Saturday, June 24, 2017

Original Villages | Culhuacán: Celebration of Unity of Holy Trinity Embodies Community Unity

An Ancient Indigenous Village and Its Spanish Catholic Transformation

We have explored and written about Culhuacán in two previous posts. In the first, Hill of the Star and the Origins of Culhuacán and Iztapalapa, we learned that Culhuacán, an altepetl, city-state, orginally located on the north shore of Lake Xochimilco, on the south side of the Iztapalapa peninsula, is one of the oldest settlements in the Valley of Mexico, originating about 500 B.C.E. It lived under the domination of Teotihuacán (500 B.C.E to 500 C.E.) and then the Toltecs, who moved in about 600 C.E. and gave it its current name. The Mexica/Aztecs took control in 1430, after defeating the Tepeneca of A(t)capotzalco, on the west side of Lake Texcoco, who had taken control of the Valley from the Toltecs.

Culhuacán originally lay on the north shore of Lake Xochimilco
and the south side of the Iztapalapa peninsula.
The village of Iztapalapa(n) was established later on the north side of the peninsula.

In our second post, Contemporary Culhuacán, Gods of Darkness and Light, we explored what remains in the pueblo from the Spanish Colonial period and the Spiritual Conquest. There is a beautiful Augustinian convent, now a museum and community arts center. There is also a vivid and still very alive manifestation of the syncretism of indigenous and Spanish Catholic culture and beliefs that emerged from the Spirtual Conquest: the black Señor del Calvario, the Lord of Calvary. 

The black Lord of Calvary is worshipped in his cave by indigenous people.
Legend has it that a couple of hundred years ago, a carving of the figure of Christ,
after his Crucifixion, during his time in the Tomb, was found in the cave.
Mural is in la Capilla del Señor del Calvario, the Chapel of the Lord of Calvary.

At the time of our first visit, we wondered about the meaning and significance of this image of a black Christ for the people of Culhuacán. Recently, we had the opportunity witness the answer.

Santisima Trinidad, Holy Trinity Sunday, and the Two Pueblos of Culhuacán

Semana Santa, the Holy Week of the Passion of Jesus the Christ, and Easter, the day of His Resurrection as the Son of God, are the climax in the drama of the Christian year. In 2017, Holy Week occurred from April 9 to 16.

On the Catholic religious calendar, this climax is followed by a kind of denouement, in which the Risen Christ appears at various times to His disciples and then Ascends into Heaven. This miracle is celebrated on Ascension Day, the fortieth day after Easter, always falling on a Thursday. In 2017, this occurred on May 25. 

The Ascension of Christ is followed ten days later by Pentacost, meaning the fiftieth day after Easter. On that day the Holy Spírit descended in the form of flames alighting on the heads of the gathered disciples, giving them the mission and the energy to embody and continue Christ's work as His Church. Pentacost always falls on a Sunday. In 2017, it fell on Sunday, June 4, bringing the Easter Season to a close.

The first Sunday after Pentacost is Holy Trinity Sunday, in Spanish la Santisima Trinidad, the Most Holy Trinity. In the 14th century, it was established in the Catholic Church as a feast day to celebrate the unity and sacredness of the Trinity: the Father, the Risen Son and the Holy Spirit.

In our research on the various feasts days, and which original indigenous pueblos or barrios of Mexico City especially celebrated any particular one, we learned that Holy Trinity was a major fiesta in Culhuacán. As the date approached, we found a detailed schedule of the Culhuacán celebration on the Facebook page, Fiestas Mágicas de los Pueblos y Barrios Originarios del Valle de México (Magical Festivals of the Original Pueblos and Barrios of the Valley of Mexico). 

The schedule lists events 
from Saturday, June 10, through Thursday, the 15th, 
which is also the Feast of Corpus Christi, the Body of Christ.
The Trinity is portrayed at the top.
Around the sides are four saints.
We will learn who they are as we participate in the fiesta.

Trinity Sunday is, of course, the biggest day of the fiesta. Another post on the Facebook page gives the schedule for the day in more detailed and, thankfully legible, form. It tells us that the day's events begin at 10 AM in the Barrio of Santa María Magdalena in the Pueblo of San Francisco Culhuacán. A procession will go from there to the other three barrios of Pueblo San Francisco, then on to Pueblo Culhuacán for the fiesta of Santisima Trinidad.

A Community Divided in Half

From earlier research, we knew that the barrios composing the original Pueblo of Culhuacán had, for city government purposes, been divided in two. This likely took place in 1928 when the current structure of delegaciones was established. The eastern half of Culhuacán was incorporated as Pueblo Culhuacán into Delegación Iztapalapa. The western half was incorporated into Delegación Coyoacán and is named Pueblo San Francisco Culhuacán, in honor of the Franciscans, who established chapels and churches there in the 16th century as part of the Spiritual Conquest.

The boundary between the two pueblos and their related barrios is an historic one, a remnant of the National Canal, aka La Viga, formerly the Spanish Royal Canal, which ran from Lake Xochimilco to the Center of Mexico City and which remained in active use until the 1920s. Culhuacán was a major stop along the canal's route. (See maps at the end of this post.)

The Day Begins in Barrio Santa María Magdalena

So our day's Amble is to begin in Pueblo San Francisco, the western, Coyoacán portion of Culhuacán, and move though its four barrios before crossing the canal to the eastern half of Culhuacán. From where we live, in Colonia Parque San Andrés, in Coyoacán, San Francisco Culhuacán is todo derecho, directly straight east. So shortly after 9 AM on Sunday, June 11, we call our faithful taxi company. Ten minutes later, a cab arrives and we head across the Calzada de Tlalpan and along Calzada de Taxqueña boulevard to San Francisco Culhuacán. We are there in fifteen minutes and easily find Barrio Santa María Magdalena and its parish church, just to the north of Taxqueña.

Parish Church of Santa María Magdalena

In the street at one side of the church, a group of people seated under a large tarp are being served desayuno, breakfast, from a house. The serving of breakfast to the community is one of the traditions of Mexican fiestas. The host is a member of the organizing committee or mayordomoria.

Barrio desayuno, breakfast

Ten o'clock is approaching, but only a few people enter the church. Most wear light blue, short-sleeved shirts identifying them as volunteer workers for the fiesta. Nothing seems to be happening. We wait in the small atrio, atrium, outside the church.

Two young boys approach
and, with typical curiosity,
ask who we are and where we're from.

Then a matronly woman emerges from the church and makes a call on her cell phone. We can overhear her conversation. She is calling la banda, the band, an essential ingredient for a procession. "Donde están?" | "Where are you|" She seems relieved by the answer. When she hangs up, we greet her and confirm what we heard. She says the band is on its way and should be here in five minutes. We ask her name, She is Sra. Salvador. She is the mayordoma, the head of the fiesta committee for the barrio.

La Mayordoma, Sra. Salvador

Soon, la banda comes up the street, enters the church and begins to play, a deafening sound in the small sanctuary. We comment to Sra. Salvador that they will surely wake the dead. She laughs in agreement.

La banda plays for Santa María Magdalena to prepare for her procession.

The procession starts off, led by one of the young boys who greeted us ringing a handbell.
At this point, it consists totally of fiesta volunteer workers.
We wonder whether the fiesta will be a small, vestigial celebration
or turn into something bigger.
We also wonder what the miniature, flower-covered glass coffins contain.
They are certainly objects of veneration.

Santa María Magdalena and the Holy Trinity

Virgin of Candelaria,
with Infant Jesus.
No matter the patron saint of a fiesta,
one or more Virgins
always join the procession.

Cohetero shoots cohetes,
rocket-style firecrackers,
another indispensible component
of fiestas.

Barrio San Juan Bautista Joins the Procession

Chapel of San Juan Bautista,
St. John the Baptist

After winding through various callejas, narrow streets, the procession arrives in front of a small chapel. Awaiting us is San Juan Bautista, St. John the Baptist, attended by a few of his parishioners. Again, we wonder to ourselves how large (or small) this fiesta is going to be. 

San Juan Bautista
St. John the Baptist

With St. John the Baptist and his feligreses, parishioners, the procession moves on. We pass through more calleajas and come to the wide, traffic-heavy Avenida Taxqueña. It is always interesting to see how one of these processions manages to enter or cross such a main artery. Some of the volunteers, in their blue shirts, go out into the first lane and start directing traffic around themselves, into the inner lanes, then they move into the next lane and so on, until traffic is stopped and the procession can cross to the median. The same tactic is repeated in the opposite lanes and the crossing is completed. 

Continuing now on the south side of Taxquena, the procession enters another side street and soon emerges into a fairly large plaza with a church on one side.

Barrio Santa Anita

Parish Church of Santa Anita,
St. Anne, Mother of the Virgin Mary.
She waits at the door.

Santa Anita and St. Joachim
St. Anne and St. Joachim, parents of the Virgin 

Barrio San Francisco Revs Up the Fiesta

Parish Church of San Francisco Culhuacán

It is a classically simple Franciscan structure.
(Photo was taken on an earlier excursion to the barrio
 that didn't pan out fiesta-wise.)

A large tarp hangs above the street, blocking any view of the church facade.

San Francisco, St. Francis of Assisi
waits at the church door.

The space underneath the tarp is full of people, the first sizeable group we have encountered today. We are muy emocionado, very excited to see some old acquaintances whom we met last year while following el Señor de la Miseracordia, the Lord of Compassion, from barrio to barrio in Coyoacán.

Charro danzante
fancy-dressed cowboy dancer
When we met the charros,
last year, none wore masks.

This beaded mask is the first one
of this style we have ever seen.

Death just below the surface of life
is a very Mexican theme.

The male charros are accompanied and balanced by female dancers, in traditional charra, cowgirl dress. Together they compose the Comparsa, dance troupe, of San Francisco Culhuacán.


Soon, the now much enlarged, and much more colorful and lively procession moves on its way. We feel like the party has finally begun!

Also joining the procession at this point are eight large wooden objects,
carried by both younger and older men. 

Also joining the procession at this point are eight large wooden objects, carried by both younger and older men. It takes us a moment to realize they are candlesticks. Women walking beside the men carry large candles. Obviously, they are to play some role in the fiesta, but what it is, for now, is a mystery.

Crossing an Historic Boundary

In very short time, we come to the labyrinthian, multi-lane, partially elevated intersection of Taxqueña and a major north-south avenue, Eje 3 Oriente (Axis Road 3 East). We are glad that we are part of the procession and being led through all the mazes. Somehow, we manage to wend our way through the crossroads, finally crossing what we realize is an old stone bridge. On the east side the procession stops at a sizeable roadside shrine. 

On a table in front of the shrine are the statue of another female saint, another of those mysterious small glass coffins and a larger object hidden behind a facade that reads, Santísima Trinidad, Sr. del Calvario, Most Holy Trinity, Lord of Calvary. 

As mentioned earlier, we have encountered the Lord of Calvary before. We know that our destination today is His Chapel in Pueblo Culhuacán. Here, then, is the first direct expression of a link between this day of the Holy Trinity and the Lord, the Son of God, at the time after His interment, before His Resurrection, lying in the Tomb. Inside the shrine is only an empty cross dressed in a kind of scarf. It is la Santa Cruz, the Holy Cross. We attended a celebration of the Holy Cross about a month ago, on May 3, in Barrio Santa Cruz Alcapixca, in Xochimilco. There we saw many crosses, much larger and also dressed with hanging cloths. 

Across the Canal

While the procession is stopped to incorporate these additional sacred objects, it occurs to us that the old stone bridge we have just crossed spans the National Canal, la Viga, which we have explored at length farther north. We realize that in so doing, we have crossed from the western half of Pueblo Culhuacán and entered the eastern half. 

We ask an older couple standing nearby if we are correct. Confirming that this is, indeed, the canal, they begin to tell us its history. We share with them that we have read much about the crucial waterway and actually followed parts of its pathway, now the Calzada de la Viga roadway, from Delegación Iztacalco north all the way to where it once ended in the Zócalo. We tell them we are excited because we have never seen this actual remnant of the open canal. 

We walk down the slope alongside the stone bridge. All that can be seen is a mass of some kind of green water plant that has totally filled the waterway. It isn't what we hoped to see, but at least it tells us there is still water in the canal. As compensation, the City has created a very attractive walkway alongside the canal. (We have subsequently learned that there is a citizens group, Corredor Cultural Canal Nacional, dedicated to restoring and maintaining the canal as a green space navagable via canoe and inhabited by wild fowl.)

The Fiesta Shifts Into High Gear

It becomes apparent that this stop isn't just to incorporate more sacred members into the procession. The stop turns into a mini-fiesta en camino, on the way. The women and men of the comparsa dance energetically for several minutes. Given that we have just entered Pueblo Culhuacán of Iztapalapa from Pueblo San Francisco Culhuacán in Coyoacán, our hunch is that this particular act of celebration is a recognition of that transition. The two pueblos are coming together on this holy day. Similarly, the large roadside shrine at this location isn't coincidental; rather, it is a landmark of this significant crossing between the two sides of Culhuacán.


Arriving in Pueblo Culhuacán, Iztapalapa

Finally walking on, we come to the intersection of Calzada de Taxqueña with another main roadway, Avenida Tláhuac, which runs southeast to the delegación of the same name. Across the intersection, we see a portada, arch, welcoming us to Pueblo Culhuacán.

Portada at entrance to center of Pueblo Culhuacán, Iztapalapa

Crossing Avenida Tláhuac, the procession enters the narrow callejas of the old barrio, which we recognize from former visits.

The Chapel of the Lord of Calvary

Walking a short block, we enter a plaza. On the far side is la Capilla del Señor del Calvario, the Chapel of the Lord of Calvary. 

Portada over the entrance to the Chapel of the Lord of Calvary
"Holy Trinity,
praise, honor and glory to you,
only and supreme God!"

The procession, with all its saints, climbs the stairs to the Chapel.

In the atrio at the top of the stairs, an altar has been set up for an open-air Mass.
A figure of the black Christ, Lord of Calvary, hangs from a large cross.

"Holy Trinity, thank you for your kindness."

It is Holy Trinity Sunday, but the Lord of Calvary is front and center.

Portada at the entrance to the Chapel

The Trinity is portrayed at the top,
but the words are addressed to just one of its Three Persons:
"Blessed may you be, Lord of Calvary"

The design on the portada
is made entirely of minature pottery.

The ornate Chapel is filled with bouquets of flowers.
Statues of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ, wearing the crown of thorns,
stand at each side of the altar.
On the altar, behind a picture of the Holy Trinity, is a large glass coffin,
with the Lord of Calvary inside.

The spiral-pillared canopy imitates the Baroque baldachin created by the sculptor Bernini
over the main altar in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

When we come out of the Chapel, the atrio is full of the faithful of Culhuacán

A group of minature glass coffins has been placed on a table in front.
Each one contains a small Lord of Calvary

The Lord of Calvary has been brought from His Chapel
and placed on another table in front.

The saints whom we have accompanied in the procession enter. 

The Union of God and His Pueblo, the People of Culhuacán

As we watch all these elements come together--the various saints who joined the the procession that started in Barrio Santa María Magdalena and passed through the other four barrios of Pueblo San Francisco Culhuacán, the numerous small glass coffins, each containing their Lord, the original Lord of Calvary, himself, the eight candles and the congregation—the meaning of all these symbols and their being brought together from the various barrios by their pueblos, the people, on Holy Trinity Sunday begins to become clearer to us. 

Trinity Sunday is an acknowledgement and celebration of the return of the Christ from his earthly sojourn as Jesus of Nazareth to his sitting in Glory at the Right Hand of the Father Almighty, together with the Holy Spirit, whose force has enlightened and energized the disciples just a Sunday before on Pentacost, bringing the Church, the congregation of the faithful, to life. Trinity Sunday is a celebration of the Heavenly Union of the Three Persons of the Godhead with one another and its Union, through the sacrifice of the Christ, His Crucifixion and Resurrection, with the Church on Earth. 

For the barrios of ancient Culhuacán, Trinity Sunday is therefore a day to manifest and celebrate their own continuing Union, centered around their own manifestation of Christ, the Lord of Calvary, found some years ago in the cave that sits just to the side of His Chapel. 

Barrios United, Culhuacán
The unifying symbol
is the black Lord of Calvary.

We now have an insight into those eight curious, grand candlesticks and their candles, now lit for the Mass. They represent the eight barrios of the two Pueblos of Culhuacán, now joined in worship of their shared Heavenly Lord. 

The eight tall candlesticks
represent the eight barrios of the two Pueblos of Culhuacán. 

Cave of the Lord of Calvary,
which sits at the base of Cerro de la Estrella,
Hill of the Star,
an ancient pre-Christian site of sacred sacrifice.

The cave and the Chapel of the Lord of Calvary
sit about a block from the former Franciscan, then Agustinian convent,
from which the Spiritual Conquest was carried out in Culhuacán.

Los Pueblos Culhuacán (yellow star) lie along the border between
Delegación Coyoacán (purple) and
Iztapalapa (dark green)

Pueblo San Francisco Culhuacán,
composed of four barrios,
is on eastern edge of Delegación Coyoacán
marked by red/orange star.

Pueblo San Francisco Culhuacán
(outlined in black).

Curving blue line on the east side is the National Canal, aka La Viga
East of the Canal is Pueblo Culhuacán of Iztapalapa
Red/yellow star marks the Chapel of the Lord of Calvary.

Four barrios are, from north to south:
Santa María Magdalena Atlazolpa (green)
San Juan Bautista (purple)

and south of the wide, curving Avenida Taxqueña
Santa Anita (blue)
San Francisco (red)

Pueblo and barrios of Culhuacán
in Delegación Iztapalapa
marked by green/yellow star.
Dark green area just to northeast of star is Cerro de la Estrella, Hill of the Star

Pueblo Culhuacán (red area) and its four surrounding barrios
(outlined in black).
Curving blue line to west is the National Canal, aka La Viga)
West of the Canal is Pueblo San Francisco Culhuacán.

Red and orange star marks location of the Chapel of the Lord of Calvary
Dark gray-green area to the east is Cerro de la Estrella, Hill of the Star.

The four barrios are, from the north:
Los Tres Reyes (Three Kings) (light green)
San Antonio (light red)
San José Tula (light blue)
San Simón (purple)

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