The Lupe Reyes Marathon – Part I

December’s festive season begins at different times around the world. in the U.S. it begins with Black Friday, in Canada… I’m afraid I have not found out yet. In Mexico, it starts on the 12th of December and ends on the 6th of January, and it is called the Maratón Lupe Reyes (the Lupe Reyes Marathon). Why does it have such a whimsical name? And what are the stages of this festive season? Over the next few days I will provide an inside look on how we Mexicans go about our holiday season. Today, we begin with the starting shot.

La Guadalupana.
(December 12: Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe)

If you have spent a sizable amount of time in Mexico or the U.S.. you have likely heard of the Lady of Guadalupe. You have probably even seen depictions of her, an unmistakable symbol of Latino (especially Mexican) devotion and identity.

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The Virgen de Guadalupe is a title of the Virgin Mary, and under this name she has been proclaimed Queen of Mexico and Patroness of the Americas, among others. A symbol of obviously religious origins, it has since then become more and more ingrained into our identity over almost 500 years of history. The tale of its origin goes as follows:

On the morning of December 9, 1531, a devoutly Catholic Indian named Juan Diego encountered a maiden atop the hill Tepeyac, who identified herself as the ever-virgin Mother of God and asked him to go on her behalf to the bishop and request that a chapel in her honor be erected where she was standing, that she may relieve the distress of those who would come to her in their hour of need. Juan Diego complied and went to visit the Bishop, fray Juan de Zumárraga, who was rather skeptical of his request. On his way back home, Juan Diego went up the hill and once again encountered the apparition to whom he informed of the result of his mission, and told her that as he was a man of no importance she would do well in recruiting a better man for this mission. The Virgin, however, insisted that it was him she wanted for this task. Juan Diego agreed to carry on with the task.

On the next morning, December 10, he went to the Bishop again and repeated the Virgin Mary’s request. The Bishop was somewhat more agreeable this time, and instead of simply sending Juan Diego off he asked him to bring proof that the apparition was indeed of the Heavens. Juan Diego returned to Tepeyac and, encountering the apparition, he promptly relayed the Bishop’s response. The Virgin agreed to provide said proof on the next day.

On December 11, Juan Diego unexpectedly had to go tend to his uncle, who had fallen ill. His condition deteriorated rapidly over the following hours, and on the next day, December 12, Juan Diego went off to find a priest who would listen to his uncle’s confession and administer the last rites, as it was Catholic tradition. On his way to the city of Tlatelolco, he avoided the hill Tepeyac as he was afraid that the Virgin Mary would delay him in this urgent task, and was also embarrassed that he had failed to meet her the previous day as he had promised. The Virgin, however, intercepted him and asked where he was going, to which Juan Diego replied explaining his uncle’s illness. The Virgin’s reply has become legendary, and is inscribed over the main entrance of the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico city (the main center of veneration of the Lady of Guadalupe):

¿No estoy yo aquí, que soy tu madre?
(“Am I not here, I who am your mother?”)

Thus the Virgin Mary reassured him that his uncle was now fully recovered, and instructed him to go atop Tepeyac and pick up the flowers he would find there. Juan Diego promptly complied; he indeed found many blooming flowers where usually there was only cactus and scrub, and picked them up gathering them upon his tilma (a mantle made of coarse vegetable fiber, traditionally worn on the chest and often used as a carry-all). Meeting the Virgin Mary once again, she rearranged the flowers and told him to take them to the bishop. Upon gaining audience, Juan Diego let go of the ends of the tilma before the Bishop. The flowers poured upon the floor, and an image of the Virgin Mary as Juan Diego had seen her, was now imprinted on the mantle.

The original tilma has been reverently guarded for centuries since then, and it is on public display at the Basilica in Mexico City, which is erected on the very same hill where the Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego. On December 12, celebrations erupt all over the country. First, at the stroke of midnight, people come to the Basilica nearest to them to sing the Mañanitas (traditional birthday song in Mexico) to the Guadalupana. Then, all day there are processions starting at several points of the city (neighborhoods, large factories or business centers, city squares, other churches and so on), all converging at the Basilica. Men, women, elderly and children all walk a few miles singing to the Lady of Guadalupe, and traditionally there are matachines, dancers of both genders wearing raiments that resemble traditional Aztec garb (headdresses and kilts), with a large drum leading their steps. This, of course, greatly adds to the sense of identity that the Guadalupana has for us Mexicans, as it is not just related to our (predominant) religion; it also speaks to our deepest roots. This kind of processions begins on December the 1 and goes on regularly through the two weeks till December 12, but it is on the evening of the holiday that the procession activity reaches its peak (and of course, its end).

Some houses hold reliquias. The literal translation to English being ‘relic’, in this context the word designates an event in which a family makes a lot of food (nothing fancy like turkey, more like beans and soup and tortillas, some atole to keep you warm) and then makes it available to whoever approaches, be it family, friend of complete stranger. This is a way of giving thanks for the blessings of the past year, and of sharing your wealth (large or small) with all. These parties also have matachines and the pounding rumors of the large drum.

So why Lupe? We Latinos are well known for naming our own after religious names, even Jesús. Guadalupe is no exception, often found in tandem (José Gadalupe for males, María Guadalupe for females). The shorter version (like Bob for Robert and Bill for William) is Lupe. In the coming days we will see why its ‘surname’ is Reyes.

See you next week.

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