A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about traditions

Color, music and dancing

At the Basilica in Mexico City

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Whenever I cycle up to the Basilica early on Sunday morning, I wonder what surprise awaits me today. Being Mexico's most important Catholic shrine, the Basílica de la Virgen de Guadalupe draws Mexicans from all over the country who journey here to fulfill promises, to pray and make petitions, and to attend mass. Devotion to the Virgen de Guadalupe is an unmistakeable thread woven into the very fabric of Mexican culture. A whole community may arrive together in trucks, buses or cars. They often come wearing their traditional dress to honor the Virgen with a specific dance, or music. So when I arrive here on my bicycle, I often find the plaza a colorful study in anthropology. Sometimes on specific dates, it is full of hundreds of cyclists who have made their pilgrimage on two wheels or, in the case of last Sunday, lots of music bands who had arrived with their musical instruments.

Last Sunday was a truly colorful, musical day to visit the Basilica... I'll let my photos speak for themselves.

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The complex comprises of the Old Basilica with the red and yellow domes which was begun in 1695. However, over the centuries, because Mexico City is built on a former lake bed, the church began to sink and become dangerous so a new bigger basilica was built next to it and the old one was closed in 1976. The New Basilica is a stunning green circular building designed by Mexican architect Pedro Ramirez Vazquez. It has no pillars inside, providing a spacious area for the crowds of pilgrims who come to venerate the image of the Virgen. After carrying out restoration work on the Old Basilica, it was re-opened in 2000 but still continues to lean visibly. In this part of the complex you can also see the Bell Tower which shows the different ways people measure time... clock, sundial, Aztec calendar, astronomical calendar etc.

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The distinct red and yellow domes of the Old Basilica

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A close-up of the yellow domes

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Reflection of both basilicas in the glass windows of the plaza

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A band setting up their drums right outside the new Basilica

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A group of cyclists arrive

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People from all walks of life come here.... seen in the wide variety of footwear!

I have often seen the Aztec Indian dancers doing their syncretic dances in honor of the Virgen, or maybe to the goddess Tonantzin, who was worshipped at this very same site before the Spaniards arrived, bringing their Catholic faith to Mexico.

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A group of dancers on the upper part of the plaza

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They typically wear feather headdresses, and seed pods around their ankles which shake as they move

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This time they were playing mandolin-type instruments

In contrast to them were the bands playing popular songs, some of them making enough noise to waken the whole city. They were moved from their very close position to the main temple where mass was being held and sent to the other end of the plaza.

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A small boy is fascinated by the musicians

On the other side of the plaza was a group from Hidalgo, dressed in mariachi hats and sequined capes, along with their band. One of the ladies informed me that they had come to fulfill a promise made to the Virgen. They had arrived that morning, would do their dance and attend mass and then return home about 200 kms away.

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Band members and mariachis

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Nine-year old Miguel in his costume

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His cape was decorated with thousands of sequins

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Design on the cape

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The group getting ready

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Getting in order

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Young girl

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Last minute shuffling around

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Off toward the New Basilica

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Making lots of noise

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Crowds near the New Basilica

There was so much to see and hear, with many more bands and dancers, thatI didn't even move from the plaza. But time had run out for me so I jumped on my bike again and cycled back down to the centre. That's the advantage of getting up early on Sunday morning. You see things that you wouldn't even imagine in your dreams if you stayed in bed.

Posted by margaretm 16:26 Archived in Mexico Tagged basilica music dancing traditions mexico_city Comments (0)

Mexican Christmas decorations

Artistic and colorful

Mexico is a colorful place any time of year but round about Christmas time, the markets become even brighter and more colorful with a wide range of locally made Christmas decorations. Of course, the glittering star-shaped piñatas catch your eye immediately but so do the beautifully crafted decorations made of straw, wood, glass, ceramic and metal.

I saw these three Christmas trees covered in traditional Mexican decorations at the bottom of the hill leading up to the Castillo de Chapultepec in the park and couldn't resist taking some photos...

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There's no end to the market stalls overflowing with color and artistic creativity. Here are a few more photos...

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Before we leave Mexico, I'm definitely going to fill my suitcase with a few of these to take back home!

Posted by margaretm 03:36 Archived in Mexico Tagged christmas traditions color crafts mxico Comments (1)

Colorful Mexican pinyatas

A bright start to December

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It was actually during the last few days in November that I began to notice them. Springing up all over the city, strung along the streets, on buildings, in the parks and markets, colourful piñatas have begun to appear and transform the urban landscape into a giant party scene. Most of them are star-shaped, shimmering reds, golds, greens and purples, their tassels catching the breeze. Suddenly it looks like some kind of cosmic shower of stars has rained down on the city. It occurs without fail every year, round about the beginning of December. Yes, Christmas must be getting close!

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Whether piñatas originally arrived from China via Spain and then on to Mexico or whether they were an ancient Mayan and Aztec rite, today they are as Mexican as tortillas, guacamole or tamales. Traditionally a clay plot was filled with sweets or fruit and then decorated using crêpe paper and cardboard and colors. Nowadays. most piñatas are made totally of cardboard and paper-mâché, For safety reasons. Nobody wants their child's head cut open by jagged pieces of pottery.

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The piñata is strung up high, and children take turns at hitting it with a stick, their eyes blindfolded. Eventually, after much hitting and even more laughter, the pinyata breaks and spills its contents out onto the kids underneath it. Needless to say, there is usually something akin to a rugby scrum as one and all pounce on the candied treasure.

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In past centuries, the Catholic church in Mexico gave the European/Aztec tradition a new meaning. The points of the star represented the seven deadly sins and the clay pot represented the temptations of evil. The faithful would symbolically resist temptation by hitting the pot and breaking it and would be rewarded by a handful of sweets. Today the religious significance has all but been lost and now piñatas are a guaranteed source of entertainment at children's parties and in Las Posadas, a Mexican tradition at Christmas time.

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For me, though as soon as I see the dazzling stars appearing all over the city, I start to feel that Christmas is just around the corner... must go and buy my piñata!

Posted by margaretm 13:33 Archived in Mexico Tagged mexico christmas traditions pinyatas Comments (0)

Christmas lights in the Centro Histórico

!Feliz Navidad!

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Feliz Navidad

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The Christmas tree in the Zócalo

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Christmas Day is just hours away, so it's time to wish everyone a very Happy Christmas from Mexico! Here are a few photos of the Christmas lights in Mexico City's huge public square, the Zócalo, where everything happens, and a few other places!

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Posted by margaretm 06:17 Archived in Mexico Tagged traditions christmas_lights Comments (0)

Squeezing 7 million pilgrims into DF

Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe

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Over the past few days, there has been a constant background noise of firecrackers.... crack...crack..crack...boom! As you make your way around the city, you are sure to come across men, women and children walking, cycling, riding in the backs of open trucks, singing, carrying images, or bending over with large framed pictures on their back. Lots are wearing T-shirts bearing the same design. So where are they going and why the pilgrimage?

Here in DF we are in the throes of Mexico City's largest Catholic festival, in honour of the Virgen de Guadalupe (Our Lady of Guadalupe), Mexico's patron saint, which takes place around the 12th December. This year, by the end of the several-days-long fiesta, seven million people will have made the pilgrimage to La Basílica de Guadalupe on the outskirts of the city where the original image of the Virgen de Guadalupe is kept, said to be "responsible for uniting pre-Hispanic Indian mysticism with Catholic beliefs". One or two have cycled up to 1200 km from other parts of Mexico, others crawl in on their knees, many come from the surrounding states. Roads are closed or blocked, police cars and police motorbikes escort caravans of people, and trucks decorated with tinsel and images accompany pelotons of by-now wobbly cyclists. Early Sunday morning, before 8 o'clock, as I cycled through the centre wrapped in my jumpers and gloves due to Cold Front Nº 19, I saw groups of families including young children marching their way down Paseo de la Reforma. Some pilgrims have been walking for 4 days. Someone once said that it is virtually impossible to understand Mexico and its culture without appreciating the Mexicans' devotion of La Virgen de Guadalupe. I can believe that.

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Pilgrims on their way to La Basílica

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A group of cyclists follow their back-up van

When they arrive at La Basilica, reputedly visited by more people than St Peter's Basilica in Vatican City or the shrine at Lourdes, they will queue up to venerate the original image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, sing Las Mañanitas to her and attend a special mass. These days, unless it is your intention, it's better not to accidentally find yourself in that area since it has become the chaotic, colourful venue for teeming masses of weary travellers. Stalls selling sustenance for the body and soul abound. Scores of peregrinos lay sleeping on the ground in a state of combined physical, emotional and spiritual exhaustion. Dancing, music, singing and lots of sharing goes on. Sometimes the unexpected happens. This year, a lady accompanied by her husband and three children was just minutes away from the Basilica when she went into labour and the baby was born there and then. The mother missed her chance of going inside since she and her new-born baby were taken to hospital.

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Devout follower carrying a framed picture on his back

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Masses of pelegrinos at La Basílica

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Colourful indigenous dances

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Weary travellers

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Merchandise in neaby stalls

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Carrying images of Mary and other saints

La Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe is built on Tepeyac Hill where the Aztec goddess Tonantzín, known as "Our Revered Mother", was worshipped in pre-Hispanic time. It also happened to be the very spot where according to tradition, on 9th December 1531, a poor Indian Juan Diego saw a vision of a lady dressed in a blue mantle who told him to build a church there. The local bishop wanted some proof that it was in fact the Virgin Mary so he asked the peasant to bring him some evidence. Juan Diego returned on 12th December and the Virgin Mary told him to gather up some flowers from the hill in his tilma or cloak and take them back to the Bishop. When he opened up his cloak, the flowers dropped out and the image of the Virgen was miraculously emblazoned on the fabric. The Bishop needed no further convincing and immediately ordered a church to be built on this spot. On completion, the image on the original cloth, framed in gold, was hung there. Since then, millions of devout followers make the pilgrimage to see this image which continues to baffle experts. To many, it sounds suspiciously like a rather cunning ploy on the part of the Spanish priests to get the Indians to convert from their Aztec beliefs to Catholicism. Whether or not the story or image is authentic, however, is not an issue for the masses of fieles whose faith in La Morenita is boundless and who come to thank or ask her for her favours and to make promises they may or may not keep. Since the old church was unable to handle such an enormous number of people, the New Basílica with its spectacular bold design was opened in 1987.

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The Old Basilica

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The New Basilica next to the old church

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The original image hanging inside the New Basilica

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The original image on fabric on show in the Basílica

La Basílica de Guadalupe is, in fact, the most important Catholic shrine in the Americas and is visited by millions from all round the globe every year. These days especially, though, it has been attracting waves and waves of Mexican pilgrims who have engulfed the city not only to venerate La Virgen de Guadalupe on the 12th but also to celebrate on the 9th the feast day of Juan Diego, who was canonized by the Pope in 2002, invoking him as the "protector and advocate of the indigenous peoples". I'm sure many too will stop to do a bit of sightseeing in the Zócalo while they are here. Then they will be gathering up their mats, blankets, bags and backpacks, (and maybe even their pots and pans), and beginning the journey back home, which may take anything from several hours to several days.

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And as some would say, it may be that, after all these centuries, the Mexicans are in fact still worshiping their goddess, albeit under the guise of their unique synchretic brand of Catholicism.

Posted by margaretm 06:34 Archived in Mexico Tagged religion traditions mexico_city virgen_de_guyadalupe la_basilica Comments (0)

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