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A Serendipitous Odyssey in El Campo
A Serendipitous Odyssey in El Campo

by Kathleen Bennett

Where were you this past December 12th, Virgin of Guadalupe Day in Mexico? I can still vividly recall some of the beautiful fiestas San Miguel de Allende offers on this special day. For example, several years ago I visited the large white church known as San Antonio de Padua. There I witnessed hundreds of devotees placing their paintings and statues of the Virgin on the church steps for blessing. In the afternoon a large group of caballeros arrived on horseback. So many in fact that the large church plaza soon filled with horses and overflowed into the adjoining streets.

Another memorable December 12th in San Miguel was my first visit to the Santa Casa de Loreto. As a Historical Walking Tour guide for Patronato Pro Ninos, I had studied about Manuel de la Canal having constructed this beautiful chapel in the Oratorio de San Felipe Neri Church in 1736, the year his daughter Maria was born. Most of the time an iron gate (on the left when facing the altar) bars entrance to the hallway leading to this sumptious replica of Mary's Holy House carried by angels to Loreto Italy. Relying upon a tip from a Mexican friend, I attended the 8 a.m. mass in the Oratorio on December 12. As my friend had promised, a priest opened the iron door and at last I found myself observing the brocades, golden cloth, intricate carvings, Venetian glass and graceful paintings adorning the octagonal Santa Casa de Loreto. The chapel became the final resting place for both Manuel de la Canal and his wife Maria when they suddenly died within a few days of one another in 1751. After savoring the treasures of the chapel for only fifteen minutes, I was asked to leave, and the iron gate was locked behind me. How could I have known that December 12, 2016, held another, quite serendipitous, adventure for me?

On beautiful warm days, when I have no tours, programs, or other appointments, I like to drive into the campo. One of my favorite walks meanders along the old railway path on the west side of the highway to Dolores Hidalgo, about 6 km north of Atotonilco. As I was about to park in the same place I routinely do, someone said to me: "Keep going. Cross the river today. You know you've always wanted to see the other side." I understand you may think me daft, senile, or perhaps a combination of both when I tell you a voice encouraged me to continue on. This was not an audible voice but rather an undeniable prompting to try this new route.

So I drove on, crossing the river, and entered a small pueblo. This journey, taking less than ten minutes, transported me into a place of traditions and rituals from hundreds of years in the past. The village I later learned was named El Cuadrillo, and I arrived at the moment its inhabitants were forming a procession led by an Elder who carried incense and chanted prayers. This solemn group of rural families was enroute to meet members of a neighboring community who approached singing and carrying gifts of flowers and pirotecnias. The two groups soon joined and retreated to an altar outside the chapel grounds where a ceremony took place. The Elder offered incense before this altar and placedf lowers inside, while two long lines formed behind him. Next, all began to turn as one, first to the south, then west, north and returning to the east, pausing a few minutes to face each direction. During this pause, chants and blessings were recited. Those taking part, from the very young to old, seemed to know exactly what to do, say, and when to turn. I parked my car, grabbed my camera, and hovered along the dusty road completely spellbound.

Together this procession moved to the yard inside the chapel walls. There, before another outdoor altar, a similar ritual took place, with incense, chants, and the four turns. Finally, led by the same incense-laden Elder, all entered the tiny chapel. Most had to stand for the mass, as there were few benches. In the hundreds of capillas that used to decorate Guanajuato's countryside, like wind-blown confetti, Indians in the 16th century worshipped similarly. Because these historic chapels were small structures, only the priest and a few assistants could be inside near the altar.

The processions welcoming other communities continued through the afternoon. Around 3 p.m., they suddenly stopped. Rosy-cheeked round women with long braids flowing down their backs began to set up tables and cook traditional fare. Most men and older boys busily constructed an arena inside the walled yard by fastening steel fence sections into a large circular form. There were no chairs, but within an hour, every available space on the high wall was filled. Trucks were backed towards this arena, and great excitement filled the air as huge bulls were prodded into pens. More and more cowboys arrived dressed in large straw hats and brightly colored shirts. A group of Indian men and women performed another ceremony inside the arena. A woman carried incense which she placed on the ground and bowed before it. Others again observed the turning ritual. Once they left, there was a great deal of activity on the nearby road: a Red Cross ambulence arrived, a fire truck, and a group of very intimidating men wearing shirts that said "SECURITY". The Campo-Rodeo was about to begin.

As I looked around at the large crowd, I did not see one other foreigner. What I especially noted....and appreciated.... is that I was, for the most part, ignored. The families of El Cuadrillo and neighboring villages were completely absorbed in their celebration honoring the Virgin of Guadalupe, and I was equally entranced in their centuries-old traditions. As the sun began to drop into the western sky, a young Mexican couple, both students at the University of Guanajuato, asked me for a ride into San Miguel de Allende so that they would not miss their last bus. I reversed my car's direction, driving east across the river towards the highway. As I returned to more familiar terrain, leaving the somewhat surrealistic experience of El Cuadrillo's traditions behind, that mystical voice reminded me: "You'll not soon forget this Virgin of Guadalupe Day." And I will not.

Kathleen Bennett's popular series about San Miguel's history, 6 virtual walking tours (no walking) titled "San Miguel's Secrets Revealed!", starts Tuesday, January 10, 3-4 p.m., in the library's Sala Quetzal. Last year, these programs sold out! See Irineo in the Biblioteca to purchase a Pass (600 pesos) guaranteeing seating at all programs. Individual program tickets, 130 pesos. ALL PROCEEDS BENEFIT San Miguel's wonderful LIBRARY.

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Kathleen Bennett previously taught at the University of Colorado, authored travel books, owned a real estate business in Boulder CO and worked as a commercial pilot. She resides full-time in San Miguel de Allende, where she volunteers as a Patronato Pro Ninos Historical Walking Tour Guide. Tours take place every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, meeting at 9.45 a.m. in the Jardin opposite La Parroquia. The 200 peso donation provides medical and dental care for San Miguel's neediest children.

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