Thursday, April 12, 2018

The Travels and Travails of La Virgen de la Bala, The Virgin Who Took the Bullet

A while ago, we attended the patron saint fiesta of San Antonio Abad (St. Anthony the Abbot) in the Barrio San Antonio Atípac, in Pueblo Culhuacán, Delegación Iztapalapa. A main event in the fiesta was a procession that went from the church to an intersection that forms one corner of the barrio. There, residents of the other barrios of Culhuacán, as well as other nearby pueblos, were waiting to join the procession back to the church for the celebration of a Mass honoring San Antonio.

Under the Calzada (Avenue) de Taxqueña viaduct, which passes over Eje 3 Oriente (Axis Road 3 East),
a gathering of Saints and some of the faithful of Their barrios

await the arrival of San Antonio

In the middle, San Andrés from the neighboring Pueblo Tomatlán;
we were at His fiesta in November 2017.

San Simón, of Barrio San Simón, is at the left.

We recognized some of the saints from prior Ambles to various of original pueblos. Some were new to us. One, in particular, caught our attention, a small version of the Virgin Mary, crowned as the Queen of Heaven and dressed in white. She was contained in a metal-framed glass box. Such small, encased versions of saints, we have learned, are called demanditas, literally 'little demands', i.e. little (therefore easily portable) 'petitions' or vehicles for prayers to the saint. 

La Virgen de la Bala, the Virgin of the Bullet
The crown and circle of stars around Her head
and the crescent Moon of clouds at Her feet
identify Her advocación (role) as Queen of Heaven.

A young woman was holding her. We approached, introduced ourselves and asked what advocación of the Virgin this wasThe word advocación (from the verb advocar, to advocate, to speak up on behalf of someone) is used in Spanish to describe each particular "forms" taken by the Virgin Mary to carry out her role as an advocate for the faithful, an intermediary speaking up for them to Her Son, the Christ, and God the Father, the father of Her Son. Some major examples in Mexico are:
  • Virgin of Guadalupe, adopting and protecting all the peoples of Mexico;
  • Virgen de Candelaria, presenting the Infant Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem;
  • Virgen de Dolores, (of Sorrows), bearing Her Sorrows during Holy Week; and  
  • Virgen de los Remedios (Remedies), a statue believed to have been brought by one of the Spanish conquistadors, hence Her first presence in the New World..
The woman replied, "She is la Virgen de la Bala" — "the Virgin of the Bullet."

Virgin of the Bullet? We were taken aback by the very peculiar name. In all our Ambles to saints' fiestas, we had never heard of this advocation of the Virgin and wondered how she came to have such a strange name and what advocatión it represented.

The young woman added that this Virgin was not the original statue. The original, she said, resided in the Santuario del Señor de la Cuevita, the Sanctuary of the Lord of the Little Cave, in nearby Pueblo Iztapalapa. We were familiar with the Sanctuary from our attendance at the Passion Play of Iztapalapa the previous Holy Week, as the play developed in the 19th century to honor this figure of Cristo enterrado, Christ buried.

At this point, the procession headed back to the church of San Antonio Abad, and we were left with many unanswered questions. We thought that, at some point, we would have to research more to try and find out the story and significance of this new, to us peculiar, advocación of the Virgin.

The Saint of a Spanish Lady Takes a Centuries-long Path to Turn into a Santo Popular, a Saint of the Common People

In subsequent weeks, we were occupied by other fiestas, including Carnavales (Carnivals), leading up to Lent and Holy Week. Nevertheless, having discovered in the past year that many pueblos in Mexico City have Facebook pages, including for their various saints, we came across not one, but two pages dedicated to la Virgen de la Bala. One stated it was sponsored by the Confradía (Brotherhood) of Santuario del Señor de la Cuevita in Pueblo Iztapalapa, confirming that the Virgin resides there. The other was La Virgen de la Bala Pueblo de Culhuacán, apparently the one we had met below the overpass in San Antonio Atípac. On both pages, the Virgin is photographed visiting private homes in the respective communities.  

Recently, we wrote a blog page on what we call santos populares, a group of saints of the Catholic Church that we have encountered at various fiestas who, instead of being patron saints assigned to a parish, are ones that have been adopted by the people of a pueblo after some miraculous event had occurred, often when they were visiting the pueblo from elsewhere.

El Señor de la Cuevita is one such santo popular, the de facto predominant saint of all of the barrios of the ancient pueblo of Iztapalapa. It struck us that la Virgen de la Bala was evidently also such a santo popular, a saint adopted by the common people. That motivated us all the more to try to find out her story and why she is associated with a bullet.

The contemporary miracle of the Internet led us to the tale. We found a website written by an art historian who had done his undergraduate thesis on la Virgen de la Bala. (Such a thesis of original research is required in Mexican universities to become "licenciado", the equivalent of a bachelor's degree.)  Naín Alejandro Ruiz Jaramillo now holds a Masters in Art History. Here is our translation of his telling of the origin, travels and travails of la Virgen de la Bala.
"Tradition and legend say that at the beginning of the seventeenth century, there was a Spanish couple who lived in the pueblo of Iztapalapa, right on the shores of Lake Texcoco. Their marriage was distinguished by living in harmony and being a great example of sincere love, until the Devil, the enemy of all Christian unions, attempted and managed to sow discord between them, managing to ignite in the heart of the husband the infernal fire of jealousy.
One day, the husband, crazed by hate, decided to kill his innocent wife, took a gun and shot at her. The only thing the helpless woman could do to safeguard herself was to take as her defense and shield a small image of the Virgin under the advocación of Her Immaculate Conception. She had possessed the image since time immemorial and professed great devotion to it. At the moment of the shooting, the bullet was miraculously stopped by the base of image.
According to the Jesuits Fray Francisco de Florencia and Antonio de Oviedo, who later wrote of the miracle, the bullet was embedded in the base 'so firmly that, although it can be rotated, it has never been possible to remove it'. This event was taken as irrefutable proof of the fidelity of the woman, and the husband was thus set straight. It was in this way that the sculpture was named Our Lady of the Bullet.
After this first miracle, the pious tradition narrates that the image was offered in a lottery among the churches of Mexico City. The lot was drawn three times, and each time the hospital for lepers in San Lázaro won the prize. It is recalled that at the precise moment that the Virgin was brought into the hospital, a woman for whom last rites had been said, and for whom a vigil was being held, suddenly revived. For this reason, other wonderful miracles are attributed to Her.
(Translator's note: San Lázaro, St. Lazarus, is the saint of lepers. The hospital was the second one founded by Hernán Cortes in 1524. The neighborhood, which still takes its name from the hospital, is on the east side of what was then the small colonial City of Mexico. It is now the site of the Chamber of Deputies of the federal Congress, commonly referred to as 'San Lazaro'.
Several chronicles report one of Her greatest and most improbable marvels: in the year 1666 a woman who had severe problems delivering twin babies, by intervention of the Virgin of the Bullet, managed to deliver them through her mouth. It is obvious that knowledge about pregnancy and human conception was precarious at that time, only in that way can we explain such a peculiar story.

It is also known that the Virgin a cured a typhus fever suffered by the daughter of Francisco de Córdoba, the corregidor of the City of Mexico (mayor, appointed by the King). In honor of the Virgin of the Bullet, a famous confradía (brotherhood) was founded, dedicated to assisting the leprous poor.
Fray Francisco de Florencia was the one who thought that Mexico City was protected by the Virgin Mary on all sides (the archetypical cardinal directions in all primal cultures) by means of four sanctuaries and images of Her: 
'The city of Mexico is favored by the Most Holy Mary with four sanctuaries that surround it: on the
  • North by [the Virgin of] Guadalupe; on the
  • South by the Virgin of Piedad (Compassion); and on the
  • East by the Virgin of the Bullet.'
For this reason, in the viceroy era there were those who invoked Her as a protective Virgin and spiritual bulwark on the east side of the capital of New Spain. During the epidemic that struck Mexico City between 1736-1737, She was included as one of the miraculous images that helped to mitigate the plague. Fray Francisco de Florencia, the priest Cayetano de Cabrera y Quintero, Fray Ajofrin, José Antonio Villaseñor and Mariano Fernández de Echeverría y Veytia, were just some of those, among other writers in Nueva España, who wrote about the Virgin of the Bullet.
When the San Lázaro Hospital and its chapel were closed in 1862 (at the time of the French invasion), the historic image of Our Lady of the Bullet was transferred to the chapel of the Hospital of Jesús Nazareno (Jesus the Nazarene) where it remained until 1901, when it was stolen. Her whereabouts were unknown for many years.
(Translator's note: The Hospital of Jesús Nazareno was founded by Hernán Cortés in 1524, ostensibly at the site where he first met Moctezuma the Younger in November 1519. It is still in operation. It is, thus, the oldest continuously running hospital in the Americas.)

Entrance to the modern Hospital of Jesus of Nazareth,
on Avenida 20th de noviembre, 20th of November.

Original inner patio of the colonial period Hospital Jésus Nazareno.

Plaque citing the foundation of the hospital
by Hernán Cortés at the site of his meeting with Moctezuma.
Founded in 1524, it is the first hospital in the Americas,
and in continuous service for more than 400 years.
In the year 1913, the priest Rosendo Perez Yniestra found her in Monte de Piedad. He paid the amount of the debt, and thus, he rescued the Virgin of the Bullet. He decided to attach to the base of the image a commemorative plaque with the name of this figure and the date on which he rescued her. 
Monte de Piedad 
on the Zócalo.
(Translator's Note: Monte de Piedad, Mount of Compassion, is the name of the huge, now national, pawn shop system that was founded on the Zócalo in 1775. It is based on the first Monte de Piedad, founded in 1702 in Madrid. It is used by many Mexicans to get what are, in effect, small loans using whatever they have of value as collateral.
As it happened, at that time he was pastor of the church of San Lucas Evangelista (St. Luke the Evangelist) in the pueblo of Iztapalapa, so he decided to return Her whence she had originated. Since that date, the people of Iztapalapa have venerated her and she is jealously guarded by the natives of the pueblo.
Church of San Lucas,
Barrio San Lucas, Iztapalapa
The Passion Play starts here
on Palm Sunday.
Meanwhile, it was still believed that she was missing; nevertheless, she is now worshiped in the Sanctuary of the Lord of the Little Cave, to the great joy of all her devotees."
Historia de la Virgen de la Bala by Naín Alejandro Ruiz Jaramillo, Masters in Art History

A Santo Popular

Thus, with great thanks to Maestro Ruiz Jaramillo, we have been able to follow the trail and travails of la Virgen de la Bala from the home of a Spanish lady living in Iztapalapa in the early 17th century to Her serving for three hundred years as the saint of two hospitals founded by Hernán Cortés and as the bulwark protecting the East side of Mexico City from all kinds of harm.

These important functions were interrupted by Her disappearance, followed by her remarkable, if not miraculous, rescue by Father Perez Yniestra from Monte de Piedad and Her return home to Her original pueblo of Iztapalapa. In returning to Her pueblo, she became a santo popular, a saint adopted by the common people.

Sr. Ruiz Jaramillo tells us that Her original advocación was as a representation of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception (i.e. Mary's ideal, heavenly image before she was born and to which, at Her earthly death, she was to return via Her Assumption into Heaven as the Queen of Heaven). 

He then goes on to detail the changes in her advocación over the centuries, resulting in Her helpfulness to everyday people in a wide variety of everyday, and not so everyday, circumstances.  
"Given the characteristics of the first miracle of the Virgin of the Bullet, She is considered a defender of marriages and helps to reduce marital problems or get a partner. In the same way, she is the patron of pregnant women and those in labor. For this reason she is also asked to bring good luck to their newborn children, or help in conceiving them if there is any problem of infertility.
Also, Her devotees believe that She protects those who have dangerous professions, for example police and soldiers, who are at risk of being hit by murderous bullets. It is believed that she diverts them."
Dare we say, that is quite a list of cargos, responsibilities! No wonder there are so many versions of St. Mary! Each has an equal, if not greater, number of duties. We are grateful that we have gotten to know la Virgen de la Bala and Her story. How Her replica came to be in neighboring Culhuacán, we still don't know. ¡Ojalá! God willing, we may come to meet Her again during our Ambles.

The tiny Virgen de la Bala stands beside San Antonio Abad,
the honoree and host of visiting saints at His patron saint Mass
in the parish church of Barrio San Antonio Atípac, Pueblo Culhuacán
(The black píg is a reminder that St. Anthony, one of the first hermit monks,
worked as a swineherd to make a living.