Friday, June 14, 2013

Bucket List Knock-offs: Teotihuacan and Virgin of Guadalupe

It's difficult to visit Mexico and ignore the tremendous effects of religion on the culture and the individual lives of people.

Pyramid of the Sun as seen from the Quetzalcoatl pyramid.
On my bucket list, for many years, has been the Teotihuacan site, northeast of Mexico City, and the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Neither of which would have been built without the tremendous emotional power exerted by religion.

Teotihuacan was thought to have been built by the Aztecs. By the time I was 18 in Mexico for the first time, that theory had been revised and it was thought the Toltecs built it. Certainly the Olmecs, Mexico's "mother culture", were not responsible. But now, according to our quite knowledgeable guide, the archeologists have unearthed enough ceramic evidence that no one knows for sure who actually built it. However, the fact that these enormous pyramids, set at strategic places along an east-west axis avenue dedicated to the dead, were built at all, shows the power of religion.

The place where Don Diego showed the
Bishop the cloak with the Virgin's image.
And the whole story of the Virgin of Guadalupe held a few surprises for me, especially since I thought I already knew it. For one thing, in 1531, when the miracle of the Virgin's appearance happened, there were no roses in Mexico, they were yet to come to the new world from the old. (I thought it was because roses didn't bloom in December!) And the Virgin that appeared to Don Diego had a dark skinned faced, like his own indigenous people. That part I knew, but what I didn't know was that there was a previous dark faced Virgin of Guadalupe, from the Spanish region of Extremadura, and it was a virgin known to the Spaniards in the New World. When Don Diego met the bishop, outside of the town, purely by accident, and told him about the vision he had seen, the Bishop didn't believe him. But when he showed up with the roses, and then the image of the Virgin was miraculously on his cloak, the Bishop recognized the Virgin from the old country and became a believer.

A basilica was built near that spot, just as the Virgin had commanded. It stands today, tilting off to the east as the land beneath has subsided, and earthquakes have taken their tole. It was a bit un-nerving to be inside with the floor sloping dramatically and pillars tilting in several different directions.

A new basilica was built for the tens of thousands of pilgrims who come every year, and it holds about 10,000 people, packed. We went into it and there at the front was a golden frame around the original cloak. Mass is delivered daily, every hour from 9 in the morning till 7 in the evening. There were several thousand people inside the basilica when we arrived, many still crawling in on hands and knees.

The building has been designed to have a tunnel with an opening underneath the hanging madonna. People can go down into the tunnel where there are several moving walkways, like you often see in airports, going in both directions. You stand on the walkway and it slowly moves past the Madonna while you look up. This sacred object looks nothing like a cloak. It's quite squared off, and looks like a painting. I might have actually been more convinced if it had looked like something someone might wear. It does have marks though, where it had been folded for some time, just like the shroud of Turin.

Looking up at Don Diego's cloak,
now framed and venerated
After the basilica, we went into a gift shop across the street where a digitized photo of the original has been reproduced. And the right eye of the madonna has been further blown up so that you can look with a magnifying glass and see the pixelated (and blurry) image of a bearded man that is supposed to be Don Diego. The only problem with that is Don Diego was an Aztec, and not of mixed race. This whole event happened only ten years after the fall of Tenochititlan. Aztecs didn't have beards.

Patti, my companion, was raised Catholic (now lapsed). She brought over an information sheet that showed the Virgin's image deconstructed with all kinds of symbolism pointed out. For instance, the very evenly spaced stars on her cloak had been connected to look like certain constellations. My favorite Orion was one of them, but for the life of me, I could see no connection. It was drawn over the Virgin's image, but looking at the life-size digitized image, I couldn't find any points at all that corresponded to Orion. Ditto for the faintest shadows that supposedly represented King Solomon, and the list went on and on. I think if a person were a true believer, this kind of stuff might be fascinating and deepen the faith, but for a skeptic like me, it was just more proof that there are a lot of con artists out in the world.

Inside the new Basilica dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe

Down into the tunnel with
the moving walkways.