I parked the car in a crowded alley, aided by strangers while making a seemingly interminable reverse, after long minutes parading through streets too narrow for so many cars, peddlers, and pedestrians. In the air one can smell the chicharrón, the tortilla and the crowd. From the people who passed me by, I kept, above all, the smell of fabric softener. It was a smell that contrasted with their dirty shoes and with a weather always too hot and humid, the kind that makes us start sweating as soon as we leave the shower.
The commotion was such that I almost regretted having decided to go there on October 12 to see one of the largest pilgrimages taking place in Mexico. I wasn’t sure about what would await me. But I did not expect much of what I found. I quickly discovered that in Guadalajara, the Dia de la Raza (which actually celebrates the day in which Christopher Columbus arrived to America) coincided with the day of the pilgrimage of the Virgin of Zapopan. And looking around, it was difficult to discern to which of the celebrations the paraphernalia that was sold on improvised stalls actually belonged. Nor was it clear what which festivity had attracted each one of the pilgrims. However, it was obvious that the sacred and the profane were mingled in the same that as the Christian and the Pagan rituals were.
In the distance, chants dedicated to the “Generala” while, just a few meters away from me, in the “tamales” tent, the reggaetón in loud volume called the customers who were, perhaps, undecided between savouring that paste of sweet corn and the golden tacos nearby, which stall didn’t even have any music. On the dusty ground, on an old cloth, crucified christs were sold alongside other bibelots like life-size roosters and rottweillers in resin, ornate for the fight. Some of the women wore laced white or black veils while others wore revealing feathered Aztec costumes and rocked themselves on paradoxically high heels, too daring for the dance moves they took without too much effort. Aside from parental and family responsibilities, groups of men gathered in front of the stalls, drinking beer, laughing out loud, only interrupting the joyful talk to chew.
In the centre of the square, in front of the Basilica of Zapopan, with a child by the hand, stood the statue of John Paul II,. Perhaps in tribute to the two billion people who joined the world population during his pontificate. And, as a living example of Mexican devotion to Wojtyla, children were everywhere. Many babies and toddlers who endured, more or less patiently, the chaos to which they’d get used to in the years to come.
I recall Fernando Vallejo and his pet hatred for Wojtila’s sinister figure, who preached till death the idea that a life lived in the most absolute misery was better than the use of contraceptives. Misery and inequality are not sins around there. Free will is.
The streets were ripped wide open. I wasn’t sure if such dystopian scenario was due to the negligence of the local authorities or to their excessive zeal in the wrong timing. They were the main stage for a babelian parade of typical customs from everywhere around Mexico.
The bright colours flashed through the retina and resonated inside one’s skull that a chromatic noise composed by clothes, sarapes, cakes, excessive makeup, toys and walls of houses. The senses could not rest on anything around me and due to the heat and the thick dust, it was difficult to process so much information.
I turned away from the cathedral and instinctively headed to one of the parallel, traffic-locked streets. I was hungry and wanted to sit somewhere. I figured I wouldn’t be lucky, but I’d be happy to find a decent toilet. The toilets in Mexico are the cleanest I’ve ever had the opportunity to use. It does not matter if they are in a public garden, a trendy restaurant or a provincial “botanero”. Everything is scrupulously clean and the smell of the detergent is an appanage to all them. They are usually cleaned by middle-aged ladies and it is normal to give them one or two Pesos after we use them. The first time I used a Mexican toilet, I was so impressed by the extreme hygiene – which, according to the stereotypes, is only characteristic more Northern countries – that I gave a twenty-peso notebill to the lady. For me, this was a reasonable and fair amount as a retribution for such a hard, although disregarded work. From her face, I realized that it was not common, and later I was told that, by the end of a lucky day, that might be the amount she would take home. For me, the pleasure of entering a neatly tidy public toilet is worth much more than that.
I asked for a “granizado” at the counter of one of the candy stores that bordered the road and headed to the park. The terraces were filled with extended families who did not seem to be willing to move easily out of shade and leave behind the chair which had been so difficult to conquer. In the distance, I could already hear the caroucels that make, universally, part of any local celebration. I sat down on one of the benches, beside a sleeping dog, oblivious to the racket that surrounded him. In Mexico, there are countless abandoned and stray dogs everywhere. They follow a course that only they know and, many, have already overcome the fear of being at the mercy of strangers and manage to blatantly ask for food. Maybe on a day of pilgrimage, the passers-by would be more generous. I never resist and I always give. And each time I felt a lump in my throat that made my eyes burn.
In front of me, a tiny old woman in a Huichol dress played a small colored “jarana”. I realized the resemblance between her and the image of the “Pacificadora”, the indian Virgin, created in the image of the men who gave her shape. Her solemn, austere expression contrasted with the festive melody she played, and even without needing to ask, people gave her money as she passed them by. Maybe they made the same association I did. Or else, pilgrims’ generosity is a fact.
In spite of the strong impressions that all that newness had caused me, I was tired. Of the dust, the sun and the noise.
I thought about going back to the car and, as soon as that thought crossed my mind, I was already trying to figure out a strategy to find it amidst the crowd and the gutted streets.
I left behind the park, the sleeping dog, the tamales, the children, the Virgin, the reggaeton and the Pope. The epic adventure of reaching the centre of a 5 million- inhabitants city, where public transport is purely theoretical, in rush hour, was a much more profane procession.