A December Fiesta

If you were to find yourself in Mexico on December 12, you would be drawn to the nearest church by the sound of musicians in a parade led by colorful dancers. After mass, you would feast on sweet tamales and, perhaps, have a drink of atole – a sugary, milky drink made from corn. You would be participating in the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a centuries-old Mexican tradition that is an expression of devotion and thanksgiving to Our Lady, the patron saint of Mexico. This holiday tradition has become even more important than Christmas in Mexico.

The story of Our Lady begins on a hilltop in a rural village just outside of Mexico City. It is said that in 1531, the Virgin Mary, who came to be known as Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to a humble peasant named Juan Diego. Surrounded by light and speaking in his indigenous language of Nahuatl, Mary told Juan Diego that she wanted a church built in her honor. She gave him a sign, imprinting her image on his cloak.

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Historically and emotionally, the story of Our Lady is deeply woven into the life of every Mexican. Juan Diego’s cloak, or tilma, has become Mexico’s most popular religious and cultural symbol. In the 19th century it became the rallying call of American-born Spaniards in New Spain, who saw the story of the apparition as legitimizing their own Mexican origin and infusing it with an almost messianic sense of mission and identity—thus also legitimizing their armed rebellion against Spain. Juan Diego was canonized in 2002, under the name Saint Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin. A basilica dedicated to the Virgin was built in Mexico City and is now the most visited Catholic pilgrimage site in the world.

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While every village has a church dedicated to Our Lady, it is in Mexico City, at the site of her shrine, that the largest and most elaborate festivities take place. Thousands of people from around the country flock to the site to participate in dances and processions.

The climax of the festival begins on the eve of December 12, when dancers gather in the atrium of the church. The dancing—hopping steps performed to the endlessly repeated accompaniment of one or two musical themes—begins at midnight and lasts throughout the day. Groups of dancers alternate to keep up the furious pace. The songs and dances have been handed down through many generations and follow rigid traditional patterns.

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At our lecture and fiesta on Tuesday, Dec. 15, you will have a chance to experience some of these traditions. Prof. David Tavárez will give a talk about how the cult of Our Lady went through multiple transformations beginning with her origin in Spain. Then, matachines (a traditional religious dance and dancers) will fill the hall at the Houston Museum of Natural Science with a procession to honor the Virgin. These dancers from the Guadalupana Association here in Houston, participate annually in a parade to celebrate the Virgin that winds through downtown Houston recreating, in a small way, celebrations from the homeland.

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Then, you’re invited to participate in a post-lecture reception in the Grand Hall. Sample sweet tamales, sip atole, hear the sounds of mariaches, and dance along to folkloric performers.

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Come. Meet the faces of a beloved icon. Participate in a much-loved tradition that now encompasses many aspects of Mexican identity.

AIA-Houston is grateful for the support of the Consulado General de México and El Tiempo Restaurant for generous assistance that helped to make this event a reality. In addition, we also extend thanks to Mariachi Luna Llena from Rice University, Ambassadors International Ballet Folklórico from Talento Bilingue de Houston, the Guadalupano Association of Houston, and the Institute of Hispanic Culture.

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