during his Passion leading to the Crucifixion. 

Church facade
In the niche above the door, the Virgen de los dolores

A large awning covering the atrio, to keep out the hot sun,
makes taking a photo of the church a challenge.

The sancturary is packed with feligreses, parishioners, attending a Mass.

Two wonderfully colorful, hand-painted portadas rise above the altar
and surround La Virgen

The Virgin of Sorrows


La Virgen de los dolores,
The Virgin of Sorrows,
dressed in a gorgeous, Spanish-indigenous style
embroidered gown.

We have encountered the Virgin of Sorrows before, not here in Mexico City, but in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, the small town in southwestern Mexico where we lived for the first three years we were in the country. It is a quintessentially traditional and charming Spanish Colonial pueblo, in fact a federally designated Pueblo Mágico, with ancient indigenous foundations in the still vital Purépecha culture.

Semanta Santa, Holy Week, is a very big deal there. As non-Catholics and U.S.ers, we were initially puzzled when, the week before Palm Sunday, we saw a large, elaborate altar being set up in the portal, covered sidewalk, in front of the ayuntamiento, municipal hall(!). It centered on a statue of the Virgin, surrounded by hanging glass globes filled with liquid, an image of a heart pierced by several arrows and various other symbols about which we were clueless.

Our ever amable, helpful, kind, patient Spanish teachers explained that the Friday before Palm Sunday is dedicated to la Virgen de los dolores, the Virgen of Sorrows, or Lady of Sorrows, Christ's mother, Mary, commemorating the seven times her heart was "pierced" with painful moments in the life of her child. The first three occurred in His infancy, when he is recognized in the Temple in Jerusalem as the Christ who will suffer and the family had to flee to Egypt to avoid his murder. The last four are events of Holy Week, centered on His passion, crucifixion and burial. The liquid-filled globes represent her tears.

So meeting her here in Xaltocán, we recognize her and understand why her fiesta is taking place two weeks before Lent. Fiestas honoring saints are usually not held during Lent, so this one is held on the threshold of the Season. Speaking to some people in the atrio, we learn that the fiesta lasts for two weeks, until four days past Ash Wednesday. 

Huge anuncio listing fiesta events
hangs from the side of the bell tower.

In addition to Masses, they include:
band parade to honor families supporting the fiesta,
burning of salvia, sage (which we seem to have just missed),
a meal honoring the voladores de Papantla
(more of that in a moment!),
the burning of "wheels" (pyrotechnics),
lucha libre, free-style wrestling, a most popular "sport",
various popular dance parties,
and
la quema del castillo, the climatic burning of a "castle" of fireworks.
A "grand popular dance" ends everything on March 5.

"Come and enjoy yourself with your family"

Turning our focus from the Mass underway in the sanctuary and la Virgen de los dolores, and looking across the atrio, we see groups of Aztec dancers putting on their costumes and face paint in preparation for dancing. Speaking to one, he tells us they will begin, with the loud accompaniment of drums, when the Mass is over. So we know we will soon have something to watch and photograph.

Just then, in a narrow space above the front wall of the atrio and below the awning that covers it, we catch a glimpse of someone wearing bright red pants swinging upside-down through the air on a rope. 

Los voladores de Papantla, the Flyers of Papantla


Working our way around a stage set up near the front entrance and making our way through the crowd, we exit into the plaza. There we are most happily surprised and excited to see a thick, tall concrete and steel pole, rising perhaps fifty feet or more, and swinging around it, hanging upside down from ropes, four men in traditional indigenous dress. On the top of the pole, on a kind of stool, sits (!!) a fifth man, playing a wooden flute.

We have seen these voladores, "flyers" before. On weekends, they come to the National Museum of Anthropology in Chapultepec Woods, near El Centro of Mexico City, where they "fly" for an audience of city residents and tourists, both Mexican and international.

We also encountered them a few years ago, when we stayed in Papantla, a small city in northern Veracruz, while visiting the nearby ancient site of El Tajín, "The Place of Hurricanes". It was a city built by the Totonaca people, who speak a unique language, unrelated to any other. Established about 300 CE, El Tajín continued to grow and flourish for nearly a thousand years, until the early 13th century. Thus, its life spanned Mesoamerican history from the time of Teotihuacan, north of Mexico City, almost to the founding of Tenochtitlan in 1325. 

The Xochimilca, who established themselves in the Valley of Anahuac in the tenth century, surely must have had relationships of trade with the Totonaca of El Tajín. The Totonaca still live in the area around their ancient capital and actively maintain their culture. Los Voladores are the most striking manifestation of this millenary people. Here they are, apparently returning every year for this fiesta, in Xaltocán. We have never seen them at any other pueblo fiesta in the City. 

Now the "flyers" are almost to the ground, so we have missed "the show". At this moment, another man in the same dress comes, holding out his traditionally decorated cap, asking for donations. We give him ten pesos (US$0.50) and ask anxiously if they will perform again. He replies, "En quince minutos", in fifteen minutes. We can hardly wait. We look around for the best vantage point, where the sun will be behind us, and perch on the narrow ledge of a building, camera ready. 

Los Voladores, including the flute player (in foreground)
begin by carrying out a ritual dance around the pole.

The flutist also taps a small drum, hooked to his baby finger,
setting the rhythm.

One by one, five men climb the pole.
Others stay on the ground to manage the ropes they will use.

Once on top, they pull up the ropes from which they will hang
Note the Christian cross on the cap at the top.

With the flute-playing musician atop the pole,
the four drop backwards, headfirst,
and begin their spinning descent.

They represent the four winds,
the gods of the four cardinal directions,
the orienting points of the indigenous cosmology.



                            

                             

                             

Awed and appreciative, we give another fifty pesos (US$2.50) and return to the atrio where the drums are already pounding.

Aztec Dancers


Drummers

Aztec dancers are a fairly common sight in Mexico City. They dance every weekend in the Zócalo, the City's main plaza, as well as in other plazas around town. They also participate in barrio and pueblo fiestas. We encountered them most recently in San Sebastián Axotla, in Delegacíon Álvaro Obregón. They do not, at least primarily, aim at entertaining tourists. They actually have a long and continuous history going back to the early days after the Spanish Conquest.

After the Conquest, the indigenous people adopted their ritual dances to Spanish Catholic symbolism and were included in church fiestas. Formal dance groups were formed, with limited membership handed down along family lines. They were called concheros, after the lute-like stringed instruments they played, made from armadillo shells. They traditionally wore simple white tunics, like those of Mexican campesinos, peasant farmers.

Conchero

It was not until the 19th century that people moving into Mexico City from the countryside brought conchero dancing to the capital. After the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917)—with its repression of public religious displays and its glorification of the indigenous past in an attempt to forge a shared national identity—some of the dance groups became more focused on their indigenous heritage and set aside the Catholic religious components of their dances.


These groups adopted the name Azteca to make their indigenous roots explicit. As the name Aztec is one that was applied to indigenous Mexicans by foreign anthropologists, other groups proudly declare that they are Mexica (Meh-SHE-kah), the original name of the residents of Tenochtitlan. Both Azteca and Mexica dancers wear costumes modeled on those portrayed in original Aztec codices compiled by the Spanish.

A conch shell horn is blown to announce the ceremonial dance.
Ancient, carved conch shells are on display in museums of Mexico's indigenous past.

The woman in black is tending burning copal, incense from the native copal tree.

Offerings of dried maize, corn.
with blossoms of poinsettia, a native Mexican flower.


While the first comparsa, group of concheros, dance, two other groups prepare themselves.

The yellow face with the black bar is that of the Mexica god Tezcatlipoca,
god of the night, hence of "dark" forces of sorcery, conflict and war.

One comparsa, dance group, is from
San Juan Ixtayopan (Ish-tah-YO-pahn).
It is an original pueblo of Tláhuac,
now a delegation, borough, east of Xochimilco,
on what was the north shore of Lake Chalco
(see Lake map above and Delegations map below)

This señor, gentleman,
is preparing to dance with the third comparsa.
Muy amable,
very kindly, he happily explains to me
that the four jewels in his crown
represent the four primal elements,
earth, water, air and fire.

"And your blue eyes," I ask.
"My great-grandmother was a cousin of Empress Carlota,
wife of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico
(during the French Intervention, 1861-67).
She was from Belgium."

You never know what combinations of peoples and their histories
you will encounter in Mexico.

And then there is el pueblo, the people,
which is what this is all both for and about.

And of course, there is always plenty to eat!

Xochimilco is the large, pink delegation in the southeast part of Mexico City.
Tláhuac is the reddish-brown delegation to its east.

Xaltocán
(green and yellow star)
is just south of the center
of ancient Xochimilco
(small, dark purple area)


Dark green area of the northeast corner
is that of the chinampas, "floating gardens", 
i.e. man-made islands
 of Lake Xochimilco

Monday, February 20, 2017

Welcome to Mexico City Ambles: Navigating the Blog

“I Speak of the City,
A novelty today, tomorrow a ruin from the past, buried and resurrected every day,
lived together in streets, plazas, taxis, movie houses, theaters, bars, hotels, pigeon coops and catacombs, . . . 

The city that dreams us all, that all of us build and unbuild and rebuild as we dream,  . . . 
I speak of the buildings of stone and marble, of cement, glass and steel, of the people in the lobbies and doorways, 
I speak of our public history, and of our secret history, yours and mine.

(Octavio Paz, “I Speak of the City” in The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz, 1957-1987,
edited and translated by Eliot Weinberger, New York: New Directions Books, 1987, pp. 511-517)

Octavio Paz's prose poem portrays with words how the buildings and streets of any city reflect the urban human condition. But each does so embodying the historical and cultural character, el imaginario, the collective imagination, that makes it unique. Octavio Paz's city was Mexico City. This blog of perambulations through the streets and neighborhoods of his city is our effort to make it ours.

Welcome to Mexico City Ambles! Here we seek to present el imaginario of the city as embodied in its cityscape, architecture, monuments, and public art.

City as Hodge-Podge...


Your first experience of Mexico City, as you walk through its many colonias, or neighborhoods, is of an architectural hodge-podge, an incoherent batiburrillo, a jumble of buildings from various eras. Structures from the colonial period, adapted to contemporary uses, are enmeshed with newer neighbors from the 19th and 20th centuries.

The effect of this temporal-spatial desorden can be rather disorienting. You seem to be in no particular place or time—or in several simultaneously. It's as though you've entered a kind of time-warp that the chilangos, city residents, around you seem either not to have noticed or are not disturbed by. They go about their daily life, with its predictable actions and rhythms of working and relaxing, selling and buying, and, frequently, eating.

...or Vibrant, Vertical Archeological Site

So what to make of this hodgepodge of eras, these fragments of disconnected history, this batiburrillo? We are used to thinking of Mexican history in archeological terms, as a sequence of horizontal layers built one atop another, as the Historic Center sits atop the remains of the Mexica/Aztec Tenochtitlán.

Aha! One sunny afternoon, in the midst of one of our ambles with Alejandro, our chilango scout, guide and mentor, sitting in a quiet plaza, suddenly, the pieces fell into place. Like pieces of colored glass forming a pattern in a kaleidoscope, the layers aren't horizontal, but side by side. Mexico City is a vertical archeological site! The batiburrillo is the jumble of artifacts that would be found in any "dig", but no physical digging is necessary here. 

Recently, we came across a quote by Carlos Fuentes, the famed Mexican novelist and essayist, that confirmed our perception:
"Old cities are living and breathing entities, where the future is built not only atop the past, but also beside it. Mexico City, like Rome, is a layered city, where past civilizations coexist with one another." quoted in the New York Times, Sept. 8, 2005, in an article on Mexico City architectural issues as exemplified in the Paseo de la Reforma.
So all you have to do is walk around and keep your eyes open. (And ask Alejandro lots of questions.)

The only "digging" comes afterwards, digging for the histories of various pieces encountered. And for that, there's the Internet! Fun, relaxed armchair exploration after an intriguing amble. Mexico City Ambles is our presentation of this archeological-historical exploration-in-progress.

Organization of the Blog

Each post is listed in the blog chronologically by publication date. Scrolling down takes you to the most recently published post. The chronological list of posts can be accessed via the Blog Archive (bar at top right). Most posts, however, are related thematically or geographically. As a navigation aid, individual Pages (bar at top left) provide listings of posts grouped by theme or geography.

Information about a specific person or topic can be located by using the Search feature (bar at top right). Porfirio Díaz, for example, entered into the Search box followed by Click brings up a complete list of posts about this Mexican president.

Four Introductory Pages set the stage:


The first two acquaint you with Mexico City's geography—its sixteen delegaciones, boroughs, and the Metro, the "subway", which is the fastest and cheapest pathway (US30 cents) to get to places we explore. The second two Pages examine grandeza, grandeur, as a visual theme that appears again and again in our ambles and then Baroque religious architecture as a pirmary manifestation of that grandeza in the capitial of Nueva España and Mexico.
  • Mexico City's Sixteen DelegacionesMexico City (January 2016: Distrito Federal, Federal District, officially became its own political entity, Mexico City) is shaped rather like a lumpy pear: skinny at the top—it even has a "stem"—then rounds out to a very fat bottom. It is divided into sixteen delegaciones, or boroughs, of greatly varying sizes, shapes, population densities and histories.
  • Mexico City Metro: The Mexico City Metro (officially, the Collective Transportation System) is a network of subway and surface electric train lines enabling chilangos (city residents' name for themselves) and visitors to get around the city quickly, cheaply (US30 cents) and safely. The system has 12 lines, each distinguished by a color on its signage.
  • Grandeza Mexicana: Grandeur of Mexico CityWalking the streets of Mexico City, from its Centro Histórico to various of its colonias, neighborhoods, acquainting ourselves with their architecture and public art, we have noted the recurrence of what becomes a visual theme: an architectural grandness that relays a message of wealth and power. This city is, or has been, a seat of major political and economic power, expressed through physical grandeza, grandeur. Here we explore the particularly Mexican roots of this impulse to grandeur.
  • México Barroco | Baroque Art: Representing Divine Ecstasy, Evoking AweIn Mexico the art of the Baroque epoch (mid 17th to mid 18th centuries) is all around you. It is the art of the height of the Spanish Empire and its realization in Nueva España. A Wikipedia article on the Baroque helps us see its character as centered on grandeur, exhuberance or lavishness, and drama. We also come to realize the goal of its religious forms is to express holy ecstasy and evoke awe. With that perspective we explore the quintessential expression of Baroque religious architecture in Mexico City, the Metropolitan Cathedral.

Thematically or geographically related pages


These are organized in a rough chronology and present lists of related posts:
  • Mexico's History As Embodied In Mexico City: Lists all posts addressing the many stages in Mexico's history as they are manifested in the cityscape, from the Aztec through the Spanish colonial, and the 19th and 20th centuries. In chronological order, with brief summaries.
  • CentroEl Centro, the Center of Mexico City, actually consists of five colonias, or neighborhoods: Centro Histórico, and East, West, North and South Centro. Spanish colonial palaces and smaller residential and commercial buildings from that period are numerous, but mixed in among them are buildings from the 19th and 20th centuries. Within them, and flowing among them, in the streets is the everyday timeless activity of selling and buying.
  • Mexico City's Original Indigenous Villages and Their Spíritual ConquestContemporary Mexico City is an amalgam, not only of the Spanish Colonial Centro Historico and its expansion beginning in the late 19th and across the 20th century, but also of ancient indigenous pueblos, villages, that, beginning some two thousand years ago, were established on the shores and islands of the five lakes at the center of the Valley of Anahuac. So Cortés and the Spanish not only had to transform Tenochtitlan, they also had to transform a geographically extensive civilization and culture via the "evangelización de los indios," what has been called the Spiritual Conquest. This series of posts explores the landmarks, neighborhoods and fiestas that continue to embody this encounter and synthesis of two civilizations. (Our current work-in-progress)
  • Chapúltepec Woods and Paseo de la Reforma: Five kilometers, three miles, southwest of Centro, on what used to be the western shore of Lake Texcoco, sits the ancient, sacred site of Chapúltepec Woods. A royal retreat and source of fresh spring water for the Aztecs, the Spanish turned it into a park. Subsequently, a "castle", actually a palace, was built at the top of its landmark hill. It served as the Mexican Military Academy and, in 1847, was the scene of a major battle in the Mexican American War. In the 1860s, Emperor Maximilian decided to make it his palace. To connect it with the City Center, he had a boulevard built, which, after his overthrow, became Paseo de la Reforma.
  • Reign of Porfiro Díaz and Neighborhoods of the Early 20th Century: As the 19th century approached its end, Mexico City's well-to-do, who had increased in numbers under the economic policies of Porfirio Díaz, sought new residences outside the old Spanish Colonial Centro Histórico. They began to develop colonias, planned neighborhoods, to the west, along Paseo de la Reforma boulevard and to its north and south. Posts on six of these neighborhoods, with introductions, are listed.
  • Mexican Revolution: Overview of Its Actors and Chapters: The Mexican Revolution (1910-1917) was a watershed between traditional and modern Mexico. Actually a series of civil wars fought between a diverse cast of characters, with widely disparate histories and motivations, the war and its aftermath can be divided into five stages or chapters, each consisting of a number of critical episodes. This Page offers an overview and links to Pages with fuller accounts of the personalities and chapters of the war.
  • Mexican Muralists: A revolution in Mexican Art emerged during the Mexican Revolution. It unfolded in a group of buildings in Centro and expanded across the city throughout the 20th century. Page provides links to posts on the sites and their murals—works by Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros and their successors.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Original Villages | Delegación Cuauhtemoc: La Romita/Aztacalco, Maintaining Ancient Roots Thru Art

Island of the Herons

Semi-secluded in what is now the northeast corner of Colonia Roma, in southwest Delegación Cuauhtémoc, is a barrio that, when the Spanish arrived, was a fishing village on an island in Lake Texcoco. Now known as La Romita, Little Rome, it was originally the pueblo of Aztacalco, House of the Herons in Nahuatl.

About halfway between Tenochtitlan and Chapultepec on the western lake shore, Aztacalco was just south of the aqueduct built by the Mexicas in the 15th century, later rebuilt by the Spanish, to bring fresh water from the springs of Chapultepec to their island city. Avenida Chapultepec now follows the path of the former aqueduct.

Aztacalco
(orange star)
was an island in Lake Texcoco
southwest of Tenochtitlan

Following the Conquest led by Hernán Cortés came the process known now as the Spiritual Conquest, the conversion of the indigenous to Catholicism and Spanish European culture. So that meant, of course, the building of a church on the island of Aztacalco (not to be confused with either the Indian quarter in Tenochtitlan, San Sebastián Atazacoalco, or the altepetl, city-state of Azcapotzalco, which the Mexicas of Tenochtitlan defeated in 1428).

Santa Maria de la Natividad de Aztacalco,
St. Mary of the Nativity
1530

Now the Parish Church 
of San Francisco Javier

In front of the church is a traditional Mexican plaza that could be in any traditional provincial pueblo anywhere in Mexico—and culturally far from cosmopolitan Roma.


Aztacalco kept its name and retained relative social and cultural autonomy, even after Lake Texcoco was drained and it was no longer an island. Up to the beginning of the 20th century, the area—like most of that outside what is now Mexico City's Centro Histórico—remained rural. Then, with the development of new upper class subdivisions during and after the Porfiriato, Aztacalco was incorporated into La Roma and became known as La Romita.

As a "popular", i.e., working class, indigenously-based barrio, it kept itself apart from the new La Roma of los de arriba (those from above)—as those from above stayed away from La Romita. The delightfully independent and keenly observant pubescent boy hero of José Emilio Pacheco's “Las batallas en el desierto” (The Battles in the Desert), who lives with his upper middle class family in La Roma, speaks of the danger of entering La Romita. 

To distinguish their ancient, but now otherwise anonymous barrio, the residents have turned to a long-standing tradition in Mexican art.



Ancient Roots of Mural Art

The pueblo, the people of this place, have transformed the featureless walls of their houses with paint. Wall painting, mural art, is an ancient Mexican means of cultural expression and continuity going back to the indigeous civilizations of such cities as Teotihuacán, Cacaxtla, Bonampak and Tenochtitlán

Bird god of Teotihuacan
1st century C.E.

Battle Scene, Cacaxtla
7th century C.E.

Lords of Bonampak
8th century C.E.

Tenochtitlan
15th century C.E.





From Ancient Cities to Modern Streets via a Revolution

The vital link between the indigenous past and this contemporary urban street art is, of course, the Mexican Mural Movement, triggered in the context of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917). In exploring the work of that Movement around Mexico City, including in its Metro stations, we have seen how these revolutionary artists sought to break through the bounds of European classic art in which they had been trained and find native Mexican roots for their work. They sought to create large scale, public art. Murals gave them the medium. To learn how to do frescos, painting on wet plaster, they had to turn to indigenous artists in rural Mexico who still knew the technique.

Diego Rivera deliberately chose to portray traditional customs. 

Viernes de Dolores en el Canal de Santa Anita
Friday of Sorrows (prior to Palm Sunday)
on the Santa Anita (aka La Viga) Canal, Mexico City
on a wall in the Secretariat of Education, Centro Histórico

David Alfaro Siqueiros commited himself to taking murals into the streets, where el pueblo, the common people, could experience them as part of their everyday life. In Mexico City his work is present inside famous historical buildings, but his only outdoor composition is on the University City campus of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), not exactly an ordinary urban street.

The People to the University, The University to the People
From the rear: el Pueblo, the People, offer the tools of learning to students
who, in turn, offer the results of their education to the People.
On the Rectory (Administration) building, UNAM

As we noted in our final post on the Mural Movement, it is in the Street Art of the City, such as that of La Romita, the ancient pueblo of Aztacalco, that this ancient tradition continues to be vitally present.

Delegación Cuauhtémoc
(light tan area)
was the site of ancient Tenochtitlan, 

now Centro Histórico,
in north central Mexico City

Delegación Cuauhtémoc

Aztacalco, now "La Romita", (red and orange star)
is a little less than two miles southwest
of the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan (green and purple star).

Another two miles further west is Chapultepec Woods, (dark green area)
The Mexicas built an aqueduct from the springs of Chapultepec
to Tenochtitlan.
Its pathway is now Avenida Chapultepec,
which passes along the north side of Aztacalco/La Romita.
See also:

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Original Villages | Xochimilco, Candelaria and el Niño Pa: Caring for the Infant God

El Niño pa


This past spring, shortly after Easter, while visiting the Pueblo Xoco (SHO-koh), in Delegación Benito Juárez, just north of our home base in Delegación Coyoacán, we met el Niño pa, who was visiting Xoco from his home in Xochimilco, some miles to the south.

El Niño pa
during his visit to Pueblo Xoco

El Niño pa (we learn later from Wikipedia en español) is an image of the Child Jesus venerated since Colonial days in Xochimilco. It is a wooden sculpture carved in the sixteenth century from the wood of a native Mexican tree. Scientifically verified to be over 400 years old, it is considered one of the oldest images of Catholic worship in the Americas. 

Spanish missionaries evidently created the image to represent the baby Jesus during Posadas, the "Inns"—celebrations held outdoors in the streets of a different barrio each of the nine nights before Christmas, in nightly reenactments of Joseph's and Mary's search for room in an inn (posada) in Bethlehem. El Niño was originally placed in the custody of the indigenous chiefs of Xochimilco and then. for some reason we haven't yet uncovered, given to Spanish hacendados, owners of large estates. El Niño pa does not have a church of his own. Now he is under the rotating custody of the families in the original barrios of Xochimilco

Currently, El Niño pa is cared for by a committee of representatives from these barrios, under the leadership of a mayordomo, the traditional head of pueblo fiestas. Each February 2, on the feast of Candelaria, there is a major fiesta at which a new mayordomo takes responsibility for El Niño for the coming yearCandelaria (Candlemas in English) is the day of el Niño Jesús, the Child Jesus, as it commemorates his presentation by his parents, Mary and Joseph, forty days after his birth, at the Temple in Jerusalem when he is recognized by an old man, Simeon, as the promised Messiah:
"Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel."
Gospel of Luke 2:29-32
Because Jesus the Christ is recognized as "a light to lighten the Gentiles", lit candles are a symbol for the day, hence the Mass of Candles, Candlemas. It is also known as the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Feast of the Presentation of our Lord Jesus.

The mayordomo has major responsibilties. He has to provide many changes of baptismal style dress for the statue, and he has to oversee El Niño's visits to various private homes during the year—a task performed by following a list on which hopeful hosts have inscribed their names. The list is very long, such that it takes many years—even decades—before El Niño arrives in a particular home. Hence, adults usually inscribe the name of one of their children, or even a grandchild! It is a kind of eternal posada, a direct, personal encounter between el pueblo, the common people, and their God, literally on el pueblo's home turf.

And the 'pa'? It's a mystery. Asking la gente, the people, we have been given various explantions: that 'pa' is short for padre, father, hence the child who is the father; that it is short for pan, bread, for the child who becomes "the bread of the world"; and that it is a Nahuatl word for place, hence "child of this place."

We continue to search for an explanation, but, in the meantime, our hunch is that this last interpretation is the correct one, since it would represent the tie of the Catholic Christian el Niño and his people, his pueblo, to their indigenous past (This was confimed. See our Post Script below). The name, like the dual Spanish and indigenous names of many Mexican towns, would be another vestige of the Spiritual Conquest via which the two cultures were merged.

Candelaria in Xochimilco


So with this initial understanding of the history and significance of el Niño pa de Xochimilco, on the morning of February 2, we set out by taxi for Xochimilco. We know there will be a procession bringing the revered statue from the home of his last host to the Church of San Bernadino de Siena, in the center of what is now the delegación, but which, five hundred years ago, was the center of the altepetl, city-state. We don't know the time the procession is to begin, but we guess it will lead to a Mass at noon or one o'clock, so we arrive at about 11:30.

The traffic on Avenida Guadalupe I. Ramírez, the main entry to the center, is dense and slow-moving. The avenue follows what was originally a causeway across Lake Xochimilco to the city. As we approach a major intersection, we tell the driver that we'll get out there and walk the rest of the way, so he can escape the traffic jam and we can move on.

The Procession


Getting out near the corner, we immediately become aware that the street ahead is closed to traffic, which is causing the jam. We can hear a brass banda playing and realize that the procession we were hoping to catch is passing right in front of us!

Above the heads of the crowd, we see a canopy moving slowly forward, protecting a special personaje, personage, from the Mexican sun. It must be el Niño! We ask a bystander, who confirms this. We move along the street as fast as we can to catch up.

El Niño pa,
carried by his majordomo

As the procession moves slowly, we are able to get ahead of the canopy and what it is protecting. It is el Niño pa, this time dressed in a white baptismal gown. Ahead of him are two small andas, platforms, bearing representations of his Holy Mother and his padrino, godfather, Joseph.

Mary
Joseph

In front of the Holy Family, la banda, sets the rhythm.


Farther ahead are several groups of our favorite participants in Mexico City barrio fiestas, chinelos, female and male dancers "disguised" in Moorish-like costumes, who "jump" and twirl as they move steadily along.


The banner reads:
"Comparsa de Chinelos
Ampliación San Marcos"

(Dance Group of the Disguised Ones
Barrio of St. Mark, Extension)

                 
Each barrio is led by its committee member and his family
Here, Jaime Anzurez Morones and family,
representing Barrio San Marcos Ampliación

Slowly, but with much energy, joy and pride, the procession makes its way toward the Church of San Bernadino de Siena.

Portal,  entrance,
to San Bernadino.
A huge tent covers the usually open space
of
 the atrio, atrium, inside

In the atrio, hundreds of los fieles, the faithful,
await the arrival of el Niño.

Norberto Rivera Carrera
Archbishop of Mexico

The Archbishop of Mexico, Norberto Rivera Carrera, and other bishops are present to receive el Niño and celebrate Mass. This is a big deal!

Mass begins, in front of the church.

Candles of Candelaria
                       




Everyone's Niño


Many of los fieles, the faithful, carry their own Niño Jesús, brought from their homes, as El Niño pa is brought from his stay in the homes of the barrios of Xochimilco, to be blessed by the bishop and attending priests. Some are dressed in simple baby clothes, but most wear the elaborate attire of a royal prince at his baptism. Obviously, they are objects de mucho cuidado y cariño, much care and affection. Most of the caretakers are older women, but men and young people, as well, are there to present their niño.




We wonder, once again, as a cultural and religious fuereño, outsider, what this ritual means to its participants, los fieles. Our hunch is that its power lies in a kind of role reversal. Humble, vulnerable human beings, dependent on the good will of their God and at the mercy of the forces of the Universe, get to become, in these moments, with these small figures of the Christ Child, the caretakers of God at the moment He made Himself vulnerable like them, incarnated as a human child, placed in the care, not of the rich and powerful, but of a very ordinary, workingclass couple from a small pueblo in las provincias.

Post Script


A couple of weeks after Candelaria, in mid-February, we return to Xochimilco to experience another fiesta, for Our Virgin of Sorrows of Xaltocán. While walking down Avenida 16 de Septiembre from the center of town, looking for signs of the fiesta in the barrio that lies on the east side of the street, we notice obvious signs of some kind of celebration at the entrance to a street on the west side, which is the Barrio San Pedro, St. Peter. 

"Welcome, Niño Pa,
Xochimilco venerates you."

The colorful portada and blue and white papel picada (the Virgin's colors) tell us  something is up with el Niño in San Pedro, another of the original barrios of Xochimilco. So setting aside our search for the church of Xaltocán, we turn down this side street. In all our past experiences in Mexico we have learned that such detours always lead somewhere well worth discovering. 

About two short blocks ahead, we spot a small stone chapel.

Chapel of St. Peter

Arriving at the door, we see that inside the simple space a kind of Sunday school lesson is being taught by a lay woman to a small group. Outside, a handful of people are hanging out in a small courtyard to one side. So we ask them the reason for the portada and papel celebrating el Niño

They happily explain that he is now residing in a house just up the street. A young man offers to lead us there. We quickly arrive at the wide, courtyard entrance to a modest but modern house. Thanking el joven, youth, for his amable, kind, considerate help, we cross the street to enter the open courtyard.

Meeting El Niño once again

"Pretty child, beautiful child,
Fine-looking boy, loving boy.
I come to ask of you, as (you are) generous,
that this sorrow that I carry
you may turn into joy,
as you are my father
and my kind-hearted God."

The finely done calligraphy on the outside wall communicates both the meaning of the Child as the incarnation of the Father God that we had previously sensed, and His role in ameliorating life's troubles. By demonstrating loving care for him, devotion and respect, the faithful can hope that, in return, he will provide a blessing in their everyday lives.

The courtyard, itself, is a most pleasant, tranquil space, with a small garden of well landscaped plants and stones and a working fountain on one side and, hanging on the opposite wall, several large bouquets of flowers.

To the usual white lilies are added
Phalaenopsis, "butterfly" orchids!

To the rear of the courtyard is the wide-open entrance to a room in the modest but contemporary home. As we approach, we think that whoever is in charge of this presentation certainly has a fine aesthetic sense. As we walk toward the room, a few people come and go.  

Inside we see a number of people quietly sitting in rows of folding chairs, facing the rear of the space. It reminds us of a wake at a funeral home, with people silently paying their respects, but here the object of that respect isn't a deceased, but a centuries-old image of a child who has and can bestow eternal life.

El Niño Pa
His peach gown matches his cheeks.
The solar disc behind
announces the Presence of the Divine Power.

A matronly woman, dresssed in her Sunday best, is standing at the entrance and welcomes us, advising us not to use flash for any photos. We assure her that we never use flash and share that we first met el Niño nearly a year ago in Barrio Xoco, in Benito Juárez, and were at His Candelaria celebration here just two weeks ago. She is very pleased that we are so acquainted with Him.

We then ask our question about the meaning of "Pa": is it short for padre, father, or pan, bread? She tells us, with a tone of sureness, that it is Nauhuatl and means "of this place". He is the Child of this place, Xochimilco's own. Our assumption is confirmed!

La señora then offers to introduce us to a casually but neatly dressed middle-aged man who is standing on the other side of the doorway, talking to people as they arrive and leave. He holds an appointment book in his hands and sometimes writes as he talks. He is evidently the host of el Niño's visit. This is his home. He is, la señora tells me, el mayordomo!

As we are introduced, we can hardly contain our excitment and speak coherent Spanish! Mayordomos are the persons in charge of planning and overseeing a barrio or pueblo's fiestas. The mayordomo of el Níño Pa has an even greater responsibility. He must care for El Niño for an entire year, from one Candelaria to the next. He must provide clothing and a pleasant room, always full of fresh flowers, and he must arrange the visits that the Child takes to other homes, even in other boroughs of the city, such as Xoco. All of this while assuring the safety of this nearly five hundred-year old, truly priceless and irreplaceable infant. 

The mayordomo of el Niño Pa, who is just beginning his year of care, is Sr. Enrique Hernández. He is an architect, which is reflected in the aesthetics of the calligraphy on the outer wall and the courtyard decor. In his date book he is signing up people to host El Niño for a day and provide a merienda, a late afternoon, light meal to anyone who comes that day. We are a bit surprised by this, as we had read that the list of visits was made far in advance, even years ahead. 

El señor is muy amable, and happy to explain to us what is happening, but he constantly has to interrupt our chat to attend to the visitors who greet him and often sign up for a merienda. So we express our deep sense of being honored to meet him, thank him for this marvelous opportunity and depart to continue our search for the fiesta in Xaltocán.

After we have left, we realize we didn't ask to take his photo. Oh, well, we got to see El Niño Pa in the kind of family space he will inhabit for this year, witness the quiet devotion he is paid, confirm the meaning of 'Pa' and, best of all, meet an actual mayordomo!

Yes, Niño Pa, Xochimilco venerates you. May you turn its sorrows into joy. 


Delegación Xochimilco
is large pink area in southeast Mexico City
Barrios, Pueblos and Colonias of Delegación Xochimilco
Barrios of original altepetl of Xochimilco marked by yellow star.
Ecological Park of chinampas and canals is gray-green area in northeast
Southern side of delegación is mostly mountainous forest preserve.
See also:
Xochimilco: Field of Flowers Still Blooms
Xoco, the Little Barrio That Survives