Since arriving in Mexico 5 days ago, I have had an uneasy feeling in my stomach. I know it’s not the street tortas, or the tap water I’ve used to brush my teeth. “El Chupacabra” as it’s been affectionately termed by our troop of gringas, has yet to get me – knock on wood. I am acclimating quickly to the late sunsets, the high, broiling daytime sun, the food that is never without a corn product, and picking up more and more Spanish by the day. Phrases like “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Spanish” are frequent and often followed by red cheeks marking my embarrassment at not being able to communicate. I am often brightly adorned in what could be mistaken for traditional local garb (though they are merely bougie imitations bought in the States with excessive amounts of US currency. Side note: The more I realize the value of the peso to an American versus its value to a Mexican, the worse I feel about my sometimes frivolous spending habits). As my skin digs itself into deeper shades while I walk alone along highways past San Miguel, or hop from rooftop to rooftop along the side of town because someone carelessly left their gate open, I am frequently spoken to in long strings of perfect, fast-paced Mexican Spanish. I am doing my best to understand; not exactly assimilate but to absorb, and by the sound of those recipients of my crude attempts at Spanish – it’s working. As I climb the ridges of the city, I look around and can see only blue sky peppered with the whitest clouds this side of the Mississippi (there are still some things I can’t shake). The beauty is vast and open, the heat dry, and the thing which has hit me hardest as I’ve come to understand it is why this land is so tightly woven with its religion.
Our group traversed the vertical streets of the city today to arrive at the Museum of Masks, located within a charming bed and breakfast, tucked behind two slender nondescript doors. As we wandered the different gallery rooms and shelled out our pesos for the novelty of having Mexican folk art to take home with us, we heard drums beating from down the road. Heidi, one of the owners, came tearing through the kitchen to announce there was a parade (to celebrate lord knows what) careening down the road, and as we begged for a few more moments with the masks she warns that they will not wait for us.
So we race through the labyrinth of a home/museum to their rooftop with a perfect view of each passer-by as we would from a bird’s eye. The first and last few groups were extremely contemporary in both music and style choices, however, through the middle came a strange wave of history. Down the bumpy cobblestones came a rickety rusted blue pick-up truck, veiled in white sheets and carrying the precious cargo of a man dressed as Jesus, with stigmata wounds caking under the relentless rays of early afternoon. No music came with this truck, and the actor was as pale and emaciated as any depiction of Christ I’ve ever seen. The way he, and the procession, so obviously believed painfully in what they were doing was earth shaking for me. Having grown up in a home with no religious affiliation, only ever having been to sermons or mass when I happened to be with a friend’s family on a Sunday morning, the feeling in the faces of these parade participants was beautiful. They know not only who they believe themselves to be, but also who they believe God to be. They are Mexicans, and god has made their country what it is. Their faith is unshakable and it runs through the cobblestone streets as thick as the smog in Mexico City.
I stood on the balcony with tears in my eyes, peering down and realizing myself to be only a spectator at best. I was moved to further study with my limited time here in San Miguel the divine spirit that floats through these summer breezes. As Octavio Paz delves into in The Labyrinth of Solitude, religion is what has identified the Mexican in pre-hispanic, colonial, and contemporary times. An explanation for the good bad and ugly, it has afforded the culture great art, vicious wars, and a hope for a national identity. The Virgin Guadeloupe and La Malinche, simple symbols offering an answer in a system twisted by government corruption and drugs. There is a cross on just about every corner in this town, and I aim to discover just what that means.