By Mariana Martinez
In Ventanilla, a little town in the seashores of Oaxaca, Vicente checks his bike for the last time before going to bed; wheels, brakes, seat… everything is ok, he relies on her.
The bike ride to Juquila. On their backs the riders carry the images the bought and bring back home.
At midnight, Vicente and 70 other men get up and load the truck, have a quick breakfast with beans and tlayudas -huge corn tortillas- oven fresh, pot of coffee and start their bike journey, following the road to Puerto Escondido, there they setup beneath the stars, their petates and blankets a safe place after their exhausting ride. Once more, at three in the morning they peddle until arriving at El Vidrio and stay the night, the final town on the road before the last stretch, a never-ending curve covered road that takes them to Juquila.
The last day of the trip is the hardest, but also the merriest. On the road, the guys from Ventanilla meet-up with the rest of the pilgrims, from all over Oaxaca; thousands of bright colored bicycles and pilgrims-some by foot-going fast on the narrow road, some accompanied by a truck or two, where they put their belongings, water, fresh fruit and food.
They finally get to Juquila, on the eighth of December, at eight a.m. They make a stop outside of town, in the Cerro del Pedimento-“asking hill” A hilltop close to town where the Virgin was long ago- That’s where the pilgrims put magazine clippings of their dream cars and trucks, a pencil drawing of a house, a picture of a loved one, or a piece of sheep skin to ask for cattle, carefully they place closed letters with secret desires are brought to the virgin.
The Pilgrims then prays for the Virgin’s protection and for her helping them achieve their dreams, and they promise to thank her, by coming to her annual celebration, by bike.
Each pilgrim builds a close relationship with the Virgin; he decides how many trips to offer for her favors; one year, two, three or even more. First time pilgrims come only to ask, and if it comes true, comply with their promise. Never-the-less, most pilgrims come every year, because when they come to thank the virgin they ask her for something else, and promise her more visits. That’s why the road is full of all time friends that come here, every year.
The Juquila Virgin Faithful do not train for the long journey, they don’t have equipment or even a helmet, they just have faith and practice. For most, their bike is their way to get around town or get to their work place, riding rough dirt roads to the next town. Bike riding is the cheapest and most trustworthy transportation system for most of Oaxaca residents, furthermore, some of them sell bread, carry the mail or even work as messengers and use their bike as a working tool, so it comes as no surprise that it is also their favorite way to abbey their faith and show their gratitude.
Neither Vicente nor any of the pilgrims say what they ask for, but he is jurado-sworn, promised to the virgin for her protection- for three years, his favor is big, and this was his first trip to thank her.
The little town of Santa Catarina Juquila is way up in the Oaxacan sierra, a seven hour trip form the state’s capital, it is surrounded by forest covered mountains and low clouds. Juquila is a six street, two hotel little town that once a year, becomes the stage for one of the biggest towns virgin party’s in México.
Long before anyone can remember, the image of the Juquila Virgin was set in one of the caves in Cerro del Pedimento, where the towns people made her a little straw and wood entrance, but one day, a fire attacked the cave, and burned everything down, even the virgins face, but not her dress and veil, that stood in the smoking ashes, white and intact, after the incident.
Since then, people consider her a miraculous image, and decided to ask her favor by touching her dress and veil and promise her a visit. The towns people were so thankful of her various miracles, that they started working and fund raising to build her a temple, on the highest point in town, the 4 of December of 1915, the towns church was finally open to the public and blessed, the virgin in the center of it all.
By the time the yearly festivities come, they take all the benches out of the very sober church, so the tall ceilings and blue vaults, and the virgin at the end of the room, are the only thing you see when you come in, a strong contrast to the baroque colonial style churches in most of México.
The image is no bigger than 12 inches, and her head is so burned that it looks more like a walnut, but her magnificent dress is hand embroiled, and her veil is so big, that, when the church was built, a little room behind the image was built, so her veil could be extended (like a roof) over the room. It is there that people looking for her blessing, under her veil they put little milagritos- small metal objects that represent a need that the virgin helped satisfy-on la little velvet basket: a book from those she helped through school, a heart for those who found love, an arm for those who where ill, even little paper bills to symbolize found wealth and pictures of lost loved ones now safe at home.
Profoundly religious, the towns in Oaxaca have their own saint or virgin, and they celebrate them in a festival of lights, fireworks good food and live music, but none of them compare to the popularity of the Virgin of Juquila.
The number of pilgrims that trust her is on the rise, her fame of being very effective, but allso jealous, wayward and fearful protector of her pilgrims on the dangerous roads of Sola de Vega the road that gets them to her- have feed the local legends with drivers falling of cliffs, loosing their brakes or even a wheel, for not helping the pilgrims by the side of the road.
The annual ritual consists of, first, going to ask for the virgin´s favor at Cerro del Pedimento, and then, go up to town and listen to mass-when I was there, the sermon was about the need to recognize rights of the indigenous people, a very touchy political subject in México- then, pilgrims wait in line to go under the holy lady’s veil and finally, before going home, they buy paintings, drawings, escapularios- protective leather necklaces- even cd´s with the virgins image, for them to hang in their home, taxi or truck.
The real celebration for the Juquila Virgin is the 8 of December, but due to her increasing popularity, the town’s limited holding capacity, and the number of people that want to see her, it has been necessary to extend the party for some days.
This year, the celebration started the 28 of November, with the town singing mañanitas and a great feast with music and food, the next day, the neighboring community of San Martín pays theire respects. The 30 of November and from there on, the party is divided by profession, so the first day architects, construction workers and plumbers go ask for her favor; doctors, nurses, biologists and chemists go to church the next day; and then people who make tortillas, bread makers, chefs; painters, car mechanics, body shop workers; truck and taxi drivers, restaurant owners, fruit and vegetable vendors, lawyers, accountants and electricians… Each one is in the list, until the 7th of December, that day is reserved for the good doers and godmothers of that year’s party. That’s also the day they burn Toritos-a firework filled papier maché figure that symbolizes all the evil that’s gone.
And then comes the 8th, the day Vicente, and most of the pilgrims, and those whose profession isn’t on the list or couldn’t make it, finally arrive. Thousands of people wait in the sun for hours in order to get to Cerro del Pedimento, they have to listen to mass in the churches patio or go in for a crowded experience (reminded me more of a concert than a mass) and then, a two mile wait until the walk under the virgins veil.
A day after the big event, the streets are still crowded with vendors and street musicians, lost in a blue tent sea, where the virgins image leaves the church, and up in arms, visits every town street and goes back home at dusk.
The twelve day party ends with a huge dance called The Lilies Ball, as soon as the sun goes down and way after it comes up, people dance their pains away to the sweet sound of banda, tambora and trío.
Vicente and his partners are tired, happy and homesick, in only three days they made it all the way to Juquila, otherwise a whole week by foot, they kept their promise alive and thank the Virgin for one more year of blessings, they all go home with the handle of their bike, the hood of their truck, full of images and flowers, reminders of strong beliefs.