Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Sneaking an Early Peek at Our Lady of Guanajuato

From my vantage point I could see everything. Sitting in a small sidewalk café with the very original name, El Café (The Café), I was working on my third cup of Nescafe while watching Mexicans walking by like someone was chasing them. Of the many Twilight Zone events I've had while living in Guanajuato, Mexico, this is really the most bizarre. It is a cultural fact that you could bet the farm on that Mexicans will never get to an appointment on time-ever. Setting up an appointment at three in the afternoon, for example, can mean a host of things, none of which means that the person will show up at three. So just where they are going in such an apparent hurry, I cannot possibly say.

From that point of view, Guanajuato is not an especially nice place to walk between the hours of ten in the morning and two in the afternoon. To test this hypothesis, try walking from a barrio called Embajadoras to the Super, Comercial Mexicana, between those hours. Here's a tip: Make sure your Tourist's Insurance Premiums are paid up.

El Café is located on the side of Guanajuato's magnificently ostentatious Juarez Theater and diagonally across from the main plaza, El Jardin. From here, you can watch the city, at least in El Centro (The Center), wake up. I watched vendors buzzing about like so many bees in a busy swarm toting restaurant supplies on their little dollies making hurried deliveries. Shopkeepers were busy opening up their doors and removing the huge wooden panels from their boarded windows. Sidewalks were swept and mopped (I just love that!). I've written often that this is the very best time to see Guanajuato-in the early mornings-without the fear of being swept off a sidewalk by the race-walking, pressing throng.

After the third cup of Nescafe and finally reaching that I-am-now-going-to-vomit-myself-to-death taste in my mouth, I decided it was time to get moving on the day. But first, I have to explain the Nescafe angle in this town.

Nescafe is what is served in most small cafés in Guanajuato. If you want a cup of Americano, Nescafe is what you will get. Now, I have no ill will toward Nescafe and will indulge in a cup when there is nothing else to order. The strategy to successfully surviving a morning of this brew without suffering a possible stroke is to add more sugar than the human body can possibly handle and then throwing it back like you are tossing back a shot of tequila. And, note this, there are rarely free refills. I must add a note here: El Café does serve great scrambled eggs with chorizo.

My objective, the target of my sleuthing travel writing quest, was to journey, entirely on foot, to La Plaza de la Paz (The plaza of peace). For this arduous hike, I was duly fortified and knowing it would take all of sixty seconds, I was ready for it. But before I could go, I had to deal with the line of beggars and vendors who had queued at my table.

These people always know when I come into town. They must send each other messages on their Blackberry's when one of them spots me ambling along the streets. It doesn't matter what time of day I show up, "Red Alert...Bower's coming!" They come, one after another, to my table with assorted items from which I can choose NOT to buy. One lady had candy bars, or so she claimed, wrapped in red cellophane with Chinese characters on the packaging. The lettering looked faded like it had been manufactured in 1945 and probably read something like, "Chin-a-Lax-a-Tive". Next, the Doily Lady came rolling up.

I believe The Doily Lady has to have convinced herself that she will sell us something before she dies, which seems imminent. For the past seven years, she has tried selling us stuff that frankly looks like she got it at Wal-Mart. She always hits on us and when we refuse, she has a follow-up sales pitch to try and overcome our long-term refusal. She never gives up, ever. Once, we tried ignoring her while we kept walking. This would not do. Oh no. She grabbed hold of the belt on the back of my wife's pants and was dragged along as though she was water skiing and my wife was the motorboat. I had to dislodge her hands and yell at my wife to run. The poor old thing is that persistent. And here the kicker: I've never seen anyone, Gringo or Mexican, buy the dear's stuff. Sad, really.

After that bit of distraction, I walked to La Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Guanajuato's parish church. La Basilica doesn't look all that impressive when approaching the plaza in which it sits and that is because the traffic on both streets that run parallel to it goes the wrong direction. So, for example, if you were to take an automobile of any sort into the plaza, you wouldn't know what the structure was unless someone hit you on the head and said, "Hey, look at that church." And, even then, you would have to twist your head backwards in Linda Blair style to see it. The visual impact of the church would indeed be impressive if the traffic flow was reversed. This 17th-century Baroque church is most impressive when viewed on foot from the opposite side of the plaza. In its elevated splendor, the main entrance is reached by climbing semicircular and steep stairs. In older photos, the church's entrance is at street level. This is no longer the case.

I was there at about nine in the morning to get a better look at the most unique object in the church. Though I had seen pictures of this 8th-century statue, I had yet to see her in the actual context of the church's altar. She used to sit on the back wall, behind the alter and to the left. You really couldn't see it since services were always in progress when I was there. Many American tourists will, unfortunately, think they should have access to the churches, like the churches are Museums, and will often march to the front during a service and start squeezing off snapshots. We saw this happen at a child's funeral. The tourists, dressed for the beach, rushed to the front when the casket was being opened and snapped photos. The churches are not museums and are there for the spiritual needs of the locals.

When I settled into a pew and got out my writing things, I noticed five people sitting toward the front and in the right side of the pews. I always fret when I walk into a church on a writing gig and there are parishioners making spooky but soft chanting sounds, as these five were. They were all hunched over like they were suffering stomach cramps in unison and erupting in sudden moans and groans. I thought they were either sick or practicing some esoteric religious moaning exercises with which I was unfamiliar. Whatever it was, they didn't seem to mind a horde of workers who were climbing scaffolding and dropping things to the church floor from dizzying heights. The one thing I was very pleased about is that the virgin I came to see was brought to the front of the altar and sat in what looked like a dessert case at Denny's. She was locked up snug and in a glass container where all could view without difficulty.

The story about this religious icon is a great one and one which I love.

Our Lady of Guadalupe is a sculpture standing 1.15 meters high and depicts the Virgin holding Baby Jesus. Depending on the version of history you find, it was alleged to have been created around 714 A.D. and was hidden, probably in caves or catacombs, in Spain during the five-hundred year Moorish rule. King Charles V of Spain donated the statute that was rediscovered. In 1557, the statue arrived in Guanajuato and later came to be called Our Lady of Guanajuato. It was actually Charles' son, Phillip II, who was entrusted with the icon's journey to and safe arrival in Guanajuato.

Though nothing is really known about the sea voyage of the icon to Mexico across the Atlantic, one can only imagine the peril it faced. Perafán de Rivera, the nobleman assigned to bring the statue to Mexico, didn't know where Guanajuato was exactly and became essentially lost. Just a suburb away in the area today known as Yerbabuena, he stopped to reconnoiter and prayed to the icon for help. According to legend, a pair of white doves guided him in safety to the city of Guanajuato.

Considered to be the oldest piece of Christian art and carved from one piece of cedar, the statue has actually a rather interesting part in its history in which thieves made off with the jewels sewn into the sculpture's garment. The thieves didn't get far and the jewels were recovered. I cannot begin to imagine what the locals must have done to the thieves.

Though the actual icon looks rather dull, it is amazing that it is so old and so well preserved. Presently (Fall 2008), when there are no services going on, you can walk right up to the front and have a look at what two members of the Spanish royalty and a geographically-challenged nobleman went to a lot of trouble to bring to the new world-New Spain, today Mexico.

I looked over my left shoulder and the five moaning parishioners were still rocking and moaning, the workers were still on their scaffolding dropping things from the rafters, and I took my leave with my mission accomplished.


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