Thursday, January 18, 2018

Original Villages | Tláhuac: San Juan Ixtayopan - Rites of Initiation

Often in our Ambles, if we are using a taxi to get to or from a pueblo, the drivers are curious as to why an extranjero, foreigner, is visiting a pueblo or barrio popular (of the common people, i.e. a working class neighborhood) far off the tourist track. When we tell the driver of our project for visiting original pueblos during their fiestas to experience their traditional customs and photograph and write about them, they often tell us of other fiestas in the same delegación.

Thus, while returning from one of the three of seven original pueblos in the still mostly rural Delegación Tlahuac that we have visited so far, the driver told us that we should visit Pueblo San Juan Ixtayopan, near the southern end of the delegación. He said that its biggest fiesta was not for its patron saint, San Juan Bautista, St. John the Baptist, on June 24, but for the Virgen de Soledad, the Virgin of Solitude, on January 3, which was only a few weeks away.

When we got home, we marked the date on our schedule of fiestas and did some research on this Virgin of Solitude to understand why She is apparently more important to Pueblo Ixtayopan than its patron saint, St. John the Baptist.

The Virgin of Solitude | Una Santa Popular

Happily, Wikipedia en español has a very informative article about San Juan Ixtayopan and the Virgin of Solitude. According to the oral tradition, she evidently arrived in San Juan sometime in the 1770s, carried by pilgrims from the Pueblo San Miguel Topilejo, on the slopes of Mt. Ajusco in what is now Delegación Tlalpan.

Arriving the night of January 2, on their way to the City of Puebla, quite some distance farther east, the pilgrims stayed the night in a private home. Residents noted that the Virgin's vestimenta (attire) was gastada (worn out), raising doubts about the quality of Her care by Pueblo San Miguel Topilejo.

The next morning, to everyone's amazement, the Virgin was dressed in entirely new clothing which emitted a sweet fragrance. The local priest declared this to be a miracle and a sign that the Virgin should remain in San Juan Ixtayopan. The pilgrims agreed, promising to return every January 3rd to honor their Virgin.

A chapel was built especially for the Virgin, where She resides and is venerated to this day. She is a santa popular, a saint chosen not by Spanish friars or the official church hierarchy, but by el pueblo, the common people, who celebrate her fiesta on January 3 in the pueblo's main church, San Juan Bautista.

La Fiesta

January 3, 2018, is a Wednesday. While the feast days of most saints inevitably fall on a weekday, usually their fiestas are primarily celebrated on the nearest weekend. However, as the Christmas Season (and school vacations) in Mexico lasts through Día de los Tres Reyes, Three Kings Day, on January 6, the fiesta for la Virgen de Soledad is always held on January 3. So on that morning, we set off for San Juan Ixtayopan, taking Line 12 of the Metro to its end in San Pedro Tláhuac, then a taxi to the pueblo, a fifteen to twenty minute ride that included a pleasant chat with the driver.

As usual, as we near the church, we find the street closed off for the fiesta, but as a taxi, the driver is allowed to pass and deliver us to the rear of the church. Paying the driver and getting out, we hear a banda playing, so we know the fiesta is in progress. Walking up the street beside the church, we come to the church's typically fenced-in atrio (atrium) and find it full of families, adults and young boys, standing in line around the perimeter, evidently waiting for something to happen. A group seated on folding chairs in the central walkway leading to the church door is apparently the overflow attending a Mass already in progress in the sanctuary.

Church of San Juan Bautista,
St. John the Baptist,
Ixtayopan, Delegación Tláhuac.

The caption at the bottom of the portada reads:
"Virgin of Solitude, bless your children."

Pastoral de las Doncellas

In the plaza in front of the atrio, the banda is playing while nearly twenty girls—ranging in age from about four or five to teenagers, all dressed in pure white and holding over their heads small arches decorated with blue and white ribbons—perform a kind of circle dance, weaving in and out between one another in various patterns. Three elderly women guide them in some of the choreography, especially the youngest ones. 

The white dresses and the arches remind us of dance-dramas we saw in pueblos near Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, in southwestern Mexico, where we lived for three years before moving to Mexico City. Performed between Christmas and Candelaria (Feb. 2) by prepubescent girls (doncellasdohn-CEY-ahs—maidens) and boys, the climax of these Michoacán dance-dramas was a confrontation with several devils ultimately subjugated by the Archangel Gabriel, played by a young boy. Called pastorales, these dance-dramas are clearly a form of initiation rite for youth about to enter puberty and begin facing the temptations of adulthood.

This "banda" is different from any we've seen before at a fiesta.
With two saxophones, an amplified guitar and a double bass, it is virtually a jazz band.
Their melodious playing is very appropriate for the andante tempo of the girls' performance.

Happy guitarist
Serious saxophonist

When the dance ends, the girls pair up and approach an image of the Virgin, where they kneel and recite a kind of declaration of devotion to Her. 

The Virgin of Solitude

An adolescent girl
recites her declaration of faith in the Virgin.

La Señora directing the dance.

When the ritual is over, we approach la señora who has clearly been the one in charge. We introduce ourselves, thank her for the dance and ask what it is called: "Una pastoral," she replies, thus confirming our hunch.

As with the pastorales of Michoacán, we see this ritual—although it included very young girls—as one of initiation, due to the declarations made by the girls at the end. For ourselves, we wish this dance-drama had included devils. But we are nonetheless pleased to see a pastoral in Mexico City for the first time.

First Communions

Portada over the atrio entrance
displays an image of the Virgin of Solitude 

With the pastoral over, we return to the church atrio to see what is happening with all the waiting families of boys. We notice a printed sign at the entrance saying "Authorized Photographers Only" are allowed inside. We wonder what that is about and whether our unauthorized photo-taking will be challenged.

We wend our way around the perimeter of the atrio, past the waiting parents and sons, many of whom are wearing white suits, to the entrance of the church. As it happens, the first Mass is ending and the families, parents and daughters in white dresses, leave. It obviously was a Mass of First Communion for the girls and now there will be one for the waiting boys.

Two women stand guard at the door, not allowing the boys and their parents to enter until the sanctuary is empty. We cannot enter, but catch a glimps (and photo) of the interior. It is a veritable flower show!

One of the doorkeepers

Sanctuary filled with flowers.
(The magenta ones hanging from the ceiling are phalaenopsis orchids!)

It appears that only a painted image of la Virgen de Soledad
is above the altar. We wonder where She is.

"Unauthorized" Photo Shoot

When the sanctuary is finally empty, the doorkeepers begin to allow the boys and their families to enter. With them are also the boys' padrinos (godparents). Other family members must remain outside and take seats in the atrio walkway.

We realize that, for us, this controlled entry process provides a wonderful opportunity to engage in one of our favorite photographic endeavors, taking informal retratos, portraits. As the boys, their parents and padrinos file past us at the doorway, we avidly click away, Neither the doorkeepers nor anyone else stops our "unauthorized" photo shoot.

Some family members

"Authorized" Photo Shoot

Once the families are inside and Mass is underway, we turn toward the atrio. A bit tired from our rather frenzied activity, we seek a place to take a rest. The wall of the atrio is constructed as a row of low, horizontal semi-circles of brick, with recessed, wrought-iron fencing filling the space inside each. The south side of the atrio is in full sun, so the semi-circles make a perfect place to sit and asolearnos (sun ourselves).

Taking a seat, we then see that several photographers, each wearing a badge around his/her neck, are taking formal portraits of the children and their familes. These are obviously the "authorized" photographers, charging for their professional photos. (Later, outside the atrio, we see that a veritable photo print shop has been set up to instantly produce and deliver the portraits to the families.)

Inveterate lover of Mexican rostros (countenances, faces) that we are, even as we warm ourselves in the sun, we take advantage of the posed subjects and once again click away.

Apparently, the first Mass included some boys,
perhaps because they were joining sisters or, possibly, primas (girl cousins).

Familias mexicanas

Más gente en la plaza | More people in the plaza

Somewhat rested and toasty from the sun, we decide to look around for a programa, a printed announcement of fiesta events which is virtually always posted around the host church atrio or in the plaza outside it. So far today, we have seen none nor does our amble into the plaza lead to one. 

Questioning several people sitting in the plaza about other possible events today results in learning that evidently the only remaining event will be the quema, the "burning", i.e. igniting of the castillo (castle) of fireworks about 9pm tonight. While we love such quemas del castillo, we aren't able to hang around that late. But we can't resist taking additional informal portraits of people in the plaza.

The two boys, bottom center, were selling craft items from a table.
The one on the left was hesitant about having his picture taken.
The one on the right, a veritable model!

Roots of el Pueblo Ixtayopan

Nothing more is scheduled for the daytime and we have already been here for some hours, so we decide it is time to leave. We retrace our steps on the street the taxi drove us in on with the goal of getting to where we can hail a cab to return to the Metro station and travel on home. However, along the way we happen upon two surprises that reveal more of the history of Pueblo San Juan Ixtayopan.

Chapel of the Virgin of Solitude

While we walk, as always, we scan the streetscape—a typical working class Mexican neighborhood of simple cinderblock homes and small businesses. Our attention is caught by a small handpainted sign hanging on the corner of a building across the street. It announces "Plaza de la Soledad" and points into a wide alleyway. 

We have been wondering about the paradero (whereabouts) of la Virgen de Soledad during Her feast day. Curiosity aroused, we enter the passageway. A few yards along, the alley opens into a small but attractive plaza.

On the far side sits a chapel, simple in its classic Colonial design. It is the Capilla de la Virgen de Soledad, Chapel of the Virgin of Solitude, built by el pueblo in the 18th century!

Unfortunately, its doors are closed and locked behind an iron gate. So we are left to ponder whether on this Her day of honor, the Virgin is alone inside. It seems highly unlikely, but Her paradero remains unknown.

Capilla de la Virgen de Soledad

Ancient Ixtayopan

Pleased with our chance discovery of the chapel, we continue along the street, but quickly notice another sign, "Museo de Ixtayopan", outside a simple, one-story building set at the back of a small, unadorned entrance plaza. A woman is sweeping the plaza, thus maintaining a millennial-old custom. In indigenous culture there was a religiously mandated daily household ritual of sweeping the space around the shrine of the family god and the patio. 

Intrigued by what the museum might house, we walk in, greeting the lady as we pass. Inside, a man sits at a simple table with the inevitable sign-in book. There are no other visitors listed today. We greet him, sign the book and ask about the museum. As we do, we look around and see that it consists of one moderate sized room filled with a few glass cases containing pieces of pottery and tiny clay sculptures. The man tells us all these pieces were found here in Ixtayopan. 

Walking around the room, we see three large maps hanging on the walls. The maps show the lakes that existed in the Valley of Anahuac before the Spanish arrived and subsequently drained them. Together, they cover the period from 1,800 BCE to the arrival of the Spanish in 1519 CE., a period of over 3,000 years. Ixtayopan appears on all three, which means that it is among the oldest continuously inhabited pueblos in the Valley of Mexico!

Localities (settlements) of the Preclassic period
of the Basin of Mexico (1800 to 100 BCE).

Ixtayopan lies in the extreme south,
on the shore of Lake Chalco.
(Ixtayopan is its Nahuatl name,
its original name and language spoken are unknown.)

Many of the settlements shown, such as Cuicuilco
(wiped out by a volcanic eruption in the first century CE),
either no longer existed when the Mexica (Aztecs) arrived in 1225 CE,
or had been taken over and renamed by other Nahua tribes.

When the Spanish arrived in 1521,
the Mexica had taken over all of the Valley.

Miniature masks and a whistle in the shape of a bird.

The top left is Tlaloc, God of the Waters, central to an agricultural society.
(All are from the Postclassic period, 800 to 1521 CE.
All are no more than four inches in height.)

All the figures are from the Postclassic period, 800 to 1521 CE.

Top row, third from left: Anthropomorphic figure of a dog or coyote-man
The fourth figure is a woman with a baby.

Bottom row: The three figures to the right puzzle us as they are stylistically
 unlike any other figures we have seen in any Mexican archeological museum.

The first has an unusual headdress and is wearing a cross.
The second is a woman dressed, not like her bare-breasted indigenous sister above her,
but like a post-Conquest indigenous woman, in a pleated skirt and rebozo (shawl),
as required by the Spanish friars.
The last, with his beard and long knife, looks very much like a Spanish soldier.
We suspect they are post-Conquest figures, reflecting the change of cultures.


San Juan Ixtayopan's fiesta for its adopted Virgin of Solitude has not been the usual fiesta, with a procession of the saint through the streets. Her whereabouts, in fact, remains unknown to us. Nor were there danzas Aztecas or of chinelos.

The central event was First Communion for young girls and boys, highlighted by the girls' pastoral dance.

Nevertheless, the fiesta day was delightful, as it gave us the opportunity to take many informal retratos (portraits) of beautiful children and their proud families. Family is central to Mexican culture, and this was a day when that centrality was celebrated and the young people took a significant symbolic step into their culture and toward their lives as adults.

Regardless of one's religious beliefs, the lives and development of those children and their families is certainly something to celebrate and savor. We are very glad we were given the opportunity to share in it.

Delegaciones of Mexico City
Delegación Tláhuac is the chocolate brown area in the southeast.

Coyoacán, our base, is the purple in the middle.

Delegación Tláhuac
and its Pueblos

San Juan Ixtayopan is marked by the green/yellow star.

To its west is Delegación Xochimilco;
To its south is Delegación Milpa Alta;
To its east is the State of Mexico. 

No comments:

Post a Comment