Category Archives: Religious

Day of the Dead – A True Celebration of Life


Mexico’s Day of the Dead festivities are so unique that the UNESCO declared this holiday “intangible cultural heritage” in 2003 (inscribing it in 2008). A glimpse into this colorful blending of pre-Hispanic ritual with European religion and traditions provides an insight as to how Mexican’s view not only death but also life!


Dia de los Muertos is a two-day period where Mexican families honor their deceased loved ones. It is a window of opportunity, lasting 24 hours for deceased children on November 1st (actually beginning at midnight on October 31st and referred to as All Saint’s Day), and 24 hours for deceased adults on November 2nd (All Soul’s Day). It is believed that the spirits of the dead return home for a short visit during that time span.


Personalized altars or ofrendas are prepared with much care, thought and love to welcome relatives and friends back to Earth.


Among the most common elements placed on these altars is the fragrant cempasuchitl (orange marigold flowers), with the belief that the flower petals combined with copal incense (a natural tree resin which gives off an unmistakably pungent scent) purify the altar and attract the souls through their aroma.


Candles light the path for the deceased in transit.


Religious images and crosses incorporate Christian elements.


Candies and toys are set out for the deceased children, while tequila, beer or mezcal (whatever the favorite libation of the deceased was) and typical foods (such as mole, fruits, tamales) are lovingly provided for more sophisticated adult tastes.


Water and salt are also prevalent – basic elements for life.


Photos and/or drawings of the deceased, along with whimsical sugar skulls are combined to make the decoration of each ofrenda unique, be it humble and makeshift or rich and elaborate – all in tribute to those no longer inhabiting the Earth.


Ancient pre-hispanic tradition blends well with popular culture. Death was an integral part of life in Mesoamerican cultures. There were several festivities reported by Spanish chroniclers on their arrival to the New World. According to Sixteenth-century Spanish Monk Diego de Duran the actual dates the mexicas dedicated to the dead were moved to coincide with the Catholic calendar.


It is not by chance that Day of the Dead falls at the end of the agricultural cycle. Mexico up until recently has been a predominantly agricultural society, with corn – the main staple of the average Mexican diet – central not only to local cuisine but to the culture itself. Halloween, celebrated one day before Day of the Dead, is rooted in the ancient traditions of the Celtic Druids (Samhain), which also holds that spirits return on this day, marking the start of a fallow period of the soil, when the land is put to rest.


The main difference between these two holidays, both entrenched in ancient native agricultural societies, is that Halloween is laced with fear and concern over the returning malevolent spirits (which is why children were dressed in costumes – to confuse the spirits and protect the kids), while Dia de los Muertos is a joyful celebration, viewed more as a family get-together with transitory spirits.


The focus of Dia de los Muertos is not solemn or gloomy. Actually, the bright colors, whimsical decorations and fragrant aromas set the scene for what is considered a serious yet festive occasion, all of these elements contributing to guide the deceased relatives and loved ones home or back to the cemetery where they were laid to rest. That is why cemeteries become the site of overnight vigils and partying. It is common, particularly in rural Mexico, that families spend the night at the graveside, on the watch for the visits spirits. At this time of year, it is common to see groups picnicking, dinner may be served with alcohol, while reminiscing to the backdrop of local music or mariachi serenades. Without a doubt, the annual gathering is one of joy and happiness rather than sadness and sorrow.


The teeming metropolis of Mexico City, where Halloween-influenced decorations of pumpkins, witches, ghosts and spiders have become more and more prevalent every year, may seem far removed from rural and indigenous communities, yet there has been a revival of this vivid holiday. There are noticeable variations depending on the region


There is much to do and see in the capital as well as around the country. Try the pan de muerto, a special sweet bun of sorts, topped with a cross-bone motif. Taste a calavera sugar skull (a reflection a fusion of cultures, since although human skulls abound in prehispanic cultures, sugar was brought to the New World by the Spaniards, making for an all inclusive and whimsical invention) or its more recently invented chocolate or amaranth cousins. The whimsical sugar skulls can be purchased at virtually any local market or even supermarket. Many vendors are happy to label them, upon request, with the names of your friends and family members! Buy the vibrant hand (or machine) cut tissue paper banners complete with images of friendly skeletal couples. Check out the altars that abound everywhere – literally on the street, in office vestibules, museums, supermarkets, malls and even in churches.


This holiday has melded into an amalgamation of cultural as well as religious festivity, expressing the spirit of life as much as that of death. Where else can you experience the blending of prehispanic customs with Christian nuances, fused together to applaud life?


NOTE:  All of the photos included in this blog were taken by me this 2013 Day of the Dead holiday.

If you would like to use them, feel free but please give me due credit.



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The Virgencita and the Basilica of Guadalupe (Part II)

A bird's-eye-view of the La Villa shrine in Mexico City, dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe

The Basilica of Guadalupe is the second most visited Roman Catholic shrine, following the Vatican.   The grounds surrounding the Basilica of Guadalupe are complex since they are dotted with many buildings of varying ages, some dating back to the 16th century, others yet unfinished, with next to no signs or maps indicating where or how to get to the many sites making up the complex.

No matter how you get here – by public transportation, on foot or by car – the starting point is always the Atrium of the Americas – a brilliant idea conceived by Mexican Architect Pedro Ramirez Vazquez, mastermind of the project to renovate the Basilica Area, which was inaugurated in 1976.  This expansive plaza is shared by both the Original Basilica and the New Basilica, and has proven to hold up to 50 thousand visitors at the same time. You may wonder why this is important. On December 12th – the Virgin of Guadalupe’s feast day, thousands upon thousands of Roman Catholic pilgrims come from around the country to pay their respects to the Virgencita, as she is affectionately referred to in Spanish, and they need to be accommodated. Not all, but close to 50 thousand fit right on the plaza, aside from the lucky ones who get a seat inside the Basilica! 

The Bell Tower in the Atrium of the Americas, resembling a pre-Hispanic God.

Standing in the Atrium is an ominous bell tower, reminiscent of a pre-Hispanic God, a modern day belfry of sorts, which shows the many ways people reckon time. There is a traditional analog clock, of course the standard fare of bells, a circular carillon, a sun dial, the Aztec calendar (actually a drawing of the Sun Stone currently in the Anthropology Museum), and an astronomic clock showing the Zodiac used by ancient navigators.

The Original Basilica, noticeably tilted since it is sinking unevenly!

The Original Basilica remains standing, thanks to thousands of pesos invested to assure its safety. Construction was initiated shortly after the Virgin appeared before Juan Diego.  It has suffered so many renovations that most of what is standing is from the 18th and 19th century, rather than the 16th and 17th. The big problem is that half the church is anchored onto Tepeyac Hill, while the other half is slowly sinking into the underground swamp land it is floating on, which is slowly pulling apart the building. The Blessed Sacrament (consecrated host) is permanently exposed in this church. For those unfamiliar with Catholic tradition, the permanent exposure of the holy Eucharist is referred to as Perpetual Adoration, which is why this Basilica is so frequented.

The New Basilica in all its glory, designed by Mexican architect Pedro Ramirez Vazquez

A stone’s throw from the Original Basilica is the New Basilica, another brilliant, functional solution of Ramirez Vazquez’s. It is absent of columns – a major architectural feat given that the dome measures 100 meters (330 feet) in diameter, thus allowing for maximum visibility of Cuauhtlatoatzin’s, better known as Juan Diego’s, cape which is emblazoned with the image of the Virgin dating back to 1531, and carefully protected behind bullet-proof glass.  Viewed with equal ease from any spot in the church, church-goers don’t have to compete for a “good” seat since there is nothing to block anyone’s view inside.  By the way, the new Basilica has the capacity to fit over 10,000 worshippers inside on a busy day (the 12th of December)!  Plus, for more private moments, there are 9 chapels, numerous confessionals, and a moving walkway for people to view the shroud up close without stopping, thereby resolving the problem of unruly crowds – yet another ingenious solution of Ramirez Vazquez.

The baroque Chapel of the Well, as lovely inside as outside. This is one of the sites where the Virgin Mary appeared before Indian Juan Diego.

A bit more hidden is The Chapel of the Well, a remarkable baroque structure in the round, constructed by Architect Francisco Guerrero y Torres in the late 1700s to honor the well that sprung up during one of the Virgin’s appearances.  Free-standing, it is in better structural condition than the old Basilica. The blue and white roof tiles are original, as are the pulpit and the paintings illustrating the 4 (actually 5) appearances of the Virgin.  I, personally, find this the most beautiful, spiritual and intimate of all the sites at La Villa.

It may not look very far, but there are a lot of steps to climb to get to the Chapel on the Hill!

Requiring a bit more stamina to visit, Saint Michael’s Chapel (Michael was Mary’s protector) or the Chapel on the Hill is well worth the climb to the top of Tepeyac Hill.  There is nothing left of the original chapel built in 1666, nor of the pre-Hispanic temple which topped the mount prior to the arrival of Hernan Cortes, in honor of the Indian Mexica Mother Goddess Tonantzin. But the top of the hill – where the Virgin left Saint Juan Diego proof of her existence for Archbishop Juan de Zumarraga – provides a magnificent bird’s eye view of the grounds, and the walls of this chapel are lined with well-known artist Fernando Leal’s mural-rendition of the appearances of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

A collapsing adobe wall, part of Saint Juan Diego's humble abode, where he lived and protected the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, as he waited while the temple was being built to permanently house the sacred image on his cape.

Many people walk right by the Indians’ Chapel, which is the oldest surviving structure at La Villa. This is where Juan Diego kept his shroud with the image of the Virgin while he was alive, awaiting completion of the church which was to house it.  An effort has been made to shore up what remains of the the collapsing wall of his modest, adobe home. Much like the Original Basilica, the intrinsic value is not architectural, but rather historical and spiritual.

Two nuns leaving the grounds of the shrine.

 The newest addition to the complex is the Marian Plaza.  Although it was inaugurated on Columbus Day (October 12th, 2011), this mammoth project remains partially unfinished.  Underwritten by Mexican Magnate Carlos Slim, this sorely needed multi-purpose center, when completed, will boast a four segment building with an Evangelical Center, complete with a mega auditorium (seating 858 people) and numerous classrooms, a new interactive museum, a health center, adequate space for retreats, study, and religious meetings, a columbarium (niches for funeral urns), a market, a restaurant and more parking spots. Several street blocks were expropriated by the Mexico City government, which donated the land to make this project a reality, while Slim’s company, Grupo Carso, provided the funds for the design and construction.  In numbers, the new annex covers 29,500 square meters, with construction coming in at a whopping 67.7 thousand square meters!

Only the façade of the Capuchin Convent Temple is original. The inside was destroyed during the wars and internal strife.

Then, there is a Capuchin Parish Temple which also remains standing, but has been gutted inside due to looting during wars, and devastation over the years. 

A statue of Pope John Paul overlooks the Basilica grounds. This Pope was particularly dear to Mexicans' hearts because of his devotion to the Virgin. He also promoted the canonization of Juan Diego.

There is also a small baptistery which was built just to cover the strong demand for baptisms on site. Curiously enough, this modern building is spiral-like inside.

Notice the group of Chamula Indians from San Cristobal de las Casas visiting the Basilica. It is common to see natives dressed in their indigenous garb as they visit from far to pay homage to the Virgin.

And I haven’t even mentioned the many sculptures, gardens, museums, market site and historic cemetery, where General Lopez de Santa Anna and other famous figures are buried.  In brief, there is a lot to see on the 17.7 hectare shrine grounds.

Faith remains vital to the 7 million Mexicans who visit La Villa annually.

Whether you are a believer or not, the vitality of faith in Our Lady of Guadalupe remains palpable here at La Villa. The Virgin of Guadalupe is Patroness of Mexico City, Patroness of Mexico (country), Patroness of Latin America, and was deemed by Pope John Paul II in the year 2000, “the Queen of Mexico and Empress of America.”  It is the sense of unity which the Brown Virgencita gives Mexico that is the greatest of all her miracles!  Again, Happy Feast Day to Saint Mary (which was January 1st) and Happy New Year’s again to you!


Posted by on January 4, 2012 in Religious


La Virgencita or Virgin Mary’s First Feast Day in 2012

Our Lady of Guadalupe in the Basilica of La Villa

Happy New Year! Although faith seems intangible, it can actually be felt at the Basilica of Guadalupe as thousands of people visit the grounds today (and everyday for that matter). January 1st marks the first major liturgical celebration of the Virgin Mary on the Roman Catholic calendar. The Church celebrates the 8th day of Christmas by commemorating Mary’s motherhood of Jesus. And since the Basilica of Guadalupe is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, special Masses are being held there as well as at other Catholic churches today.

Candles are only permitted outside the Basilica for safety reasons

Watching people crawling on their knees, bearing armloads full of flowers, carrying heavy religious statues, lighting row after row of candles, walking kilometers in the name of the Virgin is an impressive site for believers and non-believers alike. Whether the Virgin truly appeared to mazehual Indian Saint Juan Diego 481 years ago or not is irrelevant.

The new Basilica reminiscent of a tent in the desert

Her daily miracle is that of keeping generations of Mexicans going, and weaving a sense of unity in a country splintered by marked socio-economic and cultural differences. Mexico is home to the wealthiest man in the world (Carlos Slim), yet children still die in the countryside from diarrhea; the far-right and the far-left clash verbally, and often physically, on a daily basis; 22 million people vie for space and time in the chaotic capital city. Dozens of indigenous and European languages mix in this urban sphere. Without a doubt, the Virgin is the sole force that unites the Mexican people, rural or urban, rich or poor, liberal or conservative, autoctonous or European. Her existence goes unchallenged even in 2012.

The faithful come from near and far, frequently filling the 10 thousand seat capacity

The grounds of La Villa of Maria de Guadalupe are complex, dotted with buildings of varying ages, some dating back to the 16th century, others unfinished. It is an ongoing project.  There are excellent examples of baroque architecture and paintings as well as modern-day solutions to bear the burden of overwhelming crowds. 

The original Basilica which is slowly, and unevenly, sinking into the swamp land it was built on

Stay tuned … tomorrow we will visit the most important buildings at the shrine.


Day of the Dead is for the Living!

Day of the Dead festivities are so unique in Mexico that UNESCO has deemed them Intangible Cultural Heritage!

Day of the Dead festivities are so unique in Mexico that UNESCO declared this holiday “Intangible Cultural Heritage” in 2003 (and inscribed it in 2008).  A glimpse into this colorful blending of pre-Hispanic ritual with European religion provides an insight as to how Mexican’s view not only death but also life!

This year's altar at the Dolores Olmedo Museum, dedicated to Olmedo and her mother Maria Patiño Suarez

Día de los Muertos is a special period where families are unite with their deceased loved ones.  It is an annual window of opportunity, lasting 24 hours for deceased children on November 1st (actually beginning at midnight on October 31st and referred to as All Saint’s Day by the Catholic Church) and 24 hours for deceased adults on November 2nd (All Soul’s Day), when it is believed that all the spirits of departed return to Earth for a visit home.

Festive paper mache skeletons playing marimba music!

Personalized altars or ofrendas are prepared with much care and thought to welcome them back.  The most common elements include the fragrant cempasuchtil -orange marigold flowers-  and vibrant red cockscomb, as well as copal incense to purify the altar and attract the returning souls.  Candles light the path for the animas to these offerings; religious images (pictures of saints, Virgins, etc.) and crosses incorporate Christian elements; tequila, cigarettes and the favorite foods (such as mole, a typical dish often served at parties) of the succumbed are set out for the more sophisticated adult tastes, whereas toys and candies are placed on the altars to lure children home.

Candies and toys are set out to allure young children back home

Water and salt are musts for the traditional ofrenda (but often forgotten in more modern settings).  Photos or drawings of the deceased and whimsical sugar skulls complete with humorous poems are combined with seasonal orange-blossom-infused Day of the Dead bread topped with crossbones, making the decoration, and personality, of each altar unique – whether it be humble and makeshift or profuse and elaborate – but always a tribute to those no longer inhabiting our realm.

Festivities at Frida Kahlo's Blue House Museum. This Ofrenda is dedicates to Frida (whose image is to the left in the first arch) and Diego (to the far right in the last arch)

Ancient pre-Hispanic tradition blends well with popular culture.  Death was an integral part of life in Mesoamerican cultures.  Miccailhutontli (Celebration of the Dead) and Huey Miccaihuilt were two of but many festivities reported by Spanish chroniclers on their arrival to the New World.  According to XVI century Spanish Monk Diego de Duran, the actual dates dedicated to the dead were moved by the evangelists to coincide with the Christian calendar, thus launching what continues today to be a unique, syncretic holiday.

This offering, housed in the Anahuacalli Museum, honors deceased Revolutionary Emiliano Zapata!

It is no coincidence that Day of the Dead falls at the end of the agricultural cycle.  Halloween, celebrated the day before, rooted in the ancient traditions of the Celtic Druids (Samhain) also holds that spirits return in this season, marking the start of a fallow period of the Earth, when the land is put to rest.  The main difference between these two holidays, both stemming from ancient native agricultural societies, is that Halloween is laced with fear and concern over the returning malevolent spirits (hence the costumes to confuse and trick the spirits), whereas Día de los Muertos is a joyful celebration, viewed more as a time for family reunion.

Mexican comedian and movie star Cantinflas (Mario Moreno) is honored in this altar in the building which housed the first printing press in all of the Americas

Rather than solemn or gloomy, the bright colors and fragrant aromas set the scene,helping guide the deceased spirits home or back to the cemeteries where they were laid to rest, which is why the graveyards are common partying sites.  Thus the living reminisce to the tune of local music, alcoholic beverages, abundant repast, making the annual gathering one of joy and happiness rather than sadness and sorrow.

Catrina skeletons immortalized in a Diego Rivera Mural, alluding to Jose Guadalupe Posada's controvertial political cartoons which mocked the upper class Porifirian crust

Every year the spaces dedicated to public alters change, but the colorful festivities, general tone of joy, and deeply rooted elements remain constant.  Happy Day of the Dead!

A simple, yet elegant, ofrenda in a colonial building in downtown Mexico City


Presidential Assassin or Future Saint?

(I apologize for posting so sporadically this month.  I have had SERIOUS tech issues with my photo management software, which seem to be unresolvable, so after almost a month of frustrating, time-wasting effort I have changed software programs and I can now see and use my photos again!  Time will tell if the glitch has been solved permanently. Keep your fingers crossed for me!)

Tucked tucked away in the Colonia Roma district of Mexico City, for very defined interests, the Museo de Padre Pro (Museum of Father Pro) showcases the life of a very controversial figure in Mexican religion and history.  Father Pro was a charismatic Jesuit priest who studied and lived in the United States, Spain, Belgium and Nicaragua before repatriating to Mexico in 1926.  Unfortunately, he returned to a nation convulsing in the bloody Cristero War. The dubious relationship between Miguel Agustín Pro and the assassination of President Álvaro Obregón is addressed face on in this permanent exhibit.

Mexican history is not easy to understand, and this chapter of Mexican history, in particular, is a complicated one.  It was President Benito Juarez who separated Church and State over 150 years ago, but this mandate was not easily enforced.  Even with the last and current Constitution (of a series of 6!), the government continued to view the Catholic Church as a foe.  The framework of that Constitution, when passed in 1917, clearly forbade religious instruction in schools (Article 3), prohibited public worship outside of ecclesiastic buildings (Article 24), restricted religious organizations the right to own property (Article 27), and went to the extreme of stripping priests, ministers and rabbis the freedom of wearing religious garb in public, participating in politics and even commenting on government policy (Article 130).  These restrictions were repealed only recently, under the government of President Ernesto Zedillo in 1998, to be specific, but it is important to note that these anti-clerical laws were strictly enforced when Father Pro returned to Mexico.

Plutarco Elias Calles, Mexico’s President between1924-1928, cracked his whip on the Catholic Church, by implementing even more rigorous legislation than that stipulated in the Constitution, under the guise of the so-called “Calles’ Laws,” thereby limiting clerical civil liberties such as the clergy’s right to vote or receive trial by jury. 

Father Pro was a warm, caring priest, sympathetic to religious factions.  He held  mass in secret and became a social activist helping hundreds of impoverished families financially and spiritually, thus falling into Calles’ disfavor.  Pro was eventually linked to President Obregón’s assassination in 1928, when, according to Museum information, his brother Humberto, sold his car, which was used as a get away vehicle by the assassins of Obregón.  To his misfortune, Humberto had forgotten some personal papers in the glove compartment of the car, linking him directly to the murder scene.  Given Pro’s antagonistic relationship with the Calles government, the President arrested him along with two of his brothers,  accusing them of sabotage and terrorism.  Father Pro and his brother Humberto were executed without due process, within the framework of the Calles’ Laws – without a trial and without concrete proof involving them in the crime (their brother Ramon, who was not clergy, was released).  Calles, in order to send a message to religious activists, went to the extreme of carefully documenting the police firing squad execution, photographing the details of the event and printing the pictures in the national press the following day.

Father Pro was vindicated, at least by the Catholic church, when he was beatified by Pope John Paul on September 25th, 1988, on the anniversary marking his execution.  His remains are deposited to the right of the main altar of the church adjacent to the museum, the Sagrada Familia, an emblematic landmark in Colonia Roma which was built when the then fashionable neighborhood was being urbanized roughly a century ago.

This museum appears to me to be doubling as the official platform to promote the cause of Pro’s sainthood. There is a wide discrepancy in the number of lives reported lost in this oft forgotten chapter of Mexican history, with estimates running between 90,000 and 250,000 depending on the source.  Guilty or innocent, there is finally a museum in Mexico City which recalls the tragic ending of Pro’s life and pays tribute to the thousands who died on both sides of this little-talked-about war, assuring that the Cristero War and the people who lost their lives fighting for freedom of religion, will not be forgotten, regardless as to whether Pro is sanctified or not.