Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Original Villages | Culhuacán's Barrio San Antonio Atípac, Part I: A Humble Barrio With a Big Heart

Culhuacán, the Place of the Ancient Ones

We have already visited a number of times the original Pueblo Culhuacán, one of the most important of the original altepetls (city-states) in the Valley of Anahuac before the Mexica/Azteca took over in 1430.
~ We have explored its ancient roots, at the base of Cerro de la Estrella (Hill of the Star), on the Iztapalapa peninsula between Lakes Texcoco and Xochimilco, going back some 2,500 years. The Tolteca, a Nahuatl-speaking group who arrived there about 600 CE, dominated the east side of the Valley for 800 years.
~ We have seen how el pueblo (the people of the village) and its nine barrios, now divided between the two delegaciones (boroughs) of Coyoacán and Iztapalapa, actively maintain a shared sense of their history and pride in their communal identity through a system of interlinked fiestas.
~ The key to this shared identity and pride is the veneration of el Señor del Calvario, the Lord of Calvary, a carved figure of a black Christ during His Interment in the Tomb, after his Crucifixion and before His Resurrection. According to legend, He was found a couple of hundred years ago in a small cave in the Pueblo at the base of Cerro de la Estrella. As a santo popular, a saint adopted by the people (i.e., not designated by priests of the Catholic Church), He now has His own chapel, next to the cave. It was built by the community in the early 20th century and is maintained by el pueblo
~ As a symbolic but also concrete demonstration of this shared identity, the Lord of Calvary is carried to each barrio to be present in its church during its patron saint fiesta. We have witnessed how this bond is shared by the adjacent Pueblo Tomatlán and its two barrios, San Andrés and Santa María.

Barrio San Antonio Atípac

Recently, we learned that Culhuacán's Barrio San Antonio Atípac was going to have its patron saint fiesta on the weekend of January 20, honoring San Antonio Abad. St. Anthony the Abbot (i.e., head of a monastic group), aka Anthony the Great, was an early Christian Coptic (Egyptian) hermit who lived alone in the desert in the third and fourth centuries CE Barrio San Antonio Atípac is on the Iztapalapa side of the National Canal (aka La Viga, the Beam), which is the boundary between the two halves of the original Pueblo. Atípac is its original indigenous, Nahuatl name.

The fiesta announcement on Culhuacán's Grupo Cultural Facebook page lists a procession through the streets of the barrio scheduled for 5pm on Saturday afternoon. The sun sets a little after 6, meaning the light will be low and fading, so we worry about being able to get good photos. However, as it's easy for us to get to Culhuacán—a fifteen minute cab ride todo derecho, straight east along the wide boulevard, Calzada Taxqueña—we decide it's worth taking the chance. So at about 4:30 we get a taxi from our neighborhood base and tell the driver our destination.

Finding the Barrio in the Midst of an Urban Labyrinth

There is little traffic on a Saturday afternoon, so we arrive in the Coyoacán section of Culhuacán very quickly. However, finding the Church of San Antonio Abad turns out to be a challenge. Google Maps locates it on Avenida San Antonio, just northeast of the major intersection of Taxqueña and Eje 3 (Tres) Oriente (Axis Road #3 East), but it turns out that it isn't easy to get to the actual intersection, or even to find Avenida San Antonio. The way is, in fact, through an urban labyrinth of overpasses, underpasses, avenues and barrio callejas (narrow streets).

Before reaching the intersection, Taxquena goes up over a long viaduct that crosses above the National Canal and several streets, including Eje 3, only coming down to ground level as it approaches another main avenue, Avenida Tláhuac, in the center of the Iztapalapa section of Culhuacán. So. To get to Eje 3, we have to take a service road that runs beneath the viaduct. Reaching Eje 3, we find a fenced median dividing the road, which means there's no intersection that would enable us to turn north on the Eje. We have to go south some distance until we reach an intersection where we can dar la vuelta, turn around, and head back north.

As most streets are well marked in Mexico City, we have assumed that Avenida San Antonio is a wide street, with an obvious street sign. That, too, is not the case. We travel several blocks north of Taxqueña without seeing any such avenue. Obviously, we have missed it. The driver then lets us know he has GPS on his cell phone and punches in the address. The resulting map directs us through a calleja (narrow side street) crossing San Antonio to Avenida Tláhuac, on the east side of the barrio, then south to another calleja.

It is now some minutes after 5pm. We are getting anxious that we will be late for the beginning of the procession. The street is only a block long, ending at another narrow cross street. That one is blocked, typically, by juegos mechanicos, carnival rides, for the fiesta, so we tell the driver we will get out here and walk the rest of the way.

Wending our way on foot between the rides, we quickly reach another corner with a street running west. It is Avenida San Antonio, which is actually another calleja, rather than the wide avenue we imagined. Not far along the street, we spy a modern church steeple.

Avenida San Antonio
The church steeple rises 
on the right,
behind the telephone pole.

Chapel of San Antonio Abad

La Procesión

We arrive just in the nick of time! As we approach the church from the east, a banda arrives from the west (we can see Eje 3 a short distance away!). They enter the church. Before we can follow them in, some parish members exit, bearing the statue of San Antonio Abad. The band follows, playing, and the procession is underway.

San Antonio Abad

Behind San Antonio come other parishioners,
one bearing a small glass and wooden, casket-shaped box.
We know from previous visits to Culhuacán that it bears a demandita,
a miniature version of the Lord of Calvary.
Each barrio in Culhuacán apparently has one.

La banda follows behind.

Almost immediately, the procession  turns into a callejón, a narrow alleyway, and stops before the entrance to a home. The alleyway is decorated with blue and white balloons, the colors of the Virgin Mary. A table, covered with a cloth awaits San Antonio.

The mistress of the house listens while the leaders of the procession introduce themselves.
She then offers prayers to San Antonio,
followed by a gift of food, in this case, cookies, to the procession participants.

La demandita del Señor del Calvario,
Miniature version of the Lord of Calvary.


The leaders of the procession are the mayordomos, literally caretakers, responsible for San Antonio and the fiesta arrangements. They announce to the householder their respective cargos, charges, responsibilties. One is mayordomo de la banda, responsible for obtaining the band (and the funds to pay for it). The other is mayordomo de la capilla, responsible for care of the chapel. 

Mayordomos de la banda y de la capilla

There is a pause in the procession while people eat the cookies offered them, so we introduce ourselves to the mayordomos and tell them of our purpose in attending the procession and that we will publish an account and photos in Mexico City Ambles. We give them our card with the blog's URL. They promptly introduce us to other members of the mayordomía, the commitee that has organized and is overseeing the fiesta.

This young man turns out to be in charge
of the cohetes, the rocket-style firecrackers
essential to announcing the events of a fiesta,
including the approach of the procession.

We are struck by the youth of some of the
mayordomos. Usually it takes years of
helping with fiestas
to reach these positions of leadership.


The procession moves on to another home.

Copal, an ancient Mexican incense, is offered in a tradtional indigenous censer. 

A tradition that goes back centuries
before the arrival of the Spanish
and Catholicism in Mexico.

La Banda, John Philip Sousa and the Fourth of July

After the ritual of introductions and prayers, treats are again offered to the participants, this time a cup of pudding, which takes a while to consume. We use the time to talk with members of the banda while they have a break from playing. T

We tell them that su música nos encanta, their music enchants us, i.e., we love the variety of Mexican musical styles that they have been playing, all excellently. Each region, even each state, of Mexico has its own style of popular music. The banda has already played everything from ranchero, the lyrical style of mariachis originating in the western state of Jalisco, to jarocho, Veracruz style with its syncopated Caribbean rhythm. They ask where we are from and we acknowlege we are estadounidense, literally a "USian", from the United States. They tell us their band's name is "La Poblanita" ("Little One of Puebla"). They all live in Mexico City, but are from the State of Puebla. 

We also tell them that they are all muy guapo, very handsome, and take several individual photos.

Top, second from left, is the sousaphone player (see below).
We think the clarinetist, (top, far right)
is the one who got the band to play some tunes especially for us (also see below).

Then they start to play a tune, one that sounds extremely familiar. It is a march by John Philip Sousa, "Stars and Stripes Forever"! (The link takes you to a recording of the march) One of the clarinetists speaks to us, "This is for you." When they finish, the tuba player tells us that his instrument is actually a sousaphone, a variation on an orchestral tuba made at Sousa's request to be portable for marching bands. It is the rhymthic foundation of every Mexican banda and its player is telling us some U.S. music history that we didn't know.

Playing "The Stars and Stripes Forever"

We then proceed through the streets toward the next home, and they play two more Sousa marches!  One, they tell us, is "The Washington Post" march. The melody is familiar from high school and college football games, but we didn't know the name. Later, we find it was commissioned by the Washington Post newspaper for a celebration. 

We are nearly brought to tears. Here we are, a foreign outsider in the midst of a Catholic religious procession in a working class barrio of Mexico City, and it sounds like the Fourth of July! Such is the quintessential amabilidad (kindness) and calidez (warmth) of Mexicans toward estadounidenses, despite the abuses our government continues to impose on them. It is truly a moment we will savor forever.

Algunos de la Gente, Some of the People

As always, we take advantage of the procession to take retratos (portraits) of some of the people participating and watching.

El señor, the gentleman, upper right, introduces himself to us.
He is Sr. Rojas. He offers to introduce us to the cronista, historian, of Culhuacán.
The young man below him is his younger son. His is another warm reception to the barrio.

Preparations for Tomorrow

By now it is past 6 pm and the sun has set. Little light is left, so photos are virtually impossible. We decide it's time to go. We bid farewell to the mayordomos, la banda and Sr. Rojas, who has offered to share more information about the barrio and Culhuacán. We promise to return tomorrow at noon, when saints and people from the other barrios of Culhuacán will be received at the intersection of Calzada Taxqueña and Eje 3 (!) and led in a procession to the church to join in the Mass celebrating San Antonio Abad and His barrio. 

We walk west on Avenida San Antonio, towards Eje 3 where we will hail a cab. This takes us back past the church. The doors are open, and the lights are on. We didn't have time to see the church interior when we arrived, so we climb the steps and enter. 

Chancel of San Antonio Abad

As with all patron saint fiestas, the church is full of flowers, this time all white, perhaps to go with San Antonio's robes. A middle-aged man is working behind the altar, arranging huge bouquets. Two younger men, evidently his assistants, are arranging flowers along the aisles. Expecting that el Señor del Calvario is in the chancel, we walk to the front and introduce ourselves. The gentleman is Sr. Alejandro Díaz, a professional florist. He greets us warmly and gives us his card.

Sr. Alejandro Díaz, florist

We see that el Señor del Calvario is in the corner behind him, so we ask permission to come up onto the dais to take photos. Sr. Díaz replies, "¡Por supuesto, pase!", "Of course, pass (come on up)!" 

El Señor del Calvario,
The Lord of Calvary
(A demandita, smaller version is to the right.)

El Señor del Calvario,
The Lord of Calvary

The "Brother" Lords of the Caves

Using his cell phone, Sr. Díaz takes a picture of us taking a picture of el Señor del Calvario. He also tells us that on Ash Wednesday (February 14 this year), el Señor del Calvario will join his "hermano" (brother), el Señor de la Cuevita, the Lord of the Little Cave, in the latter´s Santuario (Santuary) in the center of Pueblo Iztapalapa. This is another gift to us, on an afternoon full of gifts. 

We know of el Señor de la Cuevita. Like el Señor del Calvario, he is a figure of a black Jesus the Christ enterrado (buried) who, according to legend, was found in a small cave at the foot of the north side of Cerro de la Estrella, at the edge of the original Pueblo Iztapalapa. After He was attributed with saving the pueblo from a cholera epidemic in the mid-19th century, a large sanctuary was built for Him next to the cave by el pueblo, the people, not the official church. Hence, the building is an independent "sanctuary", not a parroquia, parish church under diocesan supervision. He is another santo popular, saint adopted by the people.

We visited the Santuario last Good Friday, before leaving the Passion Play of Iztapalapa. The Passion Play evolved from processions held to celebrate el Señor's rescate (rescue) of His pueblo. We found el Señor being carried in procession from His sanctuary in order to join el Viacrucis, the Way of the Cross, the procession up the Hill of Calvary/Hill of the Star. However, evidently because of the solemnity of the Crucifixion, His casket was covered with a cloth, so we could not actually see him. (Nor did we have the energy to climb the Hill.)

We also know that, like His "brother", el Señor de la Cuevita also visits the barrios of the Pueblo Iztapalapa for their respective patron saint fiestas. We have long wondered about the parallel existence of two virtually identical Lords of the caves, on opposite sides of the Cerro de la Estrella, each the primary saint of an ancient indigenous pueblo. We have wondered, too, about their possible relationship (including, perhaps, some competition). So we know we will add an Amble to el Santuario in Iztapalapa on Wednesday, February 14. 

Hasta Mañana, Until Tomorrow

We say "muchas gracias" to Sr. Díaz and his assistants and leave the church. We are tired, but more than satisfied. In fact, we are in a state of amazement at all the gifts we have been given by the people of Barrio San Antonio and those assisting in the procession of its patron saint: a serenade of John Philip Sousa marches by la banda, an offer by Sr. Rojas to introduce us to the historian of Culhuacán and now the key to encountering "los Señores hermanos", the two "brother" Lords of the caves of Cerro de la Estrella, together! And la calidez del pueblo, the warmth of the people.

We had no expectations when we headed off to the humilde (humble) Barrio San Antonio earlier this afternoon to witness its patron saint procession. Objectively, it was a modest celebration. But personally, we certainly have been very blessed. We look forward to tomorrow.

See:  Culhuacán's Barrio San Antonio Atípac, Part II: A Gathering of the Saints of Culhuacán

Delegaciones of Mexico City
Iztapalapa is the large, medium green area on the east side.

Delegación Iztapalapa
with its pueblos and colonias.
Pueblo Culhuacán
is marked by the green/yellow star.
Delegación Coyoacán, which also has barrios of Culhuacán,
is immediately to the west.

The five barrios of  Pueblo Culhuacán of Iztapalapa are outlined in black.

Barrio San Antonio Abad Atípac (pink) is marked by the green/yellow star.
Its western border is the National Canal.
Its southern border is Calzada Taxqueña.
The line up its
 middle is Eje 3.

The dark green area to the far right is Cerro de la Estrella,
site of the Mexica/Azteca Temple for the Binding of the Years.

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