"Can you hear the music?" my mother-in-law, Celia, asked me over the phone last night. It was eleven o'clock, and we'd called to see how they were doing. I couldn't hear any music, and told her as much. "But wait," she said, "Let me get closer to the window." And the music then began stream on in from her end of the line. "So are you two coming over for the pachanga, or what?" asked Patricio's dad with a laugh. "I think I'm going to take a sleeping pill," declared Celia, insinuating that she loved Our Lady of Guadalupe just as much as the next person, but she also loved a good night's sleep.
Today, December 12th, is when the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego for the last time in 1531, exhorting him to pick roses on the desert hill of Tepeyac, which he could then carry and display for Bishop Zumárraga as proof of Mary's apparition and full reason to build a church on that hill where she appeared. Letting down the large fold in his apron-like tilma, the unseasonal flowers fell to the floor, revealing Mary's image imprinted on the coarse fabric's weave. It is the same image, we are told, that sits high in its frame on the far wall of the current basilica, often simply called La Villa, perched as requested on Mexico City's Tepeyac hill.
Believed to have said on one occasion to Juan Diego, "Do not be distressed, my littlest son. Am I not here with you, who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection?" She then proceeded to heal Juan Diego's dying uncle, ushering in a new age of devotion to Mary that would lead this image to be that of the America's patron saint, protector and intercessor and hope for those who believe, and unequivocal symbol of Mexican identity.
She was the music's inspiration last night, blasting from street-side speakers to usher in her day. The taxi stand across the street from my in-laws' house, like every other stand I've seen throughout the country, bears a shrine in her honor, and come the 12th of December, her figure becomes sparkling clean, cascading with fresh flowers and adorned with electric lights. The taxi drivers, in between their work-night runs, celebrate on into the wee hours of the morning, grateful to the Virgin for another year of safety and thanking her with a joyful noise to keep the neighborhood awake, as well.
Neighborhood shrines to Our Lady are all decorated in their December finest, and the churches, chapels and cathedrals in her name draw special attention, too. But that doesn't stop other churches or families from sending out their own reports of fireworks through the night. Anxious celebrants began blasting them near our house in yesterday morning's heightened spirit, but midnight began to roll with their sound like thunder, and they've continued in dependable pops since then.
School was let out early across the street. The banks are all closed for the day. And thousands of people have arrived in the city on pilgrimage, some of the millions who each year cross miles from home on foot, bike, or when tired, on the back of a truck to arrive at the basilica and pay homage to their most beloved of saints. We live off a mountain route that winds its way to Michoacán, and this season often finds an impressive source of slowed traffic: stretches of road filled with the slow movement of pilgrims, their rest trucks and vanguard banners, t-shirts and bike spokes adorned with the image of their destination. Escorted on the move by a set of state police, they make their way in good weather or bad, stopping to rest on storefront steps, and bathing in large public baths from town to town.
Arriving at that sacred hill of Tepeyac--once a holy place for Juan Diego's ancestors, where the mother goddess Tonantzin was worshiped--the pilgrims at La Villa on December 12th are simply a fraction of those who celebrate devotions across the country. Likely a syncretic combination of two religions, two races and and two names, the Virgin of Guadalupe has exercised an awesome pull over her people for almost five hundred years. Who else could get a street full of taxi drivers to party at their stand through the night like that, singing Las mañanitas with such singular verve?