|Guadelupe--the Corn Dancer.....painting by Mitzi Linn|
The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. That is preceded by a desire to travel. Traveling and living outside the US requires intention, will, courage and curiosity, especially if you are a single woman who is not going somewhere because of a job, or an intimate relationship. Adventure calls to all kinds of people. I found out that if I want to go somewhere, do something, to answer the yearning of finding myself in different environments, I will have to go alone, meeting up with companions as the journey unfolds. So when I decided to go live in Oaxaca, Mexico, around the Day of the Dead in 1988, I was following my heart, my love for that place which I wanted to know on a deeper level.
Spiritual journeys ask more than mere travel. These journeys, planned or unplanned, always test the pilgrim, the seeker, the traveler. The way we resolve the problems encountered in our journey or accept the uncalled for experiences of joy or suffering reveals us to ourselves. Searching for a miracle often inspires pilgrimages to sacred places. A price is paid for the miracle experienced. But given a miracle we are often hard pressed to remember the difficult lessons that went along with it. I might add that not all spiritual journeys result in the miracle you were hoping for. Pilgrimages are often inspired by the need for adventure. For me, a pilgrimage to see the Virgin of Juquila involved diverse motivations, curiousity being the primary one.
Living in Oaxaca off and on for several years, I’d heard much talk of the Virgin of Juquila. Glafira Cruz from Casa Arnel related stories of miracles following the family’s annual pilgrimages to see the tiny brown Virgin in her town Juquila. While walking around Oaxaca I often noticed cars and trucks with pictures of this brown Virgin nestled in flower wreaths attached to their front bumpers. These recently returned devotees drove proudly around the city announcing they’d made their annual trip to visit Oaxaca’s own brown Virgin. They’d sacrificed and prayed and promised Her their adoration and a return visit if she’d only grant them the new house, the total healing, the successful business, a child, the perfect spouse, etc. Hearing this, and always thinking of the Virgins as emanations of the Goddess, I decided I needed to check out this Virgin for myself.
Juquila, the town, lies in the mountains on a road between Sola de Vega and Puerto Escondido, the coastal surfing resort. Sola de Vega, about two hours west of Oaxaca city, claims to have the best mescal in all the state of Oaxaca. It is always properly aged to temper the liquor’s bite. That can make drinking it seem totally benign. Their good mescal gives you the feeling of total clarity, almost omnipotence, even after you are bien baracho or falling down drunk. Mescal has lured many of its unsuspecting afficionados into the abyss. Along with mescal, Sola de Vega is famous for another phenomenon. It’s reported in old guidebooks that witches take flight there weekly. I don’t remember which day the brujos and brujas leave earth to test out the heavens, but they don’t fly out of an airport.
During my first journey to Juquila with Ron, an American artist as he introduced himself, we stopped in Sola De Vega to eat comida around 2 PM. The most appealing restaurant sat on the dusty tree-lined main street. A sad river, almost empty of water, wound along the other side of the street under big, old ceiba trees. The rainy season had not yet begun, even though it was May. Ron had to buy some of this famous mescal before we headed on. The paved road ended outside Sola De Vega. We began a seemingly endless, winding drive over a gravel road in Ron’s pickup towards Juquila, still several hours away. I noted a pyramid base of an old temple in the middle of someone’s field. Hum, those ancient Zapotecs worshiped their gods and goddesses here.
I should fill in some details about Ron and me. I’d met him one night at Los Guajiros, a restaurant and bar on Macedonia Alcala, the pedestrian street in downtown Oaxaca. An incarnation of my favorite band, Mescalito, played there five nights a week. I loved to dance the rhumba, the cumbia, and an occasional bolero, and did so with different men sitting at tables near the dance floor. Often I joined Memo and Pablo Porras, Fernando, Paul Cohen, Lionel, Ruben, Guajiro and other band members at their break, in the back room or at their table. We’d gotten to be friends over the years between their gigs at El Sol y La Luna and Guajiros.
Their straight ahead American jazz and their danceable Latin American favorites from Columbia and Cuba provided us with an unbeatable musical experience.
The late 80’s and early 90’s in Oaxaca was a synergistic period when everything seemed possible. Those magical times ended for most of the locals with the devaluation of the peso in the early 90’s. That devaluation put a crimp in Oaxacaquenos’ wallets and a few years later these hangouts were only affordable to tourists or the rich. In those years I often went out dancing alone, meeting old friends and making new ones as the evening progressed. It was great fun. I felt safe even if I was the only gringa in the place. After Los Guajiros we’d migrate to the newly opened La Candela to hang out with the musicians there. Often, at 3 AM I’d walk home alone along the very quiet streets or get droppped off by Pablo in his 60’s VW van. Sometimes, when I arrived at Los Guajiros at 9 PM, the band’s drummer, Ruben, would whistle the tune, ‘Misty’ (sounds like Mitzi) to catch my eye. We laughed. He ran a farmacia as his day job and was quite funny at our round-the-table interludes between sets. Wanting to know these guys better inspired me to become fluent in Spanish.
Los Guajiros had few customers that weeknight, so when Ron asked if he could join me at my table, I said, “ Why not?”. We flirted and talked overcervezas. He mentioned that he was a sculptor, from Rancho de Taos, NM. His achievement in stone had been collected by the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC.
I remembered with great love the times I spent at the Phillips when I lived in Washington in 1968. I sat meditation-like for whole hours in front of Mark Rothko’s abstracts, after which I filled my being with Van Gogh’s, Gauguin’s and Bonnard’s vivid colors and images. I thought it somewhat amazing to meet someone who got their work in that collection.
At two AM the music ended and Ron offered to drive me home, which I accepted. At that point I was living at Rancho San Felipe, up in San Felipe del Agua about 3 miles from central Oaxaca. If I didn’t accept his offer I’d be finding a taxi at the Zocalo. I can’t say I really was attracted to him. About my age (40 something), not particularly handsome, his self-assurance made him interesting in an egotistic way. He didn’t seem to want to leave once he was in my
apartment. That must have been reason enough to invite him to spend the rest of the night. I hadn’t had a lover recently, so I figured “why not”? I do remember that about 5 am, the morning star Venus rose and shown so brightly through the bedroom window that I thought it was the sun rising. The star’s energy vibrated through the room. Our lovemaking left me turned on but unsatisfied. Venus, the star, is the Goddess of Love in Roman mythology but a male diety in Meso-American. He was often connected to making ritual wars in the old cultures. Venus may have been trying to communicate something to me that morning.
I had brought up going to Juquila that night before our first kiss. I reasoned that Ron had a truck and if he wanted to go, it would be easier going with him than by bus, and for me better to go with someone than alone. Yes, I’d gone to Guatemala alone once and even hitchhiked from the border of Mexico and Guatemala to San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas. I’d done long bus rides through Chiapas, and to Puerto Angel and other parts of Mexico more times than I could count on my fingers and toes.
Basically I detested those long, back country bus rides which take ten hours to get one hundred miles. The bus to Juquila promised this. Buses or trucks are the only means of travel across the back country Mexico unless you have a car. Slow, crowded, but more or less reliable, they do stop anywhere you signal on the road. I would be grateful to go to Juquila with Ron if it meant not having to take the bus. A compromised beginning for a spiritual adventure.
The local Catholic myth of the tiny Virgin goes like this. Dominican friars tried to establish the their religion outside the city of Oaxaca, after they built Santo Domingo in downtown Oaxaca and other splendid cathedrals in the Oaxaca Valley. In the wilds of the mountains, far from the city, they built a small church, installing a 12 inch high, white skinned, brown haired, childless Spanish Virgin, dressed in white on the main altar guilded with gold. This little church was located near a waterfall whose pool cured the people who came to bathe in it. There Juquila lived with white priests trying to convert the local brown Zapotecs. It’s probable this place was sacred before the Dominicans arrived, the shrine of a Zapotec Goddess.
What were those priests to do? How to convert these people to the one true faith? Juquila’s myth progresses. One day the small wooden church mysteriously burnt to the ground. Everything burned except the tiny wooden Virgin statue, which survived. Her skin turned brown, and her hair, black. It was the miraculous sign that the locals ought to convert to this new religion. A similar story tells of the appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe. That revered brown Virgin just happened to show herself to Juan Diego on the hill sacred to the Great Mother (Tonantzin) of central Mexico.
The same Catholic church deified both Mary and Guadalupe. Rome, when it became Christian, had temples to all the major dieties, masculine and feminine, from Greece, Egypt and the Near East. Catholicism has historically extended its power base by incorporating the dieties of the conquered land into their pantheon of saints. And through other means, such as declaring “pagans” less than human and murdering them along with any other opposition to the Church.
At the Welty Library in Oaxaca I read that the Zapotecs of the area near Juquila worshipped a Goddess called Coojila (a phonetic spelling based on Spanish) among other dieties. Zapotec Gods and Goddesses often had a town or shrine of origin, where worship of that specific emanation of energy flourished. This was not that different from the Middle East, where, for instance, Diana of Ephesus, was worshipped in southern Turkey, many millenia before the Christian era. You might remember fanatic followers of St. Paul destroyed Her worship when he converted the locals to Christianity.
The Zapotec people built the ceremonial city of Da’ni’baa or Monte Alban over a thousand years before the Spanish arrived. They leveled a whole mountain top by human hand. and built stone pyramid bases for temples to their dieties. It shines above what’s now the city of Oaxaca. Throughout the whole region abandoned ancient sites of overgrown pyramids dot the landscapes. They often look just like hills. The Zapotecs, basically farmers and artisans, presided over a peaceful, productive, sedentary culture for at least a thousand years. They had a well established religion and culture at least two thousand years before the Aztec and then Spanish invasions of their homelands in southern Mexico.
The long drive to Juquila started late. I sang to pass time while Ron wrote down names of all the hamlets, towns and villages we passed through. I reviewed a series of things I was to do, places to go, mostly under the direction of Glafira whose instructions included minute details of the Virgin’s worship. First, we needed to find El Pedimento off the highway, on a mountain top. This shrine housed a version of the Virgin that answered all prayers. Usually, Glafira said, they would walk there, from Juquila, but we could just go by truck. Then, we should go to a mass at the church in Juquila, afterwards I was to go behind the altar and pass under the Virgin’s long white train, spraying some rose scent Glafira gave me and leaving a financial donation. I was to bring back momentos bought there in one of the little puestos that lined the street outside the church. Where to sleep and eat? A little hotel run by their friends.
That it just happened to be full moon and, that I was having a particularly painful, bloody and unexpected menstruation, makes this tale seem like fiction. This was to be a journey of purification, part of the spiritual process, I can say now from this safe distance. But then, the raw experience created little energy for introspection. As we bumped along into higher pine forests with bromiliads growing in tree limbs, I tried to ignore my cramps. Getting into the forests, I felt we were getting closer to the days’ goal. Night abruptly arrives around 6:30 PM at that latitude and, given the usual rumors of banditos, I didn’t want to be out driving after sunset.
As the receding light lengthened tree shadows across the road, we stopped and picked up some local camposinos waiting for a bus. Three men in straw hats and a beautiful woman in an intricate embroidered blouse and beads at her throat climbed in the back. Their warm smiles heartened me. Yes, we were within a few kilometers of Juquila.
A sign appeared along the roadway, ‘El Pedimento’ with arrow pointing at a rutted but dry dirt road lined with huts that sell religious paraphelia. Our passengers got out to continue on the main road. We turned onto the road, and above, I could see that a stuccoed white shrine with open walls sat on the hilltop in the pine forest. Ron parked the truck and I jumped out with my pouch containing copal insence and self-lighting charcoals I brought from the US. On the small platform likenesses of the Virgin and Jesus sat admist offerings of flowers and other gifts. Rows of lit candles lined three sides of the concrete platform. Other pilgrims were lighting candles and praying on their knees. Some had copal too. They marveled at the charcoal in my small ceramic incense burner. They considered this self-lighting charcoal a kind of miracle. I gave a couple women some extras I had.
Distracted by all the activity, and mainly feeling the extreme discomfort of my cramps, I looked the little Goddess straight in the eye, lit a candle, and asked to be content with my life. Perhaps I should have asked for something more material, like the settlement of my pending inheritance or the death of my wicked step-mother who was stealing it, but...... Ron sorta hung out on the edge making his own prayers. I must have prayed for the well being of everyone I could think of. As I looked around, I started feeling elated to be there.
In the authentic traditional pilgrimage the participants often walk from Oaxaca to Juquila. Glafira and Federico did it several times when they were young. Before buses and trucks started creeping along the rutted roads, walking or going by horseback was the only way to get there. Walking took a week from Oaxaca. Camping along the way out under the stars, meeting other pilgrims gave people much to talk about. These old customs attest to the validity of people’s faith, as well as reflect a periodic need to get away from the dailly grind. World wide, most religions encourage pilgrimages to their sacred places. Going to Juquila these days many young people choose to ride their bicycles.
Juquila’s annual celebration happens in November when 10,000 (or more) seekers and believers converge on the small hilltop town. They arrive on foot, by car and bus, by bicycle, on horses.....and some, perhaps on the wings of angels. Being such a hermit I could never go to Juquila during November. I visualize people filling the posadas and hotels and camping out in farmers’ fields. Buses parked everywhere. Imagine how many discarded plastic water bottles would be tossed in the arroyos. The proverbial starving dogs must have a feast.
Completing my prayers at El Pedimento, I looked around. Below, the entire hillside
sprouted little white wooden crosses along with facsimiles and photos of things people came to
pray for. These thousands of crosses acted as thank-you signs, on each written the family name and whatever they received ..... Thanks for the healing, Thanks for the car, Thanks for the baby boy (including photos), Thanks for the house, etc... These people’s prayers had been answered. A testimony to the power of this place and their faith. Perhaps this mountain top had been a shaman’s shrine before the Catholic priests got there. I felt a little spaced out and hungry, but grateful to have made it successfully to the first spot on Glafira’s pilgrimage map. We then drove on to the town of Juquila as darkness closed in.
Little ranchos, one room wooden houses with corrals for animals appeared as the forest opening widened into a green grassy valley with a small river. The town, with the large cathedral in the center, turned out to be a typical small Mexican town, utilitarian, not quaint or charming in international tourist eyes. The locals are ranchers, loggers, farmers and merchants who benefit from the pilgrims’ visits.
The cathedral, built recently out of stone and brick, dominates the town visually. A large, utilitarian basilica-styled, 20th century structure, it will never be like the beautiful old 16th century cathedral you find at Tlaycochuaya. Or like the churches in downtown Oaxaca.
Money offerings made there probably end up in Rome or at Santo Domingo in Oaxaca.
By now, darkness made it hard to see much. Outside the church electric lights, strung along by a series of extension cords, lit market booths selling sacred momentos and other goods. The lights of the general store across the street illuminated campesinos in straw hats and their wives in black ikat rebozos. There were no sidewalks. Paved streets wandered out from the church and plaza. Brick walls, wooden and concrete block houses, mostly unstuccoed and unpainted with tin roofs, stood along the unregulated streets. I noticed hungry dogs waiting in shadows near the taco stands. The town seemed to need a good rain, just to clean up the streets and buildings.
We found Conchita’s Hotel and got a room with two beds and a bathroom. The light bulb
hanging from a wire in the ceiling barely lit the room. The beds seemed clean and solid. The Hotel’s restaurant only opened during the month of November for the annual pilgrimage. We
drove back to the town plaza to find some dinner. I hoped for part of a well-cooked, stringy,
free ranging chicken, some rice and a beer. A few tortillas and salsa, and perhaps I’d forget the menstrual cramps that had gotten worse. After we ate someone told us what time the first mass would be held the next day. Our plan was to go to it and then drive back to Oaxaca, about four hours away.
Ron and I needed our own spaces. I felt terrible physically, with cramps and bleeding. Still, I thought we’d cuddle or something, when we got to our room. He though indicated that he wanted to be alone in his bed and I lay down on other one.
We’d just made love a few nights before. He’d let go and enjoyed it so much that he remarked that it felt like the first time (ever). We hadn’t talked about this experience since having it. I had no idea how Ron felt about me. Or how I really felt about him. I didn’t think about it. I had liked making love that last time so.....I was open.
During our last sexual encounter, I had been practicing a Tantric approach to lovemaking. Imagining myself as the Goddess gave me spiritual focus and energy. In Tantra the sexual/ spiritual connection happens through the heart. The energy moves to groin and head as the couple relax into each others energy field. This creates a shared feeling of being at one with all creation. One lets go of that overpowering sense of individuality. Every act of conscious lovemaking is a like a dance. In Tantra orgasm is not the goal but can become a deep sharing of energies, physical and metaphysical. The dissolution of the sense of self, joining the Other, gives each person a taste of that ‘gone beyond’ state. This deep sharing can be part of a short affair or a long term relationship. It can change one’s life totally.
I found that my attitude about love-making confused most men. Men don’t like undefined relationships. This I learned talking with a widely experienced male friend in my age group. It’s either ‘she’s the one’ or she’s just an object, Everett informed me. Men often decide this before a sexual encounter. If it’s just for fun, they’re in control, not letting down their guard. If they really enjoy making love, seduced into that relaxed no-mans-land where the woman is neither life partner material nor the passive recipient of their desire, most men get confused. Their fears come up when the woman really gets off. Perhaps performance anxiety or fear of committment or both. I still don’t exactly understand men......
Making love to serve a higher purpose, as an act of worship, is a remote ideal to most people, men or women. Still, some of this kind of archtypal activity survives among Goddess worshipers and Tantrikas. A pretty esoteric group, I must admit.
At Conchita’s Hotel, the full moon illuminated our room. I couldn’t sleep in my bed. Cramps made lying down nearly impossible. I tossed and turned. Finally, I woke Ron and asked if I could sleep next to him. He welcomed me under his sheet. My back pressed to his belly, the warmth melted my cramps and I finally slept. This was a kind gesture on his part but it didn’t make us any closer emotionally. The next morning I did feel better physically.
Ron had a kind of presence, a worldly, experienced and sorta spiritual man. He claimed a recent ex-wife. He’d attended the Krishnamurti school in Ojai. He could be undeniably charming. And manipulative. He knew how to do things on the material plane. Still, like me, communication about intimate feelings wasn’t his strong suit. I hadn’t planned to get overly involved with him anyway. We weren’t discussing our feelings about each other.
We got to the mass. It seemed like any regular old mass there in Juquila’s church. We had bought large white candles to offer. The tiny Virgin seemed remote, high up in her place at the church’s main altar. After the mass, the priest invited the pilgrims to move down the aisle for a blessing. That’s how we got down front with the candles. Many other pilgrims stood around in front of the altar with its huge bouquets of gladiolus. We received gladiola wands that had touched the tiny Virgin. We said prayers, lit our candles and put them in the holders off to the side of the nave.
A young family from Oaxaca approached Ron and asked for a big favor. Would we be the temporary god-parents of their young sick daughter they’d brought there for healing? Ron said
yes and we found ourselves with them and the priest and the girl at the altar for a special
blessing and prayers. I admired Ron’s serious, ceremonial presence as we played our parts.
I can’t remember one name of this family for whom we served as god-parents in this healing. I’ve always wondered why they chose us. Glafira told me later that it was an honor to be invited to serve in this manner. Afterwards they rode back to Oaxaca with us, the mother and child sitting on the front seat between me and Ron and the men in the back.
In order to keep my last promise to Glafira, I found the door to the back of the templo, where I could pass upright on my knees, under the train of Juquila’s white satin dress. The back room was even plainer and darker than the church’s sanctuary. It required some climbing up stairs to a bridge-like ramp where I could pass under her white satin train. This task seemed the strangest of all. On my knees I moved along under the train. The train was much longer than the Juquila was tall. I sprayed the back of her gown with Glafira’s perfume as directed, left the perfume container and coins, all the while praying for the family. Other pilgrims waited. I crossed myself, moved out from under her canopy and made my way slowly down the ramp. The air outside was refreshing.
After passing under the Virgin’s train, I found Ron again to check in about leaving for Oaxaca. Then, I went shopping. Glad to be in the sunlit plaza, I bargained for an ornately embroideried blouse, like the one the woman was wearing in the back of the pick-up the day before. I got some momentos for the people at Casa Arnel. I bought a wooden blue painted shrine box with the Virgin of Guadalupe and the Virgin of Juquila under glass. That should hang in the kitchen when I have one again.
I fed a small stray dog who’d lost all its hair. I cried as he ate the tortillas. He reminded me of the small street dog I had called Luna that I picked up by the curb one day at Benito Juarez Park in Oaxaca. She’d been hit crossing the busy street, victim of a typical macho driver. Still a puppy, I took her home and helped her heal. Now, planning to leave for the US, I’d recently given her away to a good home. I already missed her sweet exuberance.
I had stopped noticing my cramps, the bleeding let up. Back in the truck, returning to Oaxaca seemed to take less time than going to Juquila. We passed through the cloud forest and down into farming valleys. I felt exhausted, my energy spent. The woman and child slept in the front seat between us. Ron and I talked sparsely. I knew we’d no longer be lovers but didn’t exactly understand why. We took the family home, drank a beer with them at their house in Ejido Guadalupe Victoria. When Ron finally left me off, we parted cordially, saying we’d see each other soon. I was grateful to have gone and to have gotten back safely. I doubted we’d see each other soon.
I reported my experiences with the Virgin to Glafira and the other women at Casa Arnel.
I assured them I’d done everything they’d asked. I gave them souvenirs I bought for each, photos of Juquilita, tiny sewn cloth hearts and some specially made thin cardoman wafer bread. I had two gladiola wands from the mass. One I gave to Glafira.
There was alot I couldn’t tell this Catholic family. It took sometime for me to process the trip to Juquila. A purifying experience, if you consider women’s menses to be a monthly “letting go”. Then letting go of another lover and my attachment to sex and practicing Tantra. An important part of the purification process I continually seemed to be learning. Pilgrimages are not meant to be slick and easy. That’s why walking to Juquila reflects the sincerest intention on the part of the pilgrim. I’d wanted it to be easy, in this case, meaning not riding 10 hours in a cramped, smelly bus with windows sealed closed, precaution against getting sick from fresh air. I had not anticipated the emotional difficulties or the unexpected menses. Still, really doing it, going there, and connecting with the small, brown Virgin reassured me that the Goddess’s presence still lives in Oaxaca.
Not really thinking about Ron, a few nights later while walking home in the rain, his pickup turned the corner in front of me. Seated next to him in the front seat was his twenty something Spanish teacher, Miriam. She was an attractive, bilingual Oaxacan woman, educated, talented, and a great flirt. Then I remembered that the last time we’d made love, in his relaxed state, he said that I’d be perfect as a girlfriend if I just spoke Spanish, as my first language.
I saw that in Ron’s eyes he’d found the perfect girlfriend. Over twenty years younger, native Spanish speaker, sophisticated, well-educated.... But knowing Miriam myself for several years, I knew that she would never be anything more than a friend. She was looking for someone, but I knew it wasn’t Ron.
Later in the month, before returning to the US, I had been invited to Sergio Martinez’s
church wedding in Teotitlan del Valle. Teotitlan, the Zapotec rug making town, was settled long
before the birth of Christ. The Teotiteccos take pride in keeping their costumbres , one of which is the 5-7 day wedding fiesta. I had looked forward to going to this, my first Zapotec wedding.
We arrived in time for the 6:00 AM wedding and baptism mass at the Teotitlan church. Abel, a friend from a folkloric group called Quetzalcoatl, drove me and his mother out to Teo that morning. Inside this charming church built on top of a much older Zapotec temple, the visiting Catholic priest married Sergio and Tomasa and baptised their first daughter, Teresa. After the ceremony, and posing for pictures in the old sanctuary’s doorway, the wedding parties headed to the bride’s family and the groom’s family houses for breakfast. Since I was invited by Sergio’s family, Abel, his mother and I followed the marching band, the bride and groom, maids of honor, family and friends to Sergio and Tomasa’s not-quite-finished house. It sits at the foot of Gi’Bets, the sacred mountain.
Cups of hot chocolate, large loaves of pan yema (eggbread), shots of mescal, cervezas, coca colas, turkey in mole negro with tlayudas (plate-size tortillas) formed a sumptuous wedding breakfast. This was served by compadres of the family to guests at long tables on an
earthen patio. Toasts to the bride and groom began the feast. The band played waltzes as we ate.
We happily sat near the family table with otherinvitados from outside the pueblo. Though it was my first Zapotec church wedding, I felt at home. I wished I’d had taken a photo of beautiful Tomasa in her white satin wedding gown nursing baby Teresa under a palapa. Abel and his mother went back to Oaxaca as breakfast ended. Other invitadaos from the village headed home with their green pitchers full of hot chocolate, and baskets overflowing with tlcaydudas, huajalote con mole negro and pan de yema. I moved to sit closer to my friends Richard Enzer, Flaviana (his girl friend) and Michelle Tommi.
As fate would have it, Miriam showed up for the breakfast with Ron. She was working for Richard, the rug designer who started The Line of The Spirit. Sergio also worked for and with Richard. I met Richard and Sergio at El Sol y La Luna one night in February 1988. Richard had introduced me to the rest of this family by inviting me to Sergio and Tomasa’s civil wedding the year before. We’d all become close friends.
I hadn’t seen Ron to speak to since he left me off at Casa Arnel on our return from
Juquila. I felt awkward. But since no one there knew I’d carried on with Ron, I acted as if we’d never laid eyes on each other. Someone introduced us. “Mucho gusto” I said while shaking his hand. Then I rejoined Richard and the others. I thought that was that. But Ron now said he wanted to talk. We wandered away and sat on a stone wall. He said he wanted to be friends. I wondered why? After all he could have told me what was what on the trip. I said I didn’t really want to be friends. He mentioned he could be useful if I ever wanted to publish my writing. He had lots of contacts. I said I would never be friends with him for that reason. I guess then that was that. He politely excused himself, “con permiso” and walked back to the party. I haven’t run into Ron since then. And he has a house on the edge of Teotitlan.
I had the chance to visit Juquila again a couple years later. This invitation came from Suzanne and Mateo Lopez who wanted me to go with them and their crew from the Posada De Vata in Puerto Angel, when the Posada closed for spring vacation. They made their annual pilgrimage every May 1st.
The second journey to visit the tiny virgin took me to Juquila’s original sacred pool at the foot of the small waterfall that figures in Her myth. Legend says that this was the original sacred site of Juquila from before the Conquest. Mateo, a Zapotec, grew up in Puerto Angel. His family had gone there to pray to the Virgincita long before the Catholic priests decided to build a cathedral in the town of Juquila. The waterfall is located about 15 KM out of Juquila, at a hamlet whose name might be Jamiltepec.
We left Puerto Angel at dawn traveling in a small chartered bus crammed full of people and supplies. Canela, Suzanne’s cinnamon-colored labrador retriever, lounged across my feet most of the way. We rode along the highway from Puerto Angel, through Puerto Escondido, then turned our backs to the sea, headed inland, twisting and turning through the mountains, eventually stopping to lunch along a river. Chefe and Lonya, and the young women crew from the Posada, cooked over a charcoal brazier, delivering fresh grilled fish, tortillas, black beans
and a fruit salad for us to eat. We hung out there in the shade along the river at least an hour longer but still got to the chapel and waterfall by early afternoon. This hamlet lay in a small mountain valley, at the end of a rutted road.
The caretakers of Juquila’s chapel greeted us. They remembered Mateo and Suzanne from the years before. The small adobe chapel located above the nearly dry river served as a shrine for a small image of Juquila. The chapel didn’t seem well cared for or used much. The young women housekeepers from the Posada giggled and sang as we cleaned the chapel. Their teenage smiles and jokes lit up that dark interior. After sweeping the dirt floor we sat on the rustic benches. We created our own ritual putting flowers, incense and candles on the altar in front of the tiny Virgin. The chapel transformed into a cool candle-lit sanctuary where we meditated and made our own prayers.
Outside, the day was hot, sticky, as it often is in Oaxaca just before the rainy season. Suzanne and Mateo always brought fresh tuna in ice and other gifts for the villagers who came from their little farms when the church bell was rung. We rang the bell after our service. Soon men in their palm sombreros and women in black rebozos began appearing slowly from various paths along hillsides. They sat down on benches against the white churchyard wall in
mid-afternoon sun waiting for the fish and other gifts to be given.
After giving and receiving the gifts, we women went down the hill to bath in the sacred pool. Suzanne, Lonya, Chefe and the girls stripped to their bras and slips, then jumped joyfully in the water. It was only waist deep at the end of the dry season. The dry waterfall would come alive in the coming summer rains. Rolling up my jeans, I waded along the edge. I put some water on my head as a blessing. The stagnant water in the sacred pool seemed pretty dirty. This area, which had once been rain forest, now served as pasture for goats, cows and horses. The horses, rugged little descendants of the Spanish Barb, provide transportation across the back country.
After bathing in the Virgin’s pool, we returned to the church yard to get busy making dinner over charcoal braziers. All I had to do was come, Suzanne had said. They provided
everything. By now it was getting dark, I sat with a Mateo, enjoying a cerveza . Stars shone above the church plaza where we ate more fish, tortillas and an organic salad by campfire light. After a delicious dessert we began looking for our place to sleep.
The caretakers occupied a one room, concrete block house with their four children. Their petate s (woven mats for sleeping on) stood rolled up against the wall during the day. The man opened the hamlet’s government building, a small, clean concrete block structure, where we too would sleep on petates on the concrete floor. We all got a blanket and a petate from the bus. The girls (as we called the young women who worked at the Posada) slept together as they did at home. They giggled continuously until the one electric light bulb went dark. Although I had on a sweater, jacket and jeans, and covered myself with a blanket, I never seemed to get comfortable, or warm or sleep much, that night. O well. Many locals there probably don’t ever have enough blankets. What did I say before about the discomforts of spiritual journeys?
The morning sun and hot coffee warmed me up. I looked up at the beautiful mountains. I felt more cheerful but tired to the bone. The long bus ride from Oaxaca to Puerto Angel two days before yesterday’s bus trip came on the heels of a close friend’s unexpected death in Oaxaca in mid-April. Being in charge of Karen Turtle’s funeral, representing her family in Oaxaca,
taking care of her things and finding a home for her cat, Salsa, left me physically and emotionally drained. Susanne and Mateo had arrived in Oaxaca unexpectedly to give me love and support during that time. But Karen’s unanticipated death had put me in a kind of psychic shock. In that dazed state I had had to function at full force anyway.
After breakfast we put our things back in the bus and headed into the town of Juquila for the morning mass. The church was almost empty. Not many other pilgrims arrived for mass that May day.
Sitting with these friends from the Posada and Puerto Angel, I shared some of their high spirits. Suzanne and Mateo’s faces glowed with love and inspiration as they made on offering to express their gratitude for another successful season at the Posada.
Lonya and Chefe, the 20 something Zapotec sisters from a village near Pochutla, would
go home during May. Unmarried, they cheerfully ran the Posada’ kitchen, dining room and housekeeping. Their wages and tips went to buying land and building houses in their pueblo.
Pilgrims often walk on their knees down the cathedral’s main aisle during the mass. On that morning, I watched Lonya and Chefe from Puerto Angel do just that. They made an impressive sight presenting themselves to the little brown Virgin. In their colorful dresses and waist length black hair, with joyful smiles and armfuls of bright flowers, they moved together down the aisle on their knees. All the while, their eyes on Her. Behind them the girls’ beautiful brown faces shone above their new, brightly-colored dresses that Lonya and Chefe had helped them make for the occasion. They blended with the flowers they carried. The girls’ laughs and giggles in the bus, and then, in contrast, their serious manner in the mass, made me smile.
I gazed at the little Virgin and send out a heartfelt “thank you” for these friends from the Posada. Thanks for their love and goodwill, for bringing me once again to visit Her. Sometime later that morning we boarded the bus and wound our way back to Puerto Angel. Canela resumed her place, lying across my feet. I was so tired I don’t remember any of the trip back. I slept very well that night in hot, humid, tropical Puerto Angel under the hum of an electric fan.
Since that journey to Juquila’s waterfall, the Catholic officials tore down the little chapel. Perhaps in anticipation of this, the caretakers gave Mateo a two foot high wooden carved angel. It was armless, pocked with insect holes and in poor condition. Mateo was delighted and took it to Puerto Angel to make a new home there