This post originally appeared as an essay in The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 2015.
By Julie Owsik Ackerman
Antonio had told me for weeks not to miss the celebration for Our Lady of Guadalupe, but then he had broken up with me. What to do? In my own Catholic upbringing, we have May Processions to celebrate Mary in the spring. They involve little children, a ceremony, a Mass, some punch and cookies afterwards maybe. But during my junior year of college in Cuernavaca, Mexico, my friends had insisted that the celebration for La Virgen could not be missed, broken heart or no.
So, on Dec. 11, I go with my Mexican friends, who were also Antonio’s cousins, to the festivities, having no idea what to expect. A party night for Mary? It is chilly for Cuernavaca, around 55 degrees, and we huddle outside the Guadalupe shrine closest to my friend Norma’s house. The neighborhood women pass out warm tropical drinks that tasted like guava. I wait, stomach clenched, and find myself praying to Mary for help. Help me to stop loving him. Help me to stop hurting him, and myself, and my boyfriend from home. I wouldn’t have prayed to the Mary of my youth about these troubles, but La Virgen, I think she might understand.
Our Lady of Guadalupe, La Virgen or Virgencita to Mexicans, is the apparition of Mary when she appeared to an Aztec man named Juan Diego in 1531, 11 years after the arrival of the Spanish in Mexico. She returned to this humble man four times, asking him to go to the bishop and build a temple in her honor on the spot where she appeared. She explained, “All those who sincerely ask my help in their work and in their sorrows will know my Mother’s Heart in this place.”
Asking an Aztec man in 1531 to go tell the bishop to build a shrine is kind of like asking an undocumented immigrant to get a private audience with the governor for a pet project. But Juan Diego did as the lady asked him. He went to see the bishop, who asked for a sign that he was telling the truth. So the lady told Juan Diego to gather up the roses that were blooming, on a hillside where there had never been flowers, put them in his cape, and not to show anyone but the bishop. Again, Juan Diego followed instructions, and when he went to the bishop and opened up his cape, the roses tumbled out revealing the image of the lady. That image of her still exists, on the same cape, hanging in the cathedral built on that hillside.
Mary appeared to Juan Diego as a dark-skinned, dark-haired woman, speaking his native language, Nahuatl. She doesn’t look otherworldly, angelic, but like a real woman, and she sounds like the kind of mom everybody wants.
We wait at the shrine, drinking our punch. I wish mine were spiked with tequila, but no such luck. Norma knows that Antonio and I have broken up, and though she has no official position, I know she thinks what everyone seems to think — I should live in the now, enjoy myself. I hear drums in the distance, then a sound like a parade approaching. The dancers appear.
They are all young men, dressed as viejitos, old men and women, their costumes including demonic-looking masks, raggedy clothes, canes. They do a simple, traditional dance that came from the village in Guerrero from which their families originated. Percussion fills the air, but the loudest sound I hear is my heart, as I watch only my love. It’s obvious who he is, costumed or not. He and my host brother are the tallest pair by far, and he the most graceful dancer. The rhythm, the dancing, the night — it’s enough for me to forget all the reasons we shouldn’t be together.
“You’re staring,” Norma says, nudging me.
I pull my eyes away, look at her. “I’m watching the dancers.”
“You’re watching one dancer.”
I sigh, don’t bother denying it. Help me, Virgencita.
“It is well, littlest and dearest of my daughters. Am I not here who is your Mother?”
After dancing for a while, the viejitos remove their masks, greeting friends in the crowd. I want to run, I want to hide, but what is the point? We share all the same friends. I might as well get used to this.
“Are you not under my shadow and protection?”
Antonio approaches, extends his hand in the customary greeting, kisses my cheek. I think I might crack in half from the pain. I see the same hurt on his face, which is no consolation. Why did we break up again?
“I’m glad you came.” He says it so quietly, with such sincerity. It is an arrow in my heart. I can’t look at him, only nod.
“Hey, cabrón!” one of his buddies shows up with a flask of tequila — thank God — and offers it to us, pouring it into small paper cups. The women pass out tamales and more punch, but after a precious few minutes it is time for the dancers to process on to the next shrine.
He turns to look at me. “Will you come with us?” he asks.
“How long will you dance?”
And then I see it — why we have broken up. Because as much as I love being here for this moment, this is only a moment to me. I am dropping in, passing through, and he is upholding a tradition passed from one generation to the next.
“Yes, I’ll be here,” I say. For now. I don’t have to add this part. He knows it. He kisses my cheek, lingering for only a moment longer than he should. I inhale his scent, like spring rain, reach up a hand to touch his face, but stop short.
He returns to the dancers, I return to Norma, hollow as the drums that surround us.
“Here I will see their tears; I will console them and they will be at peace.”
I am not yet at peace, but following the dancers that night processing from shrine to shrine, I begin to believe in La Virgen. I lose a boyfriend, but I gain a Mother.
Julie Owsik Ackerman is finishing a novel based on her experiences studying in Mexico. <firstname.lastname@example.org>