Yesterday, among many other wanderings around Mexico City, I made a pilgrimage to the Lady of Guadalupe, the sacred Catholic heart of Mexico. It was not what I expected.
We left the subway station to join a trudging, milling mob on a hike to the basilica, which wended its way through a narrow tunnel lined with ramshackle booths where people tried to sell us all kinds of iconographic kitsch. That, I expected.
The surprise came when a horde dressed as Aztecs, half-naked with giant elaborate feathered headdresses, painted or wearing fierce masks of skulls or leopards, came charging through, forcing everyone to move off to the side to allow them to pass. They were chanting and pounding drums and waving censers about, so the whole group was wreathed in a fog of incense.
When we finally got to the plaza in front of the three basilicas (an original one, a later, larger one, and the newest, which is a huge modern building designed to accommodate the crowds), it was filled with Aztecs dancing, and all you could hear were these loud, throbbing drums. I captured a few minutes of my struggle through the mob of pilgrims, surrounded by circular spaces taken over by whirling Aztec dancers; the sound capabilities of my recorder were overwhelmed by the noise, so the roaring you hear below is the sound of the drums. You’ll just have to imagine this rhythmic cacaophony that you could feel vibrating up through your bones.
The modern basilic itself is completely open along the sides facing the plaza, so we had the pleasure of hearing a loudly amplified Catholic mass with pagan drums pounding throughout. And yes, you could see Aztec headdresses scattered throughout the crowd.
In the smaller, oldest church, they also carry out the Mass, and here’s a mother and child in Mexican Catholic formal wear, on their knees. We saw several other people making a slow crawl across the plaza on their knees, including a couple of young children with their parents hovering about (on their feet, though), as the kids made the painful trudge. I guess it makes your prayers more potent if you do them on bleeding knees.
The syncretism is fascinating, and so far Mexico has been a delight, rich in character and history, and I’ve got to come back and spend more time here. But that religion is so fluid and flexible and complex doesn’t make it right, and the obsessive, fanatical weirdness of this unique version of Catholicism is the product of its unfamiliarity; if you step back and look at it with eyes unfilmed by tradition, every religious ceremony looks this bizarre, and every religion thrives on hope built on despair…and some try to maximize the suffering to reinforce devotion. At least the modern Aztecs draw the line before raising obsidian knives and chopping out hearts nowadays; they seemed to be having more fun than the bloody kneed Catholics.