I was nine and a half and in San Juan de los Lagos, a town some seventy-five miles north of Guadalajara, on a multi-city Lenten pilgrimage with my mother and very ill grandmother. I know for sure that it was during Lent because my mother and grandmother forced me to go to the Stations of the Cross (I'm unclear on whether capitalization of that is really necessary. However, Catholicism lends itself to the theatrical; therefore, to capitalization) through my tears, and all of the statues and paintings were draped in purple; but I'm unsure if it was Holy Week or not. See, I know for sure that during this trip, I was nine and a half because my grandmother was dying and that was the reason we were there; she would die a few months after we came back, after she and I planted a plum tree that has, even after nearly eleven years, refused to grow. But I also remember traveling to Guatemala during Holy Week around this time, and definitely being there for Easter. It's my journal from this time that is confusing me, a notebook my mother bought for me at a papelería, a stationery shop, in Dolores Hidalgo some days later. I felt that I had to go back in the trip and act in my journal as if I had kept it the entire time, backdating entries and so on. A particular Sunday (one spent in Dolores Hidalgo, which, by the way, is where El Grito, the catalyst for Mexican independence that took place some one hundred and eighty years to the date before my birth), I drew a cross with rays around it and wrote in my careful fourth grade handwriting "He is Risen". This is particularly odd, considering my distrust of Jesus Christ and nearly crippling fear of crucifixes, especially at that age (hence my tears at the Stations of the Cross).
The Mexico of my ninth, tenth, and eleventh years blurs together in my head: things that I tasted in Guanajuato when I was eleven are given the appearance of pan dulce I ate in Guadalajara when I was nine; smells of a colonial hotel in Patzcuaro are attributed to a cabin at a KOA campsite in Creel. But I remember San Juan de los Lagos with a precision I know I'll keep until I die. I've only been there once, and for the duration of two nights and a day, but I remember the proprietress's sons watching Dragon Ball Z in Spanish and how the hotel doubled as a pizza parlor (the chunks of tomato on the pizza my grandmother and I shared), and how, as we ate breakfast early one particular golden morning at a fragrant panadería, the zócalo reminded me of things I'd seen in Fellini movies.
Let's pretend that I was in San Juan de los Lagos on a regular-but-still-Lenten weekday. The day was absolutely gorgeous. My grandmother's illness having been kept from me, I wasn't aware of why we were traveling; in fact, I remember whining to my mother as we crossed the main plaza to the basilica about having to go to church everyday (To be honest, I actually enjoyed going to mass. It was the massive polychrome Christs nailed to their Crosses, in their twisted, bloody, colonial suffering, that frightened me. I had tried explaining this to members of my family, who only concluded that there was something wrong with me (i.e. demonic possession) and continued to force me into the painful presence of the Messiah.) and receiving a harsh scolding. I've forgotten the other shrines and virgenes we visited; we didn't go visit la Virgen de Guadalupe, because my grandmother would not have been able to withstand the high altitude of Mexico City. Sometimes I wonder if we had gone there, my grandmother would still be alive.
As my family sat down quietly in a pew to pray, I wandered about the church in the awkward outfit of a Catholic pre-pubescent girl: a plaid blouse and a pleated skirt that covered my knees; a pair of soft leather sandals freshly purchased in Guadalajara for the journey; my hair in clean, tight trensas. The Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan de Los Lagos struck me as gilded, white, and blue; something that Marie Antoinette would have had as a living room if she lived in Huntington Park, I remember thinking; there was something incredibly Mexican that I couldn't quite place. There seemed to be a perpetual mass going on, but I figured French people went to mass as much as us; and the stinging smell of candles I had experienced as an altar girl in Los Angeles.
Finally, it struck me. There was a massive wall with notes, locks (sometimes entire braids) of hair, wedding dresses, photographs, and peculiar paintings that reminded me of cartoons. I tried to touch one, and wondered if Our Lady actually did appear in these scenarios, awkwardly hovering above the heads of her blessed children who'd just been kicked in the stomach by horses or whatever, standing upon the moon in her triangular and opulent robes. That was when I noticed the pilgrims.
Of course, pilgrimages and ex-votos are hardly endemic to Mexico, or even Latin America, at all. The Greeks particularly stand out in my mind as practitioners of pilgrimage: Edith Hamilton, in her boring, encyclopedic summary of Grecian, Roman, and Norse mythology (fittingly and blandly entitled Mythology), tells of Biton and Cleobis. Sons of a priestess of Hera who longed to see a specific statue of the goddess yet was too frail to make the journey, they yoked themselves to an ox cart and carried their mother there, as Hamilton tells us:
Everyone admired their filial piety when they arrived, and the proud and the happy mother
standing before the statue prayed that Hera would reward them by giving them the best gift in her power. As she finished her prayer the two lads sank to the ground. They were smiling, and looked as if they were peacefully asleep; but they were dead (429).
This particular story resonates with me because it is one mother honoring another, the goddess Hera, who, like the Virgin Mary and Tonantzin (the syncretism of these two gave us our beloved yet, in my opinion, suspicious Virgen de Guadalupe) is the mother figure in that particular pantheon; yet, unlike Mary and Tonantzin, has quite a venomous way of showing her love to her children. As Greeks colonized the northern coast of Spain (in what is now Cataluña, the autonomous community which has an extensive and rich history of retablos and ex-votos) in the first millennium B.C.E., it would not surprise me if they had handed the idea of pilgrimage to holy sites to what would eventually become Spanish Catholics.
Surprisingly, the concept of ex-votos, along with the red hair and freckles my older sister was so lucky to inherit, were brought to northern Spain by the Celts who migrated from southern France around the same time as the Greeks arrived on the Iberian peninsula (see above), who also brought with them "such skills as metalworking and additional methods of farming and herding (Oettinger, Jr., 24)". In contemporary yet still very Catholic Spain, the art of pictorial retablos (as the paintings I encountered are called) has virtually disappeared, having been replaced by the more direct objects I mentioned-crutches, hair, and wedding dresses. The use of these highly personal objects reminds me of the idea of found art that powered Western avant-garde art movements such as Fluxus.
In Mexico, however, the custom of retablo painting is still very much alive. “Imported by the Spaniards to Mexico in its pictorial form, usually as an immense oil on canvas,” Victoire and Hervé Di Rosa write in their forward to Alfredo Vilchis Roque’s glorious monograph, Infinitas Gracias, “the votive was adopted in the Americas by populations that already practiced offerings or sacrifices to ask a gift from Heaven or give thanks for favors received [consider Mejica codices]. Yet, in all the Spanish colonies in the Western hemisphere, it was in Mexico that the votive attained the greatest popularity, longevity and level of artistic development (Vilchis Roque, 10).
Let us return to that spring afternoon in Jalisco, in the year 2000. I looked towards the main aisle of the church, and noticed scores of people walking up to Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos on their knees. This alarmed me somewhat; I was raised essentially secular, with a healthy dose of both Jewish and Catholic guilt from both sides of my families, and unused to any physical show of devotion (besides crucifixion). As I dared to get closer, I noticed little patches of moister on the marble floor of the aisle. It was blood. I ran to my mother and demanded an explanation.
She told me how these people were pilgrims, and they came from all over Mexico to essential crawl across the plaza to ask La Virgen for a favor. Once their favor had been granted, they would make another pilgrimage, this time to show their gratitude, she explained, gesturing to the wall with all the retablos and ex-votos on it. As Vilchis Roque says, “There is no votive offering without a miracle behind it” (9).
I immediately took off running for the other end of the plaza, and, once there, kneeled down. I was going to ask that my grandmother be healthy again. Although the seriousness of her illness was kept from me, I still sensed that my often vivacious grandmother was gradually slipping away from us. Noticing that the other pilgrims were praying, I repeatedly recited the only prayer I knew back then: the prayer my grandmother taught me to say before I fell asleep, dedicated to the Archangels (I have, unfortunately, forgotten this prayer) and my guardian angel.
I must have said the simple children’s prayer at least a thousand times before I made it to the altar, heavy scrapes and all, and asked simply for Our Lady to make my grandmother well. If she did so, I promised to make her one of those paintings and make a gift of my hair. That was all. I stood up, my knees ashy, and ran back to my mother and grandmother.
In retrospect and through writing this paper, I’ve come to feel like I do owe Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos a retablo. While she didn’t cure my grandmother of an incredibly painful disease, she did let her die surrounded by her family at home, swiftly and quietly. Perhaps, when I finish school and have the papers and money to do so, I will take one of those buses from Guadalajara to San Juan de los Lagos and stay in that same monastic hotel run by the single mother, with a retablo I have painted myself under my arm, and the hair I’ve since shorn off, yet kept, braided neatly and tightly.