The angel came early to number sixty-eight Calle Centlapatl, carried on a plain wood palanquin the way it would be during the first of the year's “Posadas,” by hand, from the church of San Martin de Tours a few blocks away. With a late afternoon's winter light slanting eastward over Azcapotzalco, this December 16th would be a special one, as the Marquez-Perez family had made great preparations to welcome their friends, neighbors and fellow parishioners in celebrating one of Mexico's sweetest traditions.
“Posada” means “inn” in Spanish, and on each of the nine days before Christmas, groups of devout parishioners like these will reenact Mary and Joseph's search for shelter during their Biblical journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. In the story, the pair were helped through the cold and dust by an otherworldly guide, and this guardian angel, too, in colorful plaster and paint, has made the trip from the church to be here on this humble street in Mexico City.
Our hostess has been busy – the tree inside is glowing with lights, gift bags of alternating red and silvery green are filled to the brim with peanuts, candy and snacks for the kids, flowers are everywhere, especially at the Virgen de Guadalupe's altar to the left of their living room entrance. There are not one, but three pinatas ready, to be won later in the evening at the right whack of a carefully taped broom handle.
As everyone gathers, the children take candles, the adults take sparklers for later. Two parishioners take up the heavy palanquin. The procession begins, their symbolic journey tonight a long and arduous one.
Pausing at a first, then a second doorway, the group outside the gates, the “peregrinos,” trade touching verses in song with the “hosteleros,” the innkeepers, inside:
“In the name of heaven, I ask for shelter, My beloved wife, She can walk no more,” answered by
“This is not an inn, I cannot open up, Go on ahead, Don't think me heartless.”
This is followed by: “Posada I ask for, Beloved Home, She will be a mother, the Queen of Heaven” and they are refused again “For if she is a queen, who asks, how is it that tonight, she is so lonely...”
But at the third gate, the innkeeper takes heart, and after some solemn silence, then, in the street, the gates open, and all that is inside welcomes the weary travelers.
For Father Francisco Mendieta Bueno, facing his own struggle with dialysis, these traditions kept alive by his parish are a lifeline of warmth and community. He offers some serious words for contemplation, and everyone joins in a “Padre Nuestro.” But then, the party begins, and there is food, drink, and pinata-breaking to look forward to. With so much going on, conversations flow, and children are everywhere. Everyone's door is open, and no one seems to notice the chilly breeze.
Many people in Mexico take two weeks off before the end of the year to wind down, and the general festive mood, with its resultant gridlock, meant holiday time was finally a reality. But this Friday night, some folks didn't seem to be in a hurry, and this working-class neighborhood feels frozen in time. Several times we had cars behind us, our modest group led by little girls with candles. No one honked or was impatient, and in the sweetness of the evening, most seemed to want to share the moment.
Jay Dunn, December 16th, 2011
Azcapotzalco, D.F., Mexico
A sincere thanks is given here to Andrea Fernandez, whose gracious help was essential to this story