The Heart of Mexico

Our Lady of Guadalupe holds a special place in the religious life of Mexico. In Spanish, she is called, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. The faithful believe that she appeared before Juan Diego, an early indigenous convert to Catholicism, on December 9 and again on December 12, 1531. Juan Diego claimed that Mary was brown-skinned like him and that she was dressed in the same garments worn by the women he knew. Her eyes, he said, were full of compassion and love.

During her first apparition she requested that a shrine to her be built on the very spot where she showed herself, the Tepeyac Hill, a place that was consecrated to the Aztec female deity Tonanzin. When Juan Diego took her petition to the bishop, the Church leader demanded to see a sign or a miracle before he would even consider construction of a church. When Mary appeared a second time to Juan Diego, she presented him with out-of-season roses. Juan Diego was granted a second audience with the bishop, and the moment he opened his cloak, dozens of the blooms fell to the floor, revealing the image of Mary imprinted on the inside of his cloak. This image is considered as miraculous because it is still intact. Today this very same image imprinted on Juan Diego’s cloak can be seen in the Basilica de Guadalupe in Mexico City.

The validity of this story has been questioned by many scholars and ecclesiastics, who say there is not sufficient documentary evidence to validate the apparition and evidence. But defenders of the Virgin of Guadalupe accept the authenticity without question.

Veneration of Our Lady of Guadalupe is particularly strong among women in Mexico, and Our Lady of Guadalupe’s role in Mexican history is not limited to religious matters; she has an important role in Mexican identity.

Copy of the image of La Virgen de Guadalupe that the Insurgents carried during Mexico’s Independence campaign

In 1810 Miguel Hidaldo y Costilla (known as the father of the movement for Mexican Independence from Spain) named her as the patroness of the revolt he led. The image of the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared on the rebels’ banners, and the battle cry was, “Long Live Our Lady of Guadalupe.” And every year her continuing significance as a religious and national symbol is reaffirmed by the millions of pilgrims who visit her shrine in Mexico City. They also flock to churches dedicated to her, located every city, town and hamlet in the country.

The Basilica de Guadalupe in Mexico City

Even non-Catholic Mexicans acknowledge that La Virgen de Guadalupe is a constant source of peace and unity in their lives. It seems obvious that she is more than a Catholic icon. To the faithful, she is “the heart of Mexico.” This year in Mexico City, more than 5,000,000 people are expected to visit the Basilica de Guadalupe on December 11th and 12th. Next to the Vatican in Rome, this site receives the most annual visitors of any Catholic shrine in the world.

Inside Merida’s Church of San Cristobal

Children dressed in religious costumes for the feast day

Each year, here in Merida at the Church of San Cristobal (the corner of Calle 50 and Calle 69) tens of thousands of pilgrims from all over the state arrive to show their devotion and offer their thanks to the Virgin of Guadalupe. They bring their children and their grandparents… Many young people run in relay groups from towns and villages to see her on her special day. These devotees is called antorchistas.

Starting a week before the feast day on December 12th, along all the roads leading to Merida, it seems as though the entire population of the state is out with lit torches surging towards the Church of San Cristobal. If they can’t run… they walk, bicycle, or catch a ride on anything with wheels. When they finally arrive, they are exhausted but euphoric. They feel dutifully and emotionally-bound to reaffirm the basic faith that sustains them through many hardships.

Standards carried by Antorchistas to the Guaudalupe church in Merida

There are detractors who are not in favor of the religious fervor that December 11th and 12th bring out all over Mexico. But this country has so many challenges; and if the “Mother of all Mexicans” offers a warm embrace, a sense of peace, and some relief from the day to day worries… perhaps it is a good thing?

If you wish to watch or participate in the festivities of the Dia de Guadalupe, feel welcome to join in. You can bring flowers or candles to place at one of the many altars at the Church. The antorchistas will run, ride their bikes and roll their way into the Plaza surrounding Merida’s Church of San Cristobal, located on the corner of Calles 50 and 69. The singing, prayer and joyous smiles are infectious. There is food for sale, music and dancing, culminating at midnight with fireworks and the singing of Las Mañanitas. Celebrants camp along the sidewalks… some will sleep and others will stay up all night. Masses and other religious observance will continue all the next day, Monday December 12th.

The occasion also marks the beginning of the celebratory month in Mexico (running from the Day of Guadalupe through until the Day of the Three Kings on January 6th) colloquially known as, Guadalupe – Reyes.

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Dinner with Friends

Mole Poblano

Mexican fiestas are as colorful as a summer garden, and the crowd of joyful dancers, twirling in their billowing skirts, looks like a flock of exotic birds about to take flight. Then suddenly they turn and follow the aroma of spicy foods wafting through the plaza. The culture of Mexico is complex – a mix of indigenous and European customs – that varies as much as the weather.

But despite all the country’s richness, a substantial segment of the population lives in some degree of poverty, and many families have dire needs. This can be a challenging aspect of relocating to Mexico – newcomers want to help, but they feel they don’t understand the culture or language well enough to be effective.

However, they soon discover that the international community has formed a host of non-profits that compliment the efforts of public associations. They all work together to meet the pressing needs of the population. All of these groups welcome volunteers. Several, such as the IWC Scholarship Program, Telchac Education and the Progreso Apoyo Program, help young people with their schooling expenses. As well, there are food banks, homes for seniors, and crisis centers for women and children. Mentoring groups, reading, music and art and animal rights groups also exist, and there is an English-language Rotary Club.

One of the most active groups is Yucatan Giving Outreach (YGO) A.C. This is a registered not-for-profit foundation that supplies essential support and services at many of Yucatan’s orphanages, shelters for the elderly and women, soup kitchens, and rehabilitation centers in Merida and across the state.

As you can imagine, YGO’s efforts bumped up to hyper-drive at the start of the COVID Pandemic. Volunteers collected and distributed tens of thousands of food bags, sanitary products, clothing, and other essential supplies.

YGO also strives to meet the needs of the state’s migrants and displaced persons. Fundraising is a constant challenge, but some out-of-the-box brainstorming gave birth to an innovative and fun idea for bringing in much-needed money.

Dinner with Friends

A score of YGO supporters was contacted and asked to host dinners in their homes. They were further asked to invite friends who were ready to “sing for their supper” by making a cash donation. The proceeds would go to YGO.

Our home was a Dinner with Friends venue – 20 people joined us for “Mole Poblano” – and our friends Susana and Carlos helped us with the cooking and organization for the dinner. Jorge and I have an authentic Mole pot and not many of our guests had ever seen such a huge one!

All ready for our friends

On Saturday, October 15th, the day of the dinners, the weather was what my mother used to call, “iffy”, and just 15 minutes before the guests were due, our power went out! But thankfully, after 10 anxious minutes, the electricity was back on, and light drizzle of rain fizzled out.

Jorge and I had a lot of fun planning and preparing the evening. We served a spicy-chocolate Mole and side dishes of Fried Plantains, Saffron Rice and Guacamole. Wine and Tequila were enjoyed by most guests, and I saw lots of them looking around to see if there might be seconds of the Coconut Pudding dessert. For quite a few of them, this was their first time trying this signature meal from the state of Puebla.

The many fundraising events, parties, and concerts held in Merida and the beach communities are a lot of fun, and it is satisfying to know that spending a pleasant evening helps others. A win-win situation indeed.

Here are a few photos of “Dinner with Friends” at our home. Maybe you’ll join us next year?

Tea for (more than) two…

This photo is from1985: The IWC Children’s Halloween Party

When the International Women’s Club of Merida (IWC) got started, in many ways, it felt like a lifeline. The international community was far smaller back then, and individuals were spread out all over the city. Before that first meeting, I only knew 4 or 5 women who were not born in Yucatán. They spoke fluent English, and we talked about having a club. And finally on the last Saturday in October of 1984, twenty-two of us attended the first meeting of the IWC.

The IWC is open to women of all nationalities who enjoy a friendly English-speaking environment. The majority of the members are from the USA and Canada, but at different times we have members from other countries in Latin America, Europe, Asia – a few African and Indian women, and even a few from the Lands Down-Under.

Our group provides a setting where English-speaking women of all ages feel comfortable sharing conversation in our own language. You might ask why we have such a need to spend time with women like ourselves. And the answer to that question is complicated.

I am typical of the early members. I was young, but I had traveled quite a bit, and actually lived for a time in Peru. I loved learning about different cultures, seeing the sights and traveling the open road. But when I married Jorge, it did not take long to truly realise that I had made a life-long commitment not only to my husband, but also to a very different way of life. I had not considered how much I would miss my family, my country and my culture. There was no internet, phone calls from Mexico to Canada were terribly expensive, and so my only contact with Canada was through hand written letters, delivered by snail mail.

Within a short time, I felt nearly as close to some of my IWC friends as I feel to my family. We raised our children together and celebrated our holidays with them. These women understood all my little foibles and fears and they shared my joys. Most people know us as a social club, and we definitely are. But we are also very active in community service and in self-improvement.

Our club will soon be 40 years old and we have so much to show for all those years of sisterhood. One of our regular activities is a monthly morning coffee klatch and another is the afternoon tea. We also share a monthly breakfast at a local restaurant, and at our once-a-month general meeting, we have a speaker as well as discuss our different projects and activities. You can read more about the IWC at: https://iwcmerida.com/  If you plan to be in Merida for a visit, for a short stay, or forever, the IWC might become an important resource for you, just as it is for me.

The following photos here were taken at our monthly tea, held yesterday at the brand new home of one of the club’s most vital members. What can I say about the event? “As usual, a wonderful time was held by all.”