Beaches of sorrow.

The beach is a happy place, right?

Not always. Two beaches in Mexico are famous for stories of sadness and sorrow.

Playa San Blas, Nayarit.

The first beach synonymous with sorrow is Playa El Borrego en San Blas, in the state of Nayarit, and it centres on the true story of Rebecca Mendez Jimenez, who was known as La Loca del Muelle de San Blas.

Rebecca was often seen at the beach, the lighthouse and the wharf of San Blas wearing the same white wedding dress for 41 years, until her death on September 18, 2012.

So how did Rebecca come to be known as the crazy woman of San Blas? Two separate stories attempt to explain her actions.

The first claims that a teenage Rebecca fell in love with a local fisherman named Manuel, who promised to marry her in 1971. A date was decided for the wedding and preparations were made. A few days before the wedding Manuel went out fishing, but did not return that day. On the day on which the pair were set to declare their love, Rebecca went to the wharf in her wedding dress and veil to wait for her love. She waited, and waited, but Manuel never returned. He and some companions had been killed by a hurricane that swept through the region. A distraught Rebecca visited the wharf in her wedding dress to wait for her beloved for 41 years.

The second story is equally sorrowful. Rebecca is said to have fallen for another man, this time a merchant named Laos, who referred to her affectionately as Smoke Girl due to her greying hair. He also promised to marry Rebecca, who waited at the church in her wedding attire, but in vain. Laos never arrived and Rebecca was left heartbroken.

Rebecca will always be remembered. Her ashes were scattered on the beaches of San Blas, a statue has been erected at the wharf, and she is the subject of a song by popular Mexican rock band Mana, titled En el Muelle de San Blas.

For locals and Mexicans, Rebecca is a symbol of eternal love.

Playa La Llorona

The crying beach lies in the state of Michoacan, also on Mexico’s Pacific coast.

It is one of the picturesque unspoilt beaches scattered along the coast of Michoacan and it is referred to as ‘una playa virgen’. The sound of crying does not emminate from a crazed widow or a ghost-like creature, but from the sand itself. Such is the chemical composition of the sand on this particular beach that visitors hear a crying sound while walking upon it.

The beach is also more isolated than other beaches on the Pacific coast of Mexico and it has so far avoided the construction of a hotel or other accommodation which smother many of the country’s best beaches. In fact, the coast of Michaoacan hosts many precious beaches devoid of large hotels or development.

Camping is popular at La Llorona due to its tranquillity, its beauty and its clear night skies. Campers drift off to sleep to the sound of the waves lapping the shore. If you’re lucky enough to visit and camp at La Llorona, and you hear what sounds like crying during the evening, do not despair. It is most likely a fellow visitor taking a romantic walk along the seashore under the light of the moon.

Preparing to greet the dead.

They will commune with the dead. They will welcome the unliving into their lives, for one night only.

The people of Guanajuato join their compatriots in creating elaborate artworks and displays to honour their ancestors who will share the earth with them on this one night of the year. Mexicans young and old will hang ofrendas in homes and public places which carry images of skeletons and other macabre images. For on Dia de los Muertos, the deceased return to the earth and walk among us.

Mexicans will bring forth the dead so as to never forget them. To remember the relatives who were once part of their lives. To pay their respects again and again and not just at that person’s funeral. The annual tribute to their ‘antepasados’ allows families to honour the dead without the overwhelming emotions of a funeral immediately following a passing, when grief releases a torrent of sadness. They will honour all of the dead in colourful and striking public installations, over which they have laboured for hours and hours.

In a land all too familiar with drug wars, gang violence and death, perhaps Dia de los Muertos helps local people come to terms with death.

Mexico is colour. Vibrant colour. Bold colour, and this is true of the installations which welcome the deceased.

Mexicans will celebrate. They will laugh and smile and sing. They will eat and drink and be merry, even when surrounded by death and the unliving. Because even in death, Mexicans will find joy and fun and happiness. There is always an excuse to socialise and to party. Deceased Mexicans wouldn’t expect it to be any different.

The families preparing the public and private installations do so with pride and joy. They smile at the striking images of skulls and gore. They revel in their distinct indigenous customs which survived the Christian influence of All Souls Day and the cultural colonisation of Halloween, which fall on the same day. Yes, they celebrate both of these traditions, but they have never strayed from the expression of Mexican culture which is Dia de los Muertos.

Which is your favourite national anthem?

National anthems stir emotions in us all. They evoke national pride and a sense of belonging. They can inspire international athletes, and persuade patriots to lay down their lives. Anthems can make grown men cry and create incomparable life-long memories.

So which is your favourite anthem? Is it the anthem of your nation of birth, or the nation you now call home? Does your country have an anthem, and what does it mean to you? Perhaps your favourite anthem belongs to a foreign country.

I have heard a number of national anthems during my travels and I’ve listed the songs which created the strongest impression on me.

Multilingual anthems

I like multilingual anthems. I like the interchange between the languages and the recognition of the multicultural composition of the country. Multilingual anthems acknowledge the indigenous inhabitants of the country and attempt to unite every citizen, at least symbolically.

South Africa – Nkosi Sikelel iAfrica

Nkosi Sikelel iAfrica translates as God Bless Africa. The anthem features Zulu, which is the most commonly spoken language in South Africa, as well as Xhosa, Sesotho, Afrikaans and English. The anthem moves seamlessly from one language to another and encompasses the contrasting cultures which make up the rainbow nation, which actually has 11 official languages.

New Zealand – God Defend New Zealand

God Defend New Zealand is another bilingual anthem, which is sung in English and Maori. Now, as an Australian, I’m not supposed to like the New Zealand anthem, nor their Rugby Union team, nor their cricket team. I’m also not supposed to admit that anything from Aotearoa is better than anything in Australia, but NZ gave women the vote before Australia, signed a treaty with their indigenous population, and gave us Sir Edmund Hillary, the All Blacks…

A national song featuring Maori lyrics is also a perfect precursor to the Haka, performed by many New Zealand sporting teams. Needless to say, I enjoy watching rubgy games between the Springboks and the All Blacks.

Ireland – Ireland’s Call – Amhran na bhFiann

Ireland does not have a bilingual anthem, it has two. Amhran na bhFiann is the official anthem, with Irish Gaelic lyrics, while Ireland’s Call is sung for the Irish Rugby Union team, because the team is comprised of players from the Republic of Ireland and from Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. Ireland’s Call is said to promote a greater sense of unity.

Scandal

Spain – La Marcha Real

The Spanish national anthem, La Marcha Real, sparked a social media meltdown during the FIFA World Cup in 2018. The Spanish players did not sing to their anthem before their first game against Portugal, and people blasted them for being unpatriotic, pampered, unworthy and disloyal, and demanded the entire team be dropped before the next game. People unleashed their own fury on La Furia Roja until one informed user explained;

The Spanish national anthem has no words.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and San Marino also have no words to their anthems.

Sport, religion and war

A pattern exists in national anthems. Most of them reference war and religion, and they provide an effective backdrop to sporting contests. Most anthems pay tribute to the country’s most prominent deity, and encourage loyal citizens to give their heart, their soul or their lives for their country. Anthems of colonised peoples honour battles against oppression, and anthems of the colonisers praise the might of the nation, normally referred to as the Fatherland.

Was any national anthem written by a woman?

Sporting competitions are obviously the most visible expressions of nationalism, and anthems are central to that expression.

Australia – Advance Australia Fair

You’ve already realised that I’m not very patriotic; after all, I extolled the virtues of New Zealand. And no, I don’t love my own anthem. The tune is boring and uninspiring, and the words are equally tepid, as well as being problematic.

I’m not the only Aussie who doesn’t love their anthem. In fact, custom dictates that any Australian who knows all the words to the anthem is UnAustralian. Anyone who sings with their hand on heir heart is pretentious and trying to be American. The phrase ‘girt by sea’ confuses most citizens and even the most patriotic locals sing ‘let us ring Joyce’ instead of ‘let us rejoice’. No one knows who Joyce is and why we should call her – maybe she knows what girt means.

Advance Australia Fair is problematic. The opening lyrics tell us that ‘we are young and free’. Calling Australia young ignores the indigenous history of the country. Aboriginal Australians are the world’s oldest living civilisation, having occupied this land for about 60,000 years. Calling Australia young recognises only the history of the country since colonisation in the late 1700s – i.e. White Australia.

Using the word ‘free’ also ignores Australian history, and the fact that Aboriginal people were enslaved (yes, slavery existed in Australia) were stolen from their families, were denied the right to vote and were not even counted as people until 1967. For these reasons, and the ongoing disparity between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, many indigenous people disapprove of the anthem, and many indigenous athletes refuse to sing it while representing their country.

Many Australians find little inspiration in Advance Australia Fair, and often look to pop songs for patriotic stimulus. I am Australian by The Seekers is a popular substitute.

I’m also not a fan of God Save the Queen, because England is ‘The Old Enemy’, and because I despise royalty. I also dislike the Star Spangled Banner because the only thing worse than losing to England is losing to The United States of America, and because the anthem usually accompanies chants of “USA!!, USA!!…” I found the national anthem of Brunei so uninspiring that after three years of living and teaching in the ‘Abode of Peace’, I don’t remember a single word.

Cyprus

I’ve never heard the national anthem of Cyprus, but not because I’ve never been there. Cyprus has no official national anthem.

Mexico – Himno Nacional Mexicano

Invoking war and warriors is a common theme in anthems, and this is true of Himno Nacional Mexicano. The stirring tune begins with:

“Mexicanos al grito de guerra…” which translates as “Mexicans to the cry of war”. It ends with “un soldado en cada hijo te dio,”, a promise that every son or daughter is a soldier for Mexico. It is one of the more passionate anthems, expect when mumbled by a bunch of teenagers at 7am on a Monday morning.

A legend also accompanies the creation of the hymn. According to historical accounts, Francisco Gonzalez Bocanegra wrote the lyrics after being locked in a room. His girlfriend encouraged him to enter the competition to devise the lyrics and when he refused, she locked him in a room full of patriotic images and only released him once he slid the ten-verse piece under the door.

France – La Marseillaise

I nominate La Marseillaise as my favourite national anthem. I know I’m not alone in this choice. I’m not French, I wouldn’t call myself a Francophile and I don’t speak French, but I was moved most by this national anthem.

I experienced a rousing rendition of the anthem on two occasions at the Stade de France in Paris in 2003. After Eunice Barber won the long jump, and her compatriots won the Women’s 4 x 100m relay at the World Championships in Athletics, I witnessed a stadium full of French patriots belting out their anthem with unbridled passion and raw emotion. I felt goose bumps and the hairs stood on my neck. It was so moving that I stopped working. Most reporters at international Athletics competitions don’t stop working during medal presentations because they’re too busy. When the French filled the stadium with their patriotic fervour, however, we all savoured the sound of thousands of patriots singing one of the world’s most inspirational anthems.

Image: Anders Kelto

Festival Internacional CervEZantino.

The Festival Internacional Cervantino began as a cultural tribute to author Miguel de Cervantes, but descended into such a celebration of ‘cerveza’ that it should be renamed ‘El CervEZantino’.

The author of Don Quixote has been honoured in the Mexican city of Guanajuato every year since the mid 20th century, when artists began performing his works in the city’s plazas for the enjoyment of the local people. The festival grew in fame and expanded into a multi-day festival which now attracts national and international visitors…and drunks.

Guanajuato’s beautiful colonial centre is decked in traditional Mexican cultural symbols and tributes to Cervantes line the streets and the preserved buildings. The streets are also lined with dishevelled drunks sleeping off their hangovers, urinating in public or lying in their own vomit.

Most visitors come for the culture, and some for the party. The festival program is devoted to artistic expression in the Spanish language and includes performances of the many works of Cervantes as well as celebrations of literature, opera, music, dance, theatre, art exhibitions, street spectaculars and academic events.

International performers who have participated in the festival include Joan Baez, the Bolshoi Ballet, the New York Philharmonic and the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Some festival goers enjoy the culture, while many could not name a single work by the famed Spanish author, such is their drunken stupor. In this way the festival has in some ways become a victim of its own success. As the audience numbers grew year after year, many young people flocked to the city to simply have a good time and drink themselves to oblivion.

Some of the drunks are convinced they will meet their own Dulcinea. I wonder what Don Quixote would make of it.

Look, it’s your grandparents.

“Look, Kieran, it’s your grandparents,” called my travel buddies.

My grandparents, in Mexico? Where? How?

My grandparents are not in Mexico and I’m certain they’ve never been to Mexico. How could they possibly be in San Miguel de Allende at the same time as me?

They weren’t.

My companions were just playing a clever joke on me in reference to the enormous number of old white people in San Miguel de Allende. More accurately, the enormous number of old Americans.

The beautiful, small colonial town in central Mexico is a haven for retirees from the United States and it is often possible to see more gringos than Mexicans in this town. So many that my Japanese and Mexican travel buddies thought I should feel the most at home during our fleeting visit.

US retirees flock to San Miguel for its agreeable climate, it’s relatively low cost of living, its preserved colonial architecture and its relaxed pace of life.

They can spend their days taking brunch at any of the boutique cafes which have adapted their menus to suit the American palette. The old gringos can stroll over to the central plaza and admire the architecture of the old cathedral or engage in the age-old pastime of people watching. Those feeling more energetic could follow the tourists who make the short trip to the nearby Sanctuary of Atotonilco.

They can pop into one of the many galleries dotted throughout the town producing traditional Mexican and modern art works, or they can simply admire the facades of the buildings in the centre of the town which have been carefully preserved. So well preserved that the centre of town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The old gringos created a little world for themselves and they are so pervasive that many of the store owners speak English and notice boards are full of activities targeted at seniors. In addition, the Biblioteca Publica (Public Library) which is housed in the former convent of Santa Ana, boasts the second largest collection of English language books in Mexico.

The town is also awash with signs imploring people to slow down.

Yes, nothing moves quickly in San Miguel de Allende.

Even the taxi driver joked about this fact as he crawled through the cobbled streets upon arrival in town. I never asked if he thought this was an advantage or a disadvantage in his line of work. It probably earned him fewer fares per day, but probably kept the meter ticking over for longer and increased the total cost of a journey. Either way, he must surely have been in constant demand in a town full of people with limited mobility.

Of course, in a town full of ‘gringos viejitos’, it’s no surprise that many stores stock an extensive range of walking sticks.

To help or not to help: sea turtles in Michoacan.

The sun beat down relentlessly on the coast of Michoacan in western Mexico. The humidity chocked the air and upon first glance, the shimmering ocean at Playa Ixtapilla looked enormously inviting. The current looked less inviting.

The visitors and volunteers took refuge from the midday heat under the palapa before selecting a site for their tents and arranging their accommodation for the evening. The first families to arrive had erected their Taj Mahal on the rocky, unforgiving ground underneath one of the palapas, thankful that the palm leaves allowed them to leave the fly off their tent and invite the soothing evening breeze into their temporary home.

It was pointed out the families that their tent pegs were not reaching far into the earth, to which the parents replied,

“No pasa nada”

This was a decision they would later regret.

Other volunteers moved away from the communal area and sought softer ground in which to force our tent pegs. Whether out of habit or foreboding, we hammered and stretched our tents until taut and affixed the fly, despite the afternoon heat.

We then gathered to hear instructions from the local community leaders on the rescue of baby turtles. This is why we were here. We had volunteered to help ensure that baby sea turtles survived the journey from their nests into the ocean. Once in the waves, they would have to fend for themselves.

At this time of year, the Tortuga Golfina arrive in large numbers to lay their eggs on the beach. After incubating, the eggs then hatch and the babies make a mad dash for the ocean. Turtle numbers have been declining in recent years in this region of Mexico, and local communities welcome volunteers from across Mexico, and the world, to assist in helping the turtles into the water.

Upon dusk we attached our headlamps and set out across the sands to locate the nests. We’d been instructed to follow a specific path along the beach to minimise traffic across the sand. With so many turtles hatching, you never know what is under your feet.

We followed the mother turtles and watched them shovel sand with their strong fins to make a nest. Then we waited. As the turtles started laying their eggs, we carefully removed them and placed them in buckets.

What did it feel like?

A slimy ping pong ball.

Other nests had already been occupied with baby turtles, and at those we dug slowly and carefully to remove the tiny turtles.

We’d been instructed to cautiously remove both eggs and baby turtles and place them in buckets. These buckets were then transferred to a number of shelters where the eggs were monitored and allowed to hatch in safety. Predators exist in every natural environment, and baby sea turtles are a popular meal for many sea birds. Due to dwindling numbers of turtles, efforts were made to protect the turtles from predators and ensure they reached the ocean.

Once the eggs released the hatchlings, the shelters were swarming with baby turtles.

We dug and collected for a few hours that night and carried a huge number of eggs and babies to the shelters. We would continue this work the next day when many more volunteers descended on the small beach. Tired but satisfied, we returned to our accommodation for a good night’s sleep and another day of turtle rescue.

In the middle of the night, shrieks were heard. Children and women’s voices echoed across the waves and could be heard over the roaring winds. We crept bleary eyed out of our tents to see parents dashing around madly in the driving rain trying to stop their tents and their children from being carried into the ocean. The sudden tropical storm had lifted the Taj Mahal off the ground with the children inside and it was now being carried towards the beach.

Enough frantic helpers were able to throw themselves onto the tent in order to stop it from blowing away and the children were eventually freed from a tangle of mosquito netting and tent poles.

Hastily assembled shelters were somehow erected in the midst of the storm and the shell shocked children were able to eventually catch up on some sleep. Sodden and sleep deprived the next morning, they were at least able to laugh off their misadventure.

The glimmering ocean beckoned during the heat of the second day, but the local community and the volunteer lifeguards advised us that the water was strictly off limits in order to respect the beach and the baby turtles, who we were after all trying to save.

To help or not to help

A young scientist from the local university had been studying the turtles at the site for many months, and raised doubts over the effectiveness of the human intervention. He suggested that the assistance may be counterproductive because even though it helped more of the hatchlings to reach the water, it accelerated the process and disrupted the natural process.

It may be better, he proposed, to let nature take its course. Yes, some baby turtles may be lost, but the mother’s lay so many eggs to pre-empt this loss, and enough of the tiny creatures survive the journey to the ocean for the species to survive. The species was willing to sacrifice some babies on the sand, and others in the shallows, in order for some to survive and eventually make it to adulthood.

That is, of course, before massive changes to the ocean and the beaches which have sustained the turtle populations for so long. Human activity at the nesting beaches, at nearby beaches and in the local waterways have reduced total turtle numbers in recent years. Global problems such as rising sea levels, changes in water temperature and ocean pollution have also caused the decimation of local populations.

Our discussions with the young scientist did not produce a definitive answer to the question of whether to help or not to help. What is clear is that human actions, near Playa Colola and the rest of the world, were to blame for the dwindling numbers of baby turtles emerging from nests at the beach.

If humans have caused the problem, do humans have to fix it?

A birthday in Teotihuacan.

If you or a member of your travelling party celebrates a birthday on the day you visit San Juan Teotihuacan, be sure to remember a cake. It need not be a big cake. In fact it is advisable to pack a small cake, as you will be lugging it up and down ancient steps for hours, and said steps sit at over 2000m altitude.

Don’t forget candles and a lighter. And don’t forget the words to ‘Las Mananitas’, because if the birthday girl is Mexican, ‘Cumpleanos Feliz’ will not suffice.

Of course, ‘Las Mananitas’ should, according to tradition, be sung on the stroke of midnight, but making your way into the UNESCO World Heritage Site, scaling the temple and lighting birthday candles is difficult – and illegal. Thus, you shall have to content yourselves with a daylight ceremony, perhaps at 12 midday.

Ascend the ancient and well-trodden steps to the summit of the pyramid of the birthday girl’s choosing – the Pyramid of the Sun or the Pyramid of the Moon, and perform a ritual that has been performed on this sacred ground for centuries and centuries.

For optimal results, choose a day without strong winds, or the candles will struggle to stay alight for the duration of the birthday tribute, especially at such lofty heights. If wind persists, invoke the spirit of the gods who inhabit this super structure, or the spirits of its ancient inhabitants who were both exalted and sacrificed on these very steps.

Bestow your best wishes upon the birthday girl and call upon the ancestors to grant her a long and propsperous life – before or after you traverse the Avenue of the Dead.

Main Image: Abimelec C

A Silver Mine and A Very Unique Nightclub.

A trip down Mina El Eden combines culture with a great night out. The retired mine in the city of Zacatecas is now a tourist attraction which runs educational tours and hosts one of the world’s most unique nightclubs.

Revellers arrive at El Malacate Discotheque via a small train which runs through the 600-metre La Esperanza Cavern inside the mine. La Esperanza translates as Hope in English and many who venture into these parts hope to find their own precious jewel. You might not meet the love of your life, but you’ll have a great story to tell.

History tells us that the original inhabitants of the region, the Zacateco people, knew of the mineral wealth beneath their feet but decided to keep it in the ground. The extraction of silver in the region of Zacatecas, in north central Mexico, began in the mid 16th century and transformed the city into one of the wealthiest and most important cities in the Spanish colonies.

El Eden produced millions of tonnes of silver ore but was closed in 1960 after flooding on various levels, and because the blasting from the mining operations were too dangerous for the inhabitants of the expanding city which was being built on top.

The current tourist attraction opened in 1975 and is one of the region’s most popular sites. It encompasses hanging rope bridges, stairs and models of workers.

A great amount of the silver mined in Zacatecas made its way to the Spanish royal family. Like all royal families, the Spanish crown grew wealthy and powerful off the work of others, especially indigenous people.

Special lighting areas highlight the methods used to extract the silver and the mine also hosts a demonstration of mining and a museum with a display of rocks and minerals.

Guests can hear stories of the adventures and misadventures of all of those who descended the seven levels of the mine, and a visit to this site provides tourists with the opportunity to wear a hard hat and a very fetching hair net.

The city itself is a World Heritage Site and rewards visitors with preserved colonial architecture and Baroque structures. Grabbing a seat on the balcony of a cafe or restaurant is a great way to admire the architecture and to watch the people go about their business.

The famous Mexican independence fighter, Pancho Villa, also marked his imprint upon the city. He captured the town in the Battle of Zacatecas during the Mexican Revolution in the 19th century.

Silver played a huge role in the development of Zacatecas and the state which bears the same name. The world’s largest silver mine, Penasquito, is in the state of Zacatecas and a Mexican slang word for money is ‘plata’, or silver.

Your journey does not end, however, once you finish exploring the underground mine. If you choose, you can continue on the funicular railway. This cable car will carry you high above the streets of Zacatecas from El Grillo Mountain to La Bufa, which is about 660 metres in total. The panoramic views are spectacular.

and you can leave a tip if you like…

Perhaps a donation of plata.

Skulls and Bones in La Quemada

Do you have a fascination with the dead? Do you find yourself contemplating your own mortality or possess a penchant for the macabre?

If so, you can indulge your morbid cravings at Zona Arqueologica La Quemada, an archaeological site in Zacatecas, central Mexico. On an elevated site outside of the city lies an excavation and display of many human skulls and bones.

La Quemada translates roughly as ‘burned or ‘the burned’, and refers to the burnt human remains which were discovered when the earth was moved during the construction of a hacienda on the site. It is also suspected that the settlement which occupied the site was eventually destroyed by fire.

Historical research indicates that the original inhabitants occupied the site between 350/400 AD to 1150 AD, and the site is regarded as the most important historical settlement in north central Mexico due to its architecture. Archaeological digs have discovered the grand columns from the former plaza, a field for playing a traditional form of football and a series of pyramids dominated by the pyramid Votiva, as well as sites for the worship of deities.

And the skulls?

Numerous historians believe the inhabitants engaged in human sacrifice. The Salon de las Columnas is thought to have been a large structure, of which only the columns remain, and historians theorise that this is where various forms of human sacrifice took place.

A short walk from the Salon de las Columnas leads to the Piramide de los Sacrificios, which clearly translates as the Pyramid of Sacrifices.

Detecting a theme here?

Evidence would suggest that human sacrifices were made on this site to please the deities. It does make one wonder how people were chosen for sacrifice.

Were locals persuaded that being sacrificed was an honour – perhaps in the same way that young men have historically been persuaded that giving their life in battle for their nation is an honour.

Were the sacrificed slaves or captives from other settlements or cities?

Did a caste system operate?

This is a source of conjecture and debate. What is more definite is the preserved remains of these people, which are on clear display to every visitor to La Quemada.

La Virgen de Guadalupe.

Mexico is unique. It boasts its own distinct cuisine, its own colloquial language and its own liquor. Musical genres such as Banda, Musica Nortena, Narco Corridos and Mariachi originated in the country and Charreria belongs to the state of Jalisco. It stands to reason then that Mexico would possess its own Virgin Mary.

How is La Virgen different to The Virgin?

La Virgen de Guadalupe has dark skin. In contrast to the white-washed version of Jesus, Mary and Joseph which dominates contemporary conceptualisation of the holy Christian family, Mexico’s sacred mother bears the skin tone of the mestizo people of her homeland.

La Virgen also took physical form in Mexico. Mary immaculate, according to accounts in the Bible, only existed in body in the Middle East, but La Virgen is authentically Mexican.

The popular account told to every Mexican child is that La Virgen appeared to St Juan Diego in 1531. St Juan Diego was apparently an Aztec who converted to Christianity and saw the apparition of La Virgen on Tepeyac Hill. Juan Diego is believed to have seen the apparition of December 9 and again on December 12, and on one occasion La Virgen requested that a shrine be built on that site in her honour.

As with any report of a miracle, religious authorities at the time demanded proof from the witness. Juan Diego was ordered by the Bishop to provide proof of La Virgen’s presence before they agreed to build a shrine, so she told the young man to collect roses. Juan Diego then fronted the bishop and opened his cloak to reveal dozens of roses which fell to the floor, and, more importantly, an image of La Virgen on the inside of his cloak.

The famous image now appears in the Basilica of Guadalupe which sits on Tepeyac Hill in modern-day Mexico City.

Visiting the Basilica of Guadalupe is a pilgrimage of significant importance for many Mexicans and a cultural experience for foreigners. Many locals, and even tourists, speak of the transformative experience of entering the basilica to witness the unveiling of the image of La Virgen.

I visited the Basilica. I’m reluctant to share my thoughts and reaction to the experience of viewing La Virgen because every person will react differently to a site and an image of such revered religious, spiritual, historical and cultural importance.

The experience should be personal and reflective.

El dia de la Virgen is a celebration and veneration held on December 9 and December 12 in various locations in Mexico City. Why are there two celebrations for La Virgen? Firstly, because La Virgen appeared to Juan Diego twice. Secondly, because It’s Mexico.

The influence of La Virgen is evident in daily life and explains why so many Mexican women are called Lupita. Thousands of Mexican women are christened Maria Guadalupe in honour of the virgin, and are known affectionately as Lupita, even into adulthood. It’s impossible to travel through Mexico without eating at a ‘Tacos Lupita’, ‘Loncheria Lupita’ or a stall selling pozole, enchiladas, burritos or sopitos prepared by Lupita.

Christmas has Santa Claus, and Easter has chocolate eggs and a bunny, so the site of La Virgen at Tepeyac Hill must also succumb to the inevitable lure of commercialisation. Visitors can buy religious iconography in the form of crosses, statues and rosary beads, but also take home pillows, key rings, T-shirts and other paraphernalia bearing the image of the virgin.

A visit to the Basilica of Guadalupe can be a spiritual transformation, a patriotic obligation, a glimpse into history or an immersive observation of contemporary Mexican culture. Whatever the motivation, it is a worthwhile stop on any visit to Mexico.