by Claudia Rey
At five in the morning the sky is black and clear over Amelia’s courtyard, and peppered with a million stars. Plastic chairs are arranged in front of a niche, where the Virgen de Guadalupe stands surrounded by flowers, palm leaves and candles. Bananas and oranges are scattered on the floor among the candles, red and green plastic balloons hang overhead – the pagan token in an otherwise Catholic celebration.
We sit in the first row, huddled against the cold. Other people smile their greetings, or whisper a shy Hola. They know who I am, but the moment is probably too solemn for the occasional chit-chat.
A scrawny dog wanders around, and today no one chases it off. But when sacred music blasts all of a sudden from two loudspeakers arranged on a windowsill near the statue, it runs away with a yelp.
The music sounds like popular songs rather than hymns, and after a while I realize that they are songs: they tell the legend of La Virgen appearing to a Juan Diego six centuries ago, or they wish her happy birthday, or ask for her blessing.
“Todavía esperamos los Mariachis”, We are waiting for the mariachis, explains Amelia. Apparently they have been singing in the nearby village but should be here any minute. And they soon arrive, four men with guitars and four more to sing along. No black costumes studded with round knobs, no gold trimmed sombreros. Today they wear civilian clothes.
As they start singing – beautiful tenor voices – everyone stands up and joins them in an impromptu chorus. “Tu crees que yo puedo cantar con ellos?” I ask Carlos. His face brightens. “Claro que sí!” So I do, and sing the lines that I’ve learned earlier: Desde el cielo una hermosa mañana – la Guadalupana – la Guadalupana – bajó el Tepeyac... An old lady near me smiles approvingly.
When the music stops half an hour later, the same lady steps in front of the altar and collects from a vase a branch of small white flowers. She murmurs a prayer, then chooses someone among the crowd: a pregnant girl, a boy wearing a SALVAVIDA sweatshirt, a kid. She brushes the branch over them, from head to toe – a sacred metal detector against misfortune – chanting what must be a special blessing.
The spell breaks when Amelia starts handing around glasses filled with hot chocolate and big, oblong brioches obviously called guadalupanas. I nibble at mine, I drink some chocolate, then Carlos, my son-in-law, decides that it’s time for him to go to work. Amelia gives me a second guadalupana for my daughter, and I thank her with a hug. It’s nearly seven, and in the pink sky hundreds of birds sing and chirp.
In spite of my cynicism, I feel a sort of peace. And I will sing La guadalupana, la guadalupana... for the rest of the day.