I'm sure I must have recounted for you somewhere in these endless pages the tale of a humble weaver and farmer who encountered the glowing vision of a woman on a hillside near Tenochtitlan. Juan Diego was his name. He was fifty-seven years old and a recent convert to Roman Catholicism -- very recent, seeing as how the Spanish and their religion had only just arrived on the scene ten years before at which time they got busy razing the Aztec capitol and erecting Mexico City in its place.
Being as avid as he was recent, Juan was walking to the Franciscan mission for further religious instruction when, on the morning of December 9, 1531, he was stopped in his tracks by the apparition.
To make a long story shorter, the apparition introduced herself as a major power and informed Juan that he was to go to his bishop and request that said bishop get busy building her a temple on that hillside. Juan, simple peasant that he was, and flummoxed as he must have been, followed her instructions and was basically pooh-poohed by the bishop. By the fourth time she appeared to Juan, the lady was becoming impatient. She caused to bloom upon the hillside a field of roses and told Juan to gather the blossoms, take them to the skeptical bishop, and repeat her request. Juan picked the roses, wrapped them in his tilma (a garment like a cape or poncho and wovern of maguey cactus fiber) and trudged off toward the Spanish construction zone to entreat the bishop yet again.
Okay, we'll get back to this story later. Let's go on the road for a bit first.
Talpa de Allende is a town of 11,000 residents tucked into a high valley in the middle of our coastal Sierra Madre mountains. One can fly there: I did, once, in a plane the size of a handkerchief. I seem to remember the flight was only twenty minutes or so, cruising low over the dense jungle canopy, the pilot giving me a personal guided tour as I was his only passenger.
That was eleven years ago. I'd been back several times, but not recently, and thought a visit to this charming piece of "real Mexico" would be a treat for Craig and our visiting friends from the States. So I went back to Talpa. Twice in two weeks. Because Talpa, although a cowboy town with Dodge City storefronts, has its own remarkable story.
Talpa's legend began in 1644, when a tiny statue of the Virgin Mary made of cornstalks was ordered buried beneath the sacristy by a visiting priest because it was tattered and shabby and, according to church law, not fit for public view. On the morning of September 19, Maria Tenachi, the cantor's daughter, reached for the figure to wrap it for its burial when it began to glow with an unearthly light, causing Maria and several other women cleaning the church to collapse in a dead faint. The townspeople ran to the church and discovered that the cornstalk figure was now solid, shining like new shoes, and (according to some stories) had the ability to shed a tear and bleed from a scratch.
And thus began the powerful draw of Nuestra Señora de Rosario, Our Lady of the Rosary, the patroness of Talpa de Allende.
Oh, there are other miracles attributed to La Chapparita (The Little Short One). Many others, not the least of which is that each year, she attracts millions of pilgrims to Talpa. They come from miles around. One of the more popular routes from Ameca is over 70 miles long. They come on horseback and they come on foot, all with something to offer or something to ask of Rosario.
On our first trip to Talpa, a three-and-a-half hour drive through the mountains from San Pancho, the town was relatively quiet as we visited with our friend Mary for a long leisurely afternoon.
On our second trip, during the week of the Festival of St. Joseph, we spent two nights at the Hotel Misión with Krystal and Steve from St. Louis. Carol and Doug, of San Pancho and Ohio, joined us for the first night. The town was full to brimming.
Pilgrims, or peregrinos as they are referred to in Spanish, came in group after group to pay their respects to Rosario. Many groups wore matching t-shirts announcing their hometowns and allegiances. Talpa welcomes its peregrinos with open arms. Since my previous spate of visits, a path has been created from the high lookout above the town to carry the pilgrims through the hills instead of along the steep, curvy, and potentially dangerous highway into town.
Cruz de Romero is resting spot, staging area, refreshment stand and viewpoint for the arriving pilgrims. It's a hike up to the dome, and a further hike to its top. A few of our own trusty pilgrims made the ascent...and the descent.
Below the dome, beside a parking lot for cars and busses, this sign alerts arrivals to the safe way to their destination:
"Friend Pilgrim," it says, "the pedestrian path has been remodeled and improved so that you can walk with more safety and comfort. For your security, don't use the highway. It's very dangerous."
Most use the path; some don't.
The trail rejoins the main road further down the mountain where it becomes a wide sidewalk lined with a series of statues of madonnas from all over the world.
"Welcome, Pilgrims, to the land of the Most Holy Virgin Mary. 'Avenue of the Queens'. Constructed by the Rectory Council of the Basilica and the Governor of the State for your service and comfort. Be careful."
This one is from San Juan de los Lagos, the second most visited pilgrim shrine in Mexico (after the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the outskirts of Mexico City).
This one is the Virgin Queen of Peace from Yugoslavia.
This is the Virgin of Fatima from Portugal.
And this one I call, "The Famous Our Lady of Lourdes with Pilgrim Texting".
It's nice that people keep in touch, isn't it?
As soon as we entered town, we noticed a group of mariachis lounging on the porch of a tiny convenience store. They were exceptionally willing to allow, in fact to pose for, a photograph.
We quickly discovered, once we were in place and observing the pilgrims' approach to the Basilica, that the several mariachi bands we'd seen at the entrance to town were waiting there for a reason: the groups of pilgrims hired them to accompany the rest of their walk to the plaza, and, in fact, right into the church at times.
All day long and all the next morning, peregrinos entered the plaza. They bore banners and statues of the madonna in glass cases, carried upon shoulders for miles. They came in joy, in sadness, in humility, depending upon the purpose of their peregrination.
Groups waited outside for mass to end. Inside, the Basilica was full to capacity.
And Rosario stood over all, the object of their thanks, their appeals, their prayers, their devotion.
On our final morning in Talpa, my interest was piqued by a group of pilgrims dancing in the plaza.
Their shoes, a modern version of what? a sandal made from leaves or bark? clack loudly as they dance spiritedly. The rhythmic steps and controlled abandon remind me of dances I've witnessed by the Chimicheca, Apache, and other indigenous performers who parade through the streets during festivals in San Miguel de Allende.
Their clothing and dance almost certainly pre-date the coming of the Spanish to Mexico. Yet they, too, are here to see Rosario. And look whose banner they carry: The Queen of Mexico, Guadalupe of Juan Diego's hillside.
You see, Rosario, along with Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos, Our Lady of Zapopan, Our Lady of Ocotlan, and a few dozen others are all localized Mexican versions of The Virgin: Our Lady of Guadalupe, the shining star of Mexico, whose story we shall return to in Part 2.