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Making a Mexican pilgrimage to La Chaparrita

La Chaparrita – literally ‘The Little Short Girl’ – is a statue of the Virgin brought to the cathedral of San Juan de los Lagos in 1542 and believed to have miraculous healing powers. She is represented by a voluminous triangle of blue dress, with a small round head like a bobble on top. The first time I saw her, I thought she was a hat. I did not share this information with any of the throng of devotees who had gathered for the beginning of the pilgrimage.

No, actually, I have to confess that we didn’t quite make it to the beginning of the pilgrimage. We made a minor calendarial error and, arriving in San Luis a day late, had to hitch a ride to a village about 40 kilometres along the route, where the pilgrims were already settling down for the night.

On first glance, one could have mistaken the outskirts of the village for a refugee camp, until one picked up on the buzz of excited chatter, the snatches of song, and the potpourri of rich cooking smells wafting from all directions. The tiny hamlet was swamped with people and dusty trucks, crammed into every street and spilling out into the surrounding fields like a swarm of bees.

Although they appeared at first to be one solid mass, on picking our way through them I saw that they were bunched into groups of extended families, usually congregated around one or more vehicles, a portable stove and a couple of trestle tables, while two or three unflappable matriarchs doled out paper plates of food with the efficiency of a production line.

The most unflappable of the unflappable matriarchs at Trico’s family’s camp was, of course, Elvira. She stood at a doorway in the side of an enormous yellow truck, from whose roof a tarpaulin stretched across to the top of an adjacent wall. Brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews were clustered under the tarpaulin, cross-legged on the pavement, plates on laps, elbows in each other’s beans. Trico and I fought our way in and surrendered ourselves meekly to hugs, kisses, teasing and scolding from what felt like everyone simultaneously.

‘A whole day late, eh? I wonder what the Chaparrita will think of that!’

‘Young people these days! No sense of priority!’

‘But it’s so good to see you here, darling! We’ve missed you these last few years!’

‘So you’re going to walk with us, eh, Cat? Do you think you can handle it? Do they make pilgrimages where you’re from?’ Then, whispered: ‘Where is she from again?’

Don Margaro growled something incomprehensible and utterly terrifying. Elvira shoved plates of enchiladas potosinas and refried beans into our hands.

Trico’s eldest brother Cesar was leaning against the wall, both hands on his leg, clearly in some pain.

‘Are you OK?’ I asked him.

‘I’ll be alright. It’s not as bad as it was last year. I have a metal implant in my leg, you see, from an operation after a car accident. Walking these long distances is incredibly painful.’

‘But you still do the whole pilgrimage? I’m sure the Chaparrita would understand if you walked a little less than the others, with your bad leg.’

‘Oh no. It’s because of my leg that I must do the whole pilgrimage, every year. I was so badly injured after the accident the doctors thought I might never be able to walk again. My parents almost had to sell the house in order to pay for my operations. I promised the Chaparrita then that if she allowed me to recover the use of my leg, I would do the whole pilgrimage every year for ten years in her honour. She healed me. Now I must fulfil my promise.’

As the sun set the clamour died away, pans were washed and beds arranged. After their long day’s walk the pilgrims settled down early, and by 10 p.m. there was barely a murmur across the camps. We slept in the yellow truck, the whole family packed in like cigarettes across a floor padded with foam mats, our possessions heaped in the corners.

We were woken at 4 a.m. I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen 4 a.m. from this side of the day, and took the mug of black coffee Elvira handed me in stunned silence.

The air was cool at that hour and families huddled together and hugged their arms over their chests as we tramped blearily out of the village. Some were already eating sweet bread or tamales (cylinders of soft corn dough stuffed with meat or vegetables and steamed in corn leaves) for breakfast; most merely warmed their hands around mugs of coffee, planning to eat at the next rest stop along the route. Trico called out greetings to acquaintances or distant family from San Luis.

There was no spectacular sunrise, only a tentative emerging of a weak sun behind a veil of cloud. But as the sky brightened, the spirit of the walkers lifted, and the silent dawn trudge broke into gossip and laughter.

I was intrigued by the variety in the ages and attitudes of the pilgrims and started mentally dividing them into categories. There were the Grim Plodders: the middle-aged men and women who took the whole thing with the utmost seriousness and walked straight-backed in dignified silence, often carrying small statues or placards depicting the Virgin. The Gay Chatterers: generally those in their thirties or forties, who seemed to view the pilgrimage more as a family bonding experience than anything particularly holy, and merrily seized the opportunity to catch up on the news from relations they rarely got the chance to spend such concentrated time with. The Sly Smokers: groups of boys in their late teens or early twenties who we would pass semiconcealed in bushes at the side of the path, from where suspicious smells (and occasionally, to us, hissed invitations) emanated. The Sprightly Skippers: children or adolescents, so eager to prove themselves they practically bounded down the road, only to turn into the Tired Whingers a couple of hours later.

And already we were starting to overtake the odd pair of Devout Hobblers, although we would pass many more a couple of days further on. Old and stooped, they shuffled along on raw and bleeding bare feet.

Trico shook his head.

‘Bloody crazy, these old people. They usually leave days or even weeks early to do it like that. Imagine how much it must hurt! Some of them even get down on hands and knees at the edge of San Juan and crawl the last couple of kilometres to the cathedral.’

The landscape here was dry but still cultivated – undulating hills in faded shades of greenish brown. Already, though, it was showing telltale signs of desert. When we arrived at the midday rest stop in a weathered field worn to dust by tyres, I saw several groups of women with long knives gathered around a thicket of nopal cacti and several more with smaller knives seated on the ground nearby, stripping the spines from the ovals of cactus flesh before passing them to the unflappable matriarchs to prepare for lunch.

The trucks would wait until the pilgrims departed and then drive the longer route round the highways to the next rest stop, in order to be there in time to set up marquees and prepare food before the walkers arrived. The unflappable matriarchs did not walk, as feeding their increasingly weary families was a full-time job in itself. Nor did the venerable patriarchs, as they were needed to drive the trucks and set up the marquees. This job clearly could also be very tiring, as by the time we arrived at each rest stop Don Margaro was usually fast asleep in the shade, one hand rested on the dome of his belly, a couple of empty caguamas at his side.

At the end of the day I felt fine, even invigorated by the walk, and congratulated myself that I was clearly in optimal physical condition. At four the next morning, I wasn’t so sure. My feet ached, and I wanted nothing more than to pull the sleeping bag back over my head and tell anyone who dared to disturb me that I wasn’t a Catholic, I didn’t believe the Chaparrita had any miraculous powers and besides, she looked like a hat. Fortunately, a cup of coffee was placed in my hands before I had time to put this plan into action.

Over that day and the next the landscape got more arid and the fields died away into craggy semi-desert. Hills got steeper, both in reality and in our perception of them, as our bodies started to tire. Views could be majestic, across tawny plains to a backdrop of purple mountains, but as time went on we looked at the road more and more and our surroundings less and less.

We became increasingly grateful for the small marquees erected at intervals of a couple of kilometres along the route, handing out cups of water, slices of watermelon, and strips of aspirin tablets. These would be shoved into our hands as we walked past without stopping, having learnt that feet are numbed by the repetitive impact of steps and it’s once you stop that the pain really kicks in. When we had to stop for meals one of Trico’s uncles would massage each of the family’s feet in turn, kneading the knots out of the muscles with practised fingers.

As we passed through the suburbs of Lagos de Moreno, people cheered and gave us blessings. And then finally, sometime in the middle of the fourth day (everyone else’s fifth), the clutter of buildings that was San Juan became visible far on the horizon. And I looked before and behind us at the river of humanity plodding, chattering, smoking, whinging (no longer skipping) and hobbling its way over the hills, aching and exhausted but together, and resolute in their faith that the Chaparrita (not to mention the unflappable matriarchs and the venerable patriarchs) would never abandon them.

On the outskirts of San Juan, pilgrims were arriving not only from San Luis but from the other towns of Jalisco, León, Guanajuato, and even further afield. Trucks blocked the roads. People slept on sheets of cardboard in shop doorways, between parked cars, behind market stalls. As we trooped downhill into the town centre on the morning of Easter Sunday, the streets were a riot of colour and noise. Progress was obstructed not only by other pilgrims, but by weasel-faced men draped in trinkets shoving rosaries, crucifixes and Virgins of all shapes and sizes under our noses. Others proffered hats (I swear they were hats), gaudy necklaces or fake Rolexes. Behind them, the more permanent stalls displayed towers of the sweets for which San Juan is also famous: multicoloured spiral lollipops as big as plates, blocks of fudge and pink-and-white cocada (a sweet made from grated coconut). Wide-hipped women floundered through the crowd waving wooden sticks with a sample blob of cajeta – sweetened caramelised goat’s milk, used as a spread or sauce – that frequently ended up smeared on someone’s clothes, face or Virgin. Food-sellers sweated, shouted and despaired, no doubt sustaining themselves only with the knowledge that they made more money during these days of pilgrimage than in the rest of the year put together. Trico’s family, ever devout, fought their way to the cathedral to attend mass. Trico and I, tired of having our feet trodden on and our stomachs elbowed and by this time thoroughly cured of Catholicism, went to the pub.

Catriona Rainsford’s book on her two years in Mexico is brilliant. Read the rest of the Urban Circus by buying it.

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