By Gloria Marthai


mariachisThe tip of the cigarette glows brighter in the darkness as the man draws on it and then touches it to the black powder propellant. The cohete -rocket- swishes high into the air where it explodes in a burst of light, assaulting the early morning stillness. Time and time again the man and his older companion, missing two fingers of his right hand, send rockets thundering on their mission to awaken the village. Indeed, the intrusion is so abrupt, it is impossible to ignore. It is a message to one and all to come to Mañanitas, a dawn homage to the Virgin of the Assumption.

Soon, women with their rebozos wrapped tightly about them against the chilly morning air and men wearing sarapes make their way down the dark cobbled streets to the little stucco church. Overhead, paper decorations, compostura, whisper in the light breeze.

Tinny tones of tambourine tapping and guitar plucking and strumming greet them pleasantly as the estudiantina, a group of young musicians, tune their instruments under the arches in the church courtyard.

Presently the sacristan, dressed in jeans and sweatshirt, unlocks and struggles to open the massive church doors from inside. They gratingly groan and scrape the tile floor until finally resistance gives way and he leans casually against old forged hinges gazing out at the group gathered there. Behind him the festooned interior releases flowery fragrance.

The estudiantina begins to play and well practiced voices rise in the traditional dawn serenade, Las Mañanitas del Rey David. There is informality in dress and manner as people move down the aisle and enter pews. The church is an extended home to the villagers. They were carried as babies to mass and played in the aisles as tots where scolding from the pulpit still is not unusual. For many, it is here that the complete life cycle is played out, literally cradle to grave, with a myriad of meaningful occasions such as this homage to the Virgin, repeated each morning of the nine-day fiesta. The expense and work is distributed and shared among those who are able but participation and pleasure is enjoyed by all.

In the church, tied-back blue draperies alternate with white ones every four pews along the walls and join high in the middle at the chandeliers. Swallows swoop and dart about on the high ledges from open windows of the church competing for attention as the people sing and pray.

In this small village where few girls have ever owned a doll, the 16” figure of the Virgin is idolized. Fair skinned, she has a young-girl face; her hip length real hair is spread out fan-like down her back and sides. Her arms are extended invitingly. Dangling gold earrings glitter in the candlelight about her and her ornate, handmade gown is only one of several changes that she has.

Fingers stroke her, she is spoken to, problems pour out, and Her intercession is solicited. One man wanting to share his nearly empty bottle of tequila with her, is kindly led away. Complete with shiny crown and heavenly halo, the little Virgin reins on her pedestal to the left of the altar, banked with flowers and candies. On the ninth day she will be carried through the decorated streets in procession with band playing and Indian dancers waving standards and stamping their clogs to drum rhythm.

The mañanitas homage is a time for music, song and prayer. Meanwhile, outside it sounds as though pandemonium has broken loose as deafening rapid fire salvos of fireworks are set off on the plaza. More cohetes race each other into the sky. Church bells clang. Distant thunder competes in this land of fantastic contrast. Then all is still, save for the uninterrupted chanting of the rosary.

Outside in the courtyard, té de canela, hot cinnamon tea, with or without alcohol, is served. The meditative, mellow mood deepens and the warmth feels good in the freshness of the splendid dawn, dazzling in all its forms and colors reflected on the rippled lake, the sun still well below the Easter horizon.

Blue and white compostura, intricate, delicate rectangles of cutout tissue paper in the Virgin’s colors, hanging from roof tops on strings strung across the streets, flutter and flap in the air as the villagers make their way back to their homes.

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