Santos Populares, Saints of the People

In the 16th century, Franciscans and other Spanish friars entered the indigenous pueblos (villages) of the Valley of Mexico to convert the residents to Catholicism and establish Spanish culture and social control—the so-called Spiritual Conquest. One of the friars' first actions was to assign a patron saint to each pueblo and, often, to any barrios (neighborhoods) within it. The name of this patron saint was attached to, and preceded, the pueblo's indigenous name (e.g., San Juan Moyotla, San Sebastián AxotlaSanta María Magdalena Mixhuca), thereby marking its dual identity throughout its history up to and including the present day. 

Some such pueblos still recognize the date of this patron saint naming as the date of their "founding", even though they had existed for centuries before. Some have dropped (and possibly forgotten) their indigenous name (e.g. Candelaria and Tres Santos Reyes in Coyoacán). Others identify themselves primarily or solely by their ancient indigenous name (e.g., Pueblo Culhuacán, Pueblo Chimalcoyotl).

For nearly two years, we have been following the trail of these assigned patron saints and their annual fiestas (feast days) in order to find and become acquainted with the original indigenous pueblos within Mexico City.

"1528: The Pueblo of Lloalatzinco Anepantla Mixhuca of the Aztecas,
on September 15, 1528,
dedicated its chapel to St. Mary Magdalene.

1978: In memory of the 450th anniversary,
September 15, 1978,
the Pueblo of La Magdalena Mixhuca.
(On the wall of the church, now in Delegación [Borough] Venustiano Carranza)

More than once in these Ambles, however, we have encountered pueblos where it has become clear that the primary saint venerated is not the pueblo's (parish's) patron saint. These alternates are often versions of Jesus Christ as Savior. Sometimes He is at the beginning of His life on Earth as el Niño Jesús, the Child Jesus, or more accurately, the Infant Jesus. Other times He is in His Passion, His torture and suffering after His arrest that culminated in Crucifixion and Death. Other such saints are versions of His Mother, the Virgin Mary in various advocaciones, states of Her life or holy functions. On occasion, they are previously sanctified, official saints given new advocaciones in providing help to the faithful.

These other saints, we have come to realize, are a type of santo popular. Popular (poh-pooh-LAHR) in Spanish has a very different connotation from its meaning in English. Popular means "of the common people". Working-class and poor neighborhoods are "barrios populares". The term santo popular is often applied to non-traditional personages or legendary figures who become the object of popular worship outside the bounds of the Catholic Church, such as Santa Muerte (Saint Death) or Jesús Malverde (Jesus Bad-Green, a legendary bandit viewed as a kind of Robin Hood). We think the term can likewise be applied to certain saints accepted within Catholic worship, but who—unlike patron saints—were not brought by priests to a community.

Rather, it was the people of the pueblo themselves who chose these santos populares for special veneration. These santos populares have subsequently received recognition from the Church. Sometimes, they are housed in their own chapel, built by el pueblo, the people, not by Church officials, and outside the diocesan structure. Other times, they reside in a parish church alongside, or even literally, above, its patron saint on the retablo (reredos) behind the altar. Sometimes they have no chapel of their own and are housed, on a rotating basis, in the private homes of a pueblo's or barrio's residents. 

Such santos populares are often venerated by other barrios and pueblos near the host barrio or pueblo, and it is common practice for the saint to be taken out to visit these other neighborhoods during the year. The function of these visits, and of the saints themselves, was recently clearly stated on the Facebook page of one such pueblo. (These Facebook pages are contemporary manifestations of the ancient communal value of maintaining a pueblo's identity.)
"Esta tradición tiene como objetivo tejer y fortalecer lazos de compadrazgos entre habitantes de la comunidad, convivir y tener una cercanía entre estos; permanecer más unidos. Así como fortalecer sus creencias religiosas."
"This tradition has as its objective to weave and strengthen bonds of close friendship between residents of the community, to live together and have a closeness among them, to remain more united. Also, to strengthen their religious beliefs."
Facebook page of Pueblo San Andrés Mixquic, in Delegación Tláhuac, regarding its tradition of its own image of el Niño Jesús, the Infant Child Jesus, traveling among the barrios of the pueblo.

Popular Saint #1, the Virgin of Guadalupe

The Virgin of Guadalupe is, Herself, the prime example of such a saint whose veneration was initiated and then nourished by the belief of everyday people. According to legend, after she revealed Herself to the indigenous peasant, (now Saint) Juan Diego in 1531, She was quickly accepted as a valid manifestation of the Virgin Mary by the first Bishop of Nueva EspañaFray Juan de Zumárraga, himself a Franciscan friar, who then ordered the construction of a chapel at the site of Her appearance.

It is noteworthy that the Franciscans, and other religious orders that followed them to Nueva España, deliberately adopted a strategy of seeking out elements in indigenous religious practice with similarities to Catholic Christianity and building on them to teach the new faith as an evolution from the old, rather than trying to completely suppress old beliefs and practices. The indigenous were seen as children who needed to be "brought up" to the religious and cultural maturity of Spanish Catholicism.

The Virgin of Guadalupe appeared at the site of a former indigenous temple housing a version of the Mother Goddess named Tonantzin. The two share the primal, archetypal function of the Mother who cares for Her children. La Guadalupita (the Little, i.e. Dear Virgin) is the "Mother of Mexico".

Image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, 
on display in the
Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Over the centuries, the Virgin's chapel has grown into the huge complex of the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The designation "basilica" is granted by popes to churches seen as having special status for some historical/religious reason. Pope Francis, who is Argentine and the first Pope from Latin America, made a special point of visiting the Basilica and privately praying to the Virgin during his visit to Mexico in February 2016. The status of Her residence as a basilica and the visit of the Pope is seen by faithful Mexicans as recognition of the uniqueness of Mexican Catholicism and its popular, indigenous, home-grown roots.

Virtually every Catholic church in Mexico contains an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe; in large churches She even has Her own side chapel. Members of many parishes in Mexico City and from other states undertake pilgrimages to Her Basilica in the month before Her feast day, December 12. We recently learned that the images in parish churches may also be the object of their own fiesta, held on dates other than the national one.

Barrio Santiago (St. James) Atoyac, in Delegación Iztacalco, holds its celebration of the Virgin on the weekend of January 12, exactly one month after the main one. Attending the procession, we were told that, like many pueblos, the faithful of the parish undertake a pilgrimage to the Basilica in November, but do not carry with them their image of the Virgin. She stays in the church and is honored on the weekend in January.

Image of the Virgin of Guadalupe
being carried through the streets of Barrio Santiago Atoyac;
a banda and some barrio residents follow behind.

A Wealth of Santos Populares

San Judas Tadeo, St. Judas or Jude Thaddaeus, the Saint of Hopeless Causes

The Church of San Hipólito, at the intersection of major avenues west of Centro, was originally established on the orders of Hernán Cortés to mark the site of la Noche Triste, the Night of Sorrows, the massacre of Spanish troops and their indigenous allies as they sought to escape Tenochtitlan after the murder of Moctezuma. Worshipers have, however, transformed it in a de facto manner into a temple devoted to San Judas Tadeo, St. Judas or Jude Thaddaeus, one of the Twelve Apostles, who has become, in the 20th century, the saint for hopeless causes. We do not think this transformation of the identity of San Hipólito is coincidental. Rather, it is quintessentially a Mexican toma, take-over.

San Hipólito has had a shrine to San Judas Tadeo—thought to be the only one in Mexico City—for at least three hundred years. Perhaps He was there because of the dire events leading to construction of the church. In any case, in the latter half of the 20th century, worship at the shrine so increased that, in 1982, the statue of the saint was moved to the main altar. On October 28, the saint's day, crowds of up to 100,000 people attend a series of fifteen masses. On the 28th of every month, masses attended by large crowds are held for the saint.

One of the sequence of hourly masses held in San Hipólito on October 28 
to honor San Judas Tadeo.

His statue is in the center of the retablo (reredos) below that of the Virgin.

The people's popular toma of San Hipólito is another expression of how everyday Mexicans have transformed Spanish Catholicism into the distinct faith of the Mexican people. San Judas Tadeo may be understood as something of a male version of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the making of a Spanish Catholic saint into a Mexican one. At the Church of San Hipólito, el pueblo, the people, have transformed what was originally a monument to "justly fallen" Spanish soldiers into their own temple of hope.

San Judas Tadeo 
as a Mexica/Azteca warrior
(carrying a smaller version 

of the Spanish original)

El Niño Pa, the Child Jesus of Xochimilco.

Our first encounter with a santo popular in Mexico City was by pure chance. On an uneventful weekday in April of 2016, just as we were beginning to search out still surviving original indigenous villages in the contemporary metropolis, we were walking around one of them, Barrio San Sebastián Xoco (SHO-ko), in Delegación Benito Juárez. As its hybrid name indicates, Xoco´s patron saint is Saint Sebastian, an early Christian martyr favored by the Spanish friars and hence assigned as the patron of many pueblos. The barrio's parish church is, therefore, dedicated to San Sebastián with His patron saint fiesta on January 20.

During our Amble, we happened to notice a banner hanging on the wall of a private home inviting el pueblo to greet El Niño Pa de Xochimilco, who would be paying a visit the following Monday. So we eagerly returned that day and met El Niño. the Christ Child (or Infant) from the Delegación Xochimilco, some nine miles south of Xoco.

El Niño Pa de Xochimilco
during his visit to Xoco.

We learned that #l Niño Pa is a representation of the Infant Christ carved from native Mexican wood at the request of Spanish friars in the mid-16th century. Pa is Nahuatl meaning "of This Place"—in this case, of the original indigenous alteptl, city-state of Xochimilco. He was created for the celebration of las posadas, a series of mini-fiestas held in various streets of a pueblo each of the nine nights preceding Christmas and featuring the recreation of Joseph and Mary's search for a room in an inn (posada in Spanish). Each night, the Holy Couple's search ends with their being accepted into a private home—followed by a street party. Las posadas were evidently a de nuevo creation by the friars in Nueva España to replace an indigenous celebration of the winter solstice and the coincident birth of the chief god of the Mexica/Aztecs, Huitzilopochtli, the miraculously conceived son of the Sun God, Tonatiuh.

Crucial to His future significance to the people of Xochimilco, the friars did not place Him in one of their churches as the patron saint. Instead—likely because of His function in the itinerant, home-centered posadas—He was placed in the care of the heads of the various barrios of the pueblo. He has remained under barrio care for nearly five hundred years. Each year, He is kept in a different original barrio of Xochimilco, in the private home of a mayordomo (primary caretaker).

The mayordomo has to provide a dedicated, specially decorated room in his home, supply it constantly with fresh flowers, open the room to the faithful on frequent occasions so they can pay their respects, and maintain a wardrobe of elaborate baptismal gowns which are regularly changed on the Child. He must also oversee El Niño's visits to various private homes and other barrios, even those that—like Xoco—are some distance from Xochimilco.

We also learned that there is a major veneration of El Niño Pa in Xochimilco on Candelaria, the February 2 feast day recalling when, forty days after His birth, Jesus was presented by Mary and Joseph to priests in the Temple in Jerusalem, where the old man named Simeon—who had prayed to live until he saw the Messiah (Hebrew), the Christ (Greek), that is, the Annointed One of God—declared Jesus to be this Messiah or Christ.

On this day, at a Mass held at the main church at the center of Xochimilco, San Bernardino, el Niño is transferred from the care of the current mayordomo to a new one for the coming year. This past year, when we attended, the Archbishop of Mexico City presided at the Mass and welcomed El Niño Pa, thus confirming the official Church's recognition of His power as a santo popular.

El Niño Pa,
carried in Candelaria procession by the out-going mayordomo,
Feb. 2, 2017.
"Niño Pa represents, in addition to the faith of a village of people, the strong ties of reciprocity of an ancient community.  
"In the original pueblos, the traditional cargos (charges, positions of responsibility)—such as chief caretaker, treasurer, justice of the peace, trustee of communal property—form part of what we know as the 'System of Charges'. These are the people responsible for maintaining, watching over and administering the sacred objects, redistributing gifts offered to the divinity and financing the majority of the expenses with their own monies. Generally, they are responsibilites that last one year and are taken on voluntarily. In some pueblos, the responsibilities are obligatory. 
"The esteem given to the word (cargos) is its principal guarantee that it will be fulfilled. In this year's change of the Mayordomo of the Niño Pa, the Mayordomo who handed over the cargo said, in a clear manner in front of thousands of the faithful present as witnesses, 'I have fulfilled'. Congratulations to Architect Enrique Martínez Troncoso and Señora Esperanza Troncoso Aguirre (his mother) for their delivery. 
Facebook page of Guardianes Del Patrimonio Xochimilco (Guardians of the Patrimony of Xochimilco), February 2, 2018.

Sr. Enrique Hernández Troncoso
and his mother,  la Sra. Esperanza Troncoso Aguirre
Mayordomos of Niño Pa, Feb. 2017- Feb. 2018,
as they prepare for the entrega
the delivery of el Niño Pa to His next mayordomo.
From Facebook page of
Guardianes del Patrimonio de Xochimilco

This past Christmas season, in our search for possible posadas to attend, we discovered that a special series is held for El Niño Pa in Xochimilco. They are obviously a continuation of His original function beginning in the 16th century. Facebook posts showed videos of quite elaborate ceremonies and processions, but they were posted after the fact and no locations were given. Short of wandering around the center of Xochimilco in the twilight, we could not figure out how to find them.

Thanks to the Facebook page Guardianes Del Patrimonio Xochimilco, we know where El Niño is being housed since Feb. 2, 2018, in Barrio Xaltocán. ¡Ojalá! God willing! — next December, we will be able to find out where His posadas are to be held and attend.

El Señor de la Misericordia, The Lord of Compassion of Coyoacán

Our second encounter with a santo popular was also the result of a happenstance. One Sunday during the same April of 2016, just after we had met El Niño Pa, we heard cohetes, the rocket-style firecrackers used to announce fiestas, going off to the south of our apartment in Colonia Parque San Andrés in Delegación Coyoacán. Going out onto our balcony, we could see their smoke and guessed they were coming from one or the other of two nearby original pueblos to the south, either Candelaria or Tres Santos Reyes (Three Holy Kings).

On the spur of the moment, we called a taxi, grabbed our camera and headed off. Arriving a few minutes later at the entrance to Candelaria, a woman on the street told us the fiesta was in Tres Reyes, a short walk west.

Arriving at the Church of the Three Holy Kings, we found it dressed for a fiesta, with a portada (entrance arch) made of fresh mums and many bouquets of white lilies in the sanctuary. A few people were sitting and standing around the atrio (atrium), as if waiting for something to happen. We were puzzled, because, obviously, the pueblo's and parish church's patron saints are the Three Wise Men who came to honor the newborn Christ Child, which is celebrated on January 6 (aka Epiphany).

Even more puzzling, the portada held three identical images of Christ during His Passion. Easter was at the end of March that year, so the events of Semana Santa, Holy Week, were over.

Image of Señor de la Misericordia, Lord of Compassion
on the floral portada.

Consistent with the good fortune and amabilidad (kindness, consideration) we inevitably experience during such pueblo visits, a middle-aged gentleman approached us and offered to explain what was happening. Señor Llanos (YAH-nos) told us that it was the feast day of El Señor de la Misericordia, The Lord of Mercy or Compassion. At that moment, He was being carried through the streets of the pueblo and would soon be returning.

Our new acquaintance then informed us, with emphasis, that the important time to visit the pueblo was at the end of May, when El Señor de la Misericordia would leave Tres Reyes to begin His annual series of visits to other pueblos in Coyoacán and adjacent delegaciones. Shortly afterward, the procession returned to the church, which afforded us our first view of El Señor de la Misericordia.

El Señor de la Misericordia returns to His home church of Tres Santos Reyes.
(Actually, two large versions and a tiny one in a wood and glass box, 

known as a "demandita", little petition or request)

El Señor was carried to the entrance of the atrio on an anda (portable platform). Like the portada and the sanctuary, the anda was also beautifully decorated with fresh flowers. Clearly, He is beloved and well cared for by His parish. But, like the images on the portada, there was not one Señor, but two large versions of Him, identical twins as it were, and a third, tiny one in a wood and glass box. 

Our puzzlement grew even more. Sr. Llanos was happy to clarify the history of El Señor de la Misericordia. A couple of hundred years ago, this image was brought to the church by members of a pueblo to the south, who were carrying it to the Center of the City, possibly to the Cathedral or the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Its bearers stayed the night. In the morning, strangely, they found the statue too heavy to carry. This was taken as a sign that El Senor was choosing Tres Reyes as His new home. He has been there ever since.

Some years later, this image of the suffering Christ saved not only the Pueblo of Tres Reyes but all the pueblos of what it is now Delegación Coyoacán from an epidemic. When his image was carried throughout the pueblos, the sickness killing many of the residents went away. So each summer, El Señor visits the pueblos He saved, sharing His Holy Presence and receiving their veneration and thanks.

So, the last Sunday in May we returned to Tres Reyes, full of questions and wondering what we would experience. El Señor (one of them), dressed in a different robe from that of His April fiesta, was carried from the church and placed on another flower-covered anda. With a group of parishioners following, He was carried into the streets. Asking some participants, we learned He was being taken to Barrio Xoco (where we had met El Niño Pa little more than a month ago).

Oh, yes, and the second version of El Señor stays home. The little version in the box is called la demandita (the little demand, i.e. the little petition or request, prayer), which is used in smaller fiestas or visits, even to private homes (like El Niño Pa).

El Señor de la Misericordia 
leaves Pueblo Tres Santos Reyes at the end of May,
beginning his visits to other pueblos in Coyoacán.

We followed the procession through some of the streets of Tres Reyes, but when it headed north toward Xoco, we stayed behind as the two or more remaining miles was a distance too far for us to walk. Fortunately, a printed schedule of El Señor's visits for the summer was being handed out. It became our "Bible", guiding us to several of His Sunday entregas (deliveries) to the next pueblo on His itinerary.

We spent many summer Sundays attending them and delighting in the colorfulness and liveliness of the many variations in the ritual. The first Sunday in September, we joined His big welcome home entrega from neighboring Pueblo Candelaria. It was, as Sr. Llanos promised us, the biggest fiesta of the year in Tres Reyes, with five floral portadas across the streets along the route and twenty or more saints visiting from other pueblos, each borne on a flower-covered anda.

It was, as Sr. Llanos said, a fiesta for which "echamos la casa por la ventana" — "We throw the house out the window". The pueblo spares no expense.

Clearly, El Señor de la Misericordia is the preeminent saint of Pueblo Tres Reyes and beyond. Similar to El Niño Pa de Xochimilco, He is a kind of super-saint of Coyoacán. Revered and received each summer with much pomp by Coyoacán's several original barrios, He embodies the ancient communal ties between them.

In fact, in the autumn of 2017, we learned that He is a kind of godfather to El Señor de los Milagros, the Lord of Miracles, in the adjacent Colonia Ajusco. Not an original colonia, it was built from scratch in the 1960s and 70s by squatters, primarily from rural Mexico who brought with them their traditional forms of faith. Some squatters built the Chapel of the Lord of Miracles, another santo popular. Initially, the chapel had no relationship with the official Catholic hierarchy, but eventually its members sought affiliation with the parish church of Tres Santos Reyes. Today they are served by the priests of that parish. The Lord of Compassion visits His "new" pueblo every summer.

 El Señor de los Milagros 
leads the procession in His honor through the streets of Colonia Ajusco.
The mariposa (butterfly), to the rear, is a traditional indigenous symbol of sacrificial death and rebirth.

El Señor del Calvario, the Lord of Calvary, the Santo Popular of Culhuacán

The next santo popular that we encountered is another version of the Christ in His Passion, this time as Cristo enterrado, Christ buried, after His death on the Cross. El Señor del Calvario, the Lord of Calvary, resides in His own capilla, chapel, in the center of what is now Pueblo Culhuacán, an original pueblo with a significant prehispanic history in Delegación Iztapalapa. El Señor is a carved image of Jesus as the Christ during the day and a half He was buried in His tomb—and when, according to the Apostle's Creed, "He descended into Hell." He is a black Christ.

Chapel of the Lord of Calvary

El Señor del Calvario, The Lord of Calvary,
during his visit to the patron saint fiesta of neighboring Pueblo San Andrés Tomatlán.
The wrapping—hand-embroidered by ladies of the parish—is changed at each transfer of 
El Señor.
Behind Him is a demandita, a smaller version.

The chapel was built by local residents around the turn of the 19th to the 20th century—that is, it is a creation of religión popular, religion of the people, el pueblo. Unlike the nearby former Convent of St. John the Evangelist (built by the Augustians in the mid-16th century as part of their work to convert the indigenous in the so-called Spiritual Conquest), and the adjacent Parrochial Church of St. John the Evangelist (built near the end of the 19th century to replace a church attached to the original convent that had fallen into disrepair), the chapel is not an establishment of either the official Catholic Church or of any religious order.

Despite the chapel's relative newness, the sacred origins of the site go back some centuries. It is located next to a small cave at the base of the south side of a hill that is the small, extinct volcano called Cerro de la Estrella (Hill of the Star). Volcanic action created many caves in the hillside. The summit of the hill is the site of the Mexica temple of the Binding of the Years or New Fire, a ritual carried out every fifty-two years when the first days of the solar calendar of 365 days and the divinitory calendar of 260 days coincided. It was believed to be an especially risky juncture in time when the sun might not rise, and the world could come to an end.

This cave was evidently the site of indigenous rituals to gods of the Underworld. In our first post on El Señor, we wrote about the indigenous tradition of black gods, including  Tezcatlipocagod of the night, hurricanes, the north (cold), the earth, enmity, discord, temptation, sorcery, war and strife.

Legend has it that a couple of hundred years ago, the carving of the entombed black Christ was found in the cave. He has become the saint that links all nine barrios of Pueblo Culhuacán and the two of adjacent Pueblo Tomatlán, visiting each one for its respective patron saint fiesta. He is also at the center of Culhuacán's celebration of the Feast of Holy Trinity, after Easter, when all the barrios come together at His chapel.

El Señor de la Cuevita, The Lord of the Little Cave

The next santo popular that we encounterd is, as one resident of Iztapalapa told us, "el hermano", the brother of El Señor del Calvario. He resides in a large santuario, sanctuary, built especially for Him  on the north side of Cerro de la Estrella, very close to the center of the original indigenous pueblo of Iztapalapa.

Santuario del Señor de la Cuevita
Sanctuary of the Lord of the Little Cave

According to local tradition, El Señor del Santo Sepulcro, the Lord of the Holy Sepulcher, but commonly called El Señor de la Cuevita, the Lord of the Little Cave, is an image originally from Etla, a pueblo in Oaxaca (in southern Mexico), another of the black Christs often appearing in southern Mexico and Central America.

Around the year 1687, the stewards of the image brought it to Mexico City with the purpose of having it restored. Before arriving in the capital, they had to spend the night in Iztapalapa. The next morning, when they woke up, the image had disappeared. Searching, they found the image in a cave at the base of Cerro de la Estrella. Trying to pick it up, they discovered that the image had markedly increased its weight, making it impossible to carry. For the people of that time, this meant that the effigy had chosen to stay in that place. The inhabitants of Iztapalapa adopted it as their own and built a modest hermitage at the entrance to the cave.

In 1833, a cholera epidemic hit many parts of the Mexico. In the Valley of Mexico the epidemic killed many people. The people of Iztapalapa went to the chapel of the Lord of the Little Cave and prayed to Him to save them from the disease. They promised that if He delivered them, they would carry out a procession and build a new sanctuary for Him. Miraculously, on May 3, 1833, the Feast Day of the Holy Cross, the epidemic came to an end. 

In gratitude, the people of Iztapalapa built the current Sanctuary and began to hold a procession on the Feast of the Holy Cross. Ten years later, during Holy Week, they began their reenactment of the Passion of Christ. At first, only carved images were used. Beginning in 1906, members of the barrios of Iztapalapa undertook acting the roles. (Wikipedia en españolIn 2017, we attended its 174th enactment—not all that old by Mexican standards.

El Señor de la Cuevita, the Lord of the Little Cave, the statue
that gave birth to the Passion Play of Iztapalapa

During the Good Friday Passion reenactment, He is carried in the procession up Cerro de la Estrella for the Crucifixion. He is covered as a sign of mourning and penitence. 
The men in purple are called Nazarenes, identifying with Jesus from the town of Nazareth.  

El Señor de la Cuevita, Lord of the Little Cave.
Photo by Enrique Tamayo,

El Señor de la Cuevita, en Pregunta Santoral (Questions about Saints)

La Virgen de Soledad, The Virgin of Solitude, who adopted a Pueblo

While returning via taxi to the Tlahuac Metro station from a visit to a patron saint fiesta in one of the seven original pueblos in the still mostly rural Delegación Tlahuac, 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.

Happily, Wikipedia en español has a very informative article about San Juan Ixtayopan and the Virgin of Solitude. According to oral tradition, she evidently arrived in San Juan sometime in the 1770s, carried by pilgrims from Pueblo San Miguel Topilejo, on the slopes of Mt. Ajusco in what is now Delegación Tlalpan. On their way to the City of Puebla, quite some distance farther east, they would have to cross over the Paso de Cortés, the 11,150 foot mountain pass that Cortés crossed to enter the Valley of Anahuac in 1519.

Arriving the night of January 2, the pilgrims stayed the night in a private home. Residents noted that the Virgin's vestimenta (attire) was gastada (worn out), which raised 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.

So on January 3, a Wednesday, we returned via el Metro to Tláhuac and took a taxi to San Juan Ixtayopan.

Capilla de la Virgen de Solidad, Pueblo San Juan Ixtayopan, Delegación Tláhuac

A chapel was built especially for the Virgin, where She resides and is venerated to this day, but her fiesta is held in the pueblo's large main church, San Juan Bautista.

Portada over the atrio (atrium) entrance to the Church of St. John the Baptist
displays an image of the Virgin of Solitude

Sanctuary of Church of St. John the Baptist, filled with flowers for the fiesta of the Virgin of Solitude.
(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.

We discovered that the fiesta for the Virgin has primarily become the occasion for first communions for the youth of San Juan. It is obviously a very big day for these youth and their families. 

Young girls dance a pastoral, a shepherd's dance associated with Christmas.
January 3 falls within the twelve days of Christmas.

As far as we could find out, la Virgen de Soledad does not go out to visit the other pueblos of Tláhuac, as other santos populares do, thereby symbolizing and nurturing the ancient ties between them. Nevertheless, She is a santa popular, a saint chosen not by Spanish friars or the official church hierarchy, but by el pueblo, the common people.

Well, yes, the priest did declare Her transformation a miracle, meriting Her taking up residence in San Juan Ixtayopan. So, like the other santos populares we have met, She has official Church recognition, but she is the pueblo's adopted Virgin, or—from the pueblo´s point of view—she is the Virgin who adopted them.

Saints Adopted by el Pueblo, or Vice Versa

So we see, beginning with the Virgin of Guadalupe appearing in Tepeyac, in what is now the northern sector of Mexico City, the emergence of santos populares, saints of the people, el pueblo, in a number of originally indigenous pueblos, villages, found in the Valley of Mexico. The Spanish friars worked to incorporate them into the Catholic Church and Spanish culture. In modern times, many of these villages were incorporated into what is now Mexico City

Like the Virgin of Guadalupe, these saints are experienced by el pueblo as having intentionally chosen them, adopted them, rather than their being assigned like foster parents by the Church. This act of adoption was demonstrated by such miraculous phenomena as becoming too heavy to carry from a pueblo after arriving on a visit. Some such saints are seen as the power that then rescued the pueblo from a fatal epidemic. Each pueblo, even several adjacent pueblos, in turn, give these santos populares highest reverence and, thus, produce their biggest fiesta ("echar la casa por la ventana"). 

There is, in this uniting of saint and pueblo, more than a parent's adoption of an orphan child. It is a kind of spiritual marriage of choice undertaken directly between the Holy and the People—rather than one "arranged" by intermediary padres (parents/priests). It is a permanent bonding and mutual commitment to sustain one another, which is modeled in God, the Father's choice of the Virgin Mary to bear His Son and in the Christian metaphor that the Church is the Bride of Christ

The fiestas celebrating this marriage serve more than being simply an "anniversary" that keeps alive the memory of the initiation of the union. The fiestas renew the implicit marital vows and, thereby, the identity of the pueblo. Via this process, the original indigenous pueblos have made Spanish Catholicism their own. They have transformed some of its saints into their very own santos populares, thereby sustaining their continuity and uniqueness as pueblo, a community of people that has existed since time immemorial. 

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