Crashing the fiestas

W e decided to stop by Patzcuaro at the last minute. My boyfriend and I were sitting in an outdoor cafe in the university town of Morelia, enjoying our daily dose of guacamole and flipping through our guidebook for Mexico. The village of Patzcuaro was between us and the coast. Why not stop by? The pictures of fishermen wielding beautiful nets in the town's mountain lake looked cool.

But we didn't get to see the trademark fishing nets, because Patzcuaro was in the throes of a celebration that happens only every 100 years.

Oblivious, we wandered through the streets of Patzcuaro looking for a cheap hotel. We noticed that the bright banners and the plaza full of musicians and vendors did seem festive, but Mexico itself is festive, so nothing seemed too unusual. The hotel was sedate, the owner slow to answer our ring for service. He mentioned something about the Virgin of Health, but he was mumbling so we didn't really pay attention.

We emerged from the squalid hotel back into the plaza and penetrated the crowds to discover a massive "sand painting" project under way. People of all ages were carefully using stencils to create bright art that extended along the peripheral sidewalk of the main plaza. The material they were using was actually not sand, but dyed sawdust that formed a colorful chain of intricate flowers and brilliant suns.

We watched the meticulous precision of the artists until a noisy procession caught our eye. Musicians and singers were pouring down a steep hill toward us, while flanking a flatbed truck carrying a crucifix and a bloody Christ. When the procession had finished its circumnavigation of the plaza, we headed up the hill from where it had come.

To our astonishment, we found a full-scale town picnic under way, with every family eating identical boxed lunches. We bypassed the long lines for the free food, though not without employees of the sponsors calling after us in English, "Drink Pepsi!" and giggling.

We wandered over to the aging church, La Basilica de Nuestra Se`F1ora de la Salud, which was adorned with powder blue and white streamers branching out from its roof. Inside, another brass band was playing as hordes of worshippers bowed to a small figurine about a foot high, perched in a glass case above the altar. This was Maria herself, La Virgen de la Salud. She was made from a corncob and honey paste by 16th century Tarascan Indians and was still revered on January 20, 2000, the day of her centennial celebration.

At another plaza, which commemorated the death of a female revolutionary by firing squad, a band was blowing itself red in the face as children played with plastic airplanes and helium balloons. Strange "marionettes" twice as tall as humans danced into sight with the string band that followed them. One figure, half the height of the others, was manned by a small boy who paused briefly to stare at the gringos staring at him.

By this time we'd started to catch on that this was a special day, so we fueled up with a good dinner (graced, of course, by guacamole and Negra Modelos) and reemerged to find night had crowded the plaza with thousands of townspeople. We joined the expectant mob and I struck up a conversation with the young woman next to me. What were we waiting for? The appearance of the Virgin of Health. I asked if this event was celebrated every year, and she snorted at my ignorance, protesting, "No, no! Cada cien a`F1os" every 100 years. What timing! When the Virgin finally arrived, led by a procession of clergymen, I couldn't help joining in the vehement chorus of "Maria! Maria! Rah Rah Rah!"

Fists in the air, the locals continued their cheers as the Virgin was transported over the lovely sidewalk paintings. Like Navajo sand paintings, this art was created to be destroyed, as a testament of devotion. Elaborate strands of fireworks exploded alongside Maria as she slowly traversed the plaza. When she headed back up the hill toward her church, local boys set off fireworks that shot like missiles towards the sky, and Bryan and I noticed the moon wasn't full, as it had been the night before. The celebration was coinciding with a full lunar eclipse!

We joined the town as it headed up the hill after Maria. The celebration peaked as we all watched the tiny Madonna returned to her glass case, not to be touched again for another 100 years.

There was more music and cheering and fireworks as the celebration wound down. Women near the church doors ladled out free cups of scalding fruit cider to warm the families on their walk home. We cautiously sipped at the liquid and watched the moon disappear. Local people resented questions about the festival being connected to the eclipse; the day was all about Maria, and the moon should not detract from her. But while adults ignored the moon, the children holding their hands couldn't walk straight they couldn't help staring up at the phenomenon overhead.

This crazy experience cemented my love for Mexico. Since then, Cinco de Mayo has become more than an excuse to drink Mexican beer and tequila on May 5. It's a day to remember how much Mexico kicks ass.

Jen Reeder



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