The day finally arrived after months of preparation. Not that I was exactly certain what I was preparing for. Yes, I knew it was Our Lady's feast day. I had even read a book about the history of the miraculous event which occurred on December 12, 1531 in Mexico, when Our Lady appeared to Juan Diego, an Aztec Indian. She gave him a message of hope and love for the country with a request to build a chapel in her honor. When the local bishop doubted Juan's story and requested a sign from Our Lady, flowers suddenly appeared in the barren land to be sent as proof. When Juan unfurled his tilma (cloak) to give these flowers to the bishop, an imprint of Our Lady miraculously appeared on his tilma. After that, the Mexicans were converted to Christianity, and turned away from their previous Aztec gods, gods that they believed required human sacrifices in order to avert natural disasters, illness or famine. A good move on Our Lady's part, in my opinion.
I knew that the Latino community came out en masse to celebrate her feast day, but I was not prepared for the extent of the support. In my defense, for the last decade on December 12 I was always at the mall working and had no idea what was happening beyond the confines of the Santa booth. When we practiced these last 12 Sundays, I was only given a glimpse of what a big part we'd play in the celebration.
We 12 dancers were the matachines. We performed at the pre-sunrise service. I got there at 5 am, only to find a packed church - no seats available, people in the side aisles three deep, a virtual sea of brown hair. Others had arrived as early as 3 am for earlier parts of the service. Did I mention our costumes? How I had felt rather fea in mine, mainly because of my own self-consciousness in wearing a short skirt and a poncho top that didn't completely cover my middle-age midsection. Oh yea, and the headdress with feathers. I hope I haven't lost you, but this is a costume to typify what the Indians wore back in the 1500's before Macy's was around. Ann told me, "Don't worry about it. Offer it up as a prayer and be humble like Mary." Funny too, how you don't feel so stupid when everyone in your group is dressed identically to you. Then it's okay!
Let's see, my last real dance performance in front of a crowd was in high school in 1976. It was a dance contest, and my friend Mike and I danced to Barbara Ann by the Beach Boys. We practiced everyday after school in my living room to the song on our hi-fi record player. The night of the dance, we donned our '50s costumes (me in a skirt and blouse and bobby socks, with hair back in a ponytail; he with cuffed jeans, white t-shirt and an afro - it was the '70s after all). We cut the rug, or gym floor to be exact, swirling and dipping and jumping and jiving. We remembered our steps, and best of all he didn't drop me when we were doing some aerial moves. We won first place that night, and until yesterday, that was the pinnacle of my dancing career.
We stood as a group at the back of the church, maracas in hand, waiting for the beat of the drum by Julio to signal us to start. We danced up to the side of the main altar where there was a huge picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe suspended over a make-shift mountain and waterfall surrounded by countless bouquets of roses and other flowers. We knelt and said a silent prayer. Mine was for my son Alex, the football player, and his destiny post-graduation. One of the dances involves "painting a cross" on the floor, which is tricky even if you went slow, which we didn't as the drum beckoned us to go at break-neck speed. Okay, it wasn't that fast, but I'm not in high school anymore. The morning performance went quickly, and I thought I held up pretty well considering I had three hours sleep.
Ann and I met our husbands for breakfast at the Triple XXX restaurant (nothing like the name implies) and gorged on pancakes, omelets and endless cups of coffee. We were still in costume, sans the headdresses, and got a few good looks. This particular restaurant is known for hosting "Breakfast Club" on Purdue's home football games, where all the students come in to eat after they've been imbibing at the nearby bars since dawn. These students come dressed in costume (I don't quite know why) and it's Halloween every home game. When my kids were little and would see the "drunken sailors" in costume, I'd just tell them it was a big Halloween party for the college kids. Now we looked just like them in our Aztec garb. And football season is over.
At home, I tried to catch up on Christmas cards, waiting for the adrenaline to subside and the exhaustion to kick in. That's another topic I want to briefly explore. People aren't sending Christmas cards anymore, and it really upsets me. Fine, drop ME off your list if you must, but to bag the entire endeavor is a big mistake. I went to the post office to buy my Christmas stamps, and for the first time ever in the past holiday seasons, there was no line. Nobody buying stamps, nobody mailing gifts. Maybe it was a fluke, but the postman told me there was a big drop off last year, probably due to the recession, and it just hasn't recovered. Yes, email is quick, Facebook is fabulous (or so I've been told), but can't you stop long enough to write a Christmas card to someone you only touch base with once a year anyway? Letter writing in general has gone the way of dinosaurs, and I think it's a real shame. I cherish the letters from my grandmother, written in her scrawled handwriting from her travels. Well, I could go on, but this entry is really about Our Lady.
When I finally fell asleep, I was awoken by Alex gently shaking me. "Mom, I got accepted to Purdue in aviation. I just found out." This is not coincidence. Our Lady had her hand in this somehow because aviation is a select program, small because they have to accommodate their students with flight time. It's like getting accepted into dental school, or so I'm led to believe.
My prayers for him were answered.
Later that afternoon, our group reconvened at a Mexican store, and made our way through the town in a procession led by flag carriers and our drummer, and a police escort, and followed by members of the faithful who sang and recited the Rosary in Spanish. This mile plus journey was hands down, the hardest trek for me.
We did the Charlie Horse, the Snake, the Clock, the 16 Point Cross, the 6 Point Cross, the Hopscotch, the hopping and kneeling dance, and my personal favorite, the Drunken Sailor. People came out of their houses to see the procession, photographers were running ahead, snapping our picture, and Julio kept beating that drum. In some ways, it seemed like Ann and I were on the set of an I Love Lucy episode. Lucy and Ethel barging in on one of Ricky's show numbers at the Tropicana. But most of the time, I felt unity with this group of Latino dancers. We had more in common than we had in differences. We were all Catholic, they spoke English, I tried to speak Spanish, but most importantly we were doing something together for a common cause. That's what forged the bond, and isn't doing something together and making memories what creates friendships anyway? A little effort works wonders.
It wasn't the road to Calvary, but it was painful. Jose, one of our leaders, suffered a toe injury. Julio got blisters on his hands from wielding the drumsticks. When I told Ann's husband that my feet were so hot from all the friction, he said he thought he saw sparks on the pavement. My back still hurts, BUT, it was so worth it.
Once we got to the church, we prepared for our final performance. This time, the church was even more packed, lights were dimmed, and smoke from the incense clouded and scented the sanctuary. The mariachi band was in full swing. We just needed dancing spotlights to complete the scene. This was it, the moment we were waiting for. Part of our group went first to the altar with flags, incense, the drum and a horn. The rest of us waited for the cue to advance and we filled the center aisle with our dance for Our Lady. We were in the zone, all thoughts on her and not the hundreds of brown eyes watching us. We were Aztecs, thankful for the hope she gave us in that glimpse of her on Juan's tilma. We put on a grand show for our queen. When we were done, we filed in the front pews to participate in Mass and watch a re-enactment of the apparition that happened 478 years ago to a poor Indian.
I grabbed the hand of one of my new friends, Glenis, and whispered to her, "This is one of the best days of my life."