Celebrating St. Michael: An offering of faith
By Antonio De Jesús Aguado
The celebrations honoring Saint Michael the Archangel will be held on September 29, 30 and 31. Music, dancers, xúchiles (large floral offerings), mojigangas (giant puppets) and giant stars will be part of the long processions winding through the main streets of the city. The fireworks of the Alborada (dawn) start the celebration, and the thunderous pyrotechnical display will be the highlight of the festivity.
The Alborada is the event that marks the beginning of the celebration to honor St. Michael the Archangel. Lasting more than eight hours, processions begin in some of the oldest neighborhoods in the city: El Valle, La Aurora (where the Alborada originated) and La Estación. In these neighborhoods, people start gathering at 10pm, and until 2am they enjoy Mexican food and music. At about 3am, a procession made up of mojigangas, musicians and big wooden stars on poles decorated with multicolored paper leave the three neighborhoods and head toward the Jardín. The three processions meet up at the intersection of calles Canal, Hidalgo and Plaza Principal and from there they walk together to the Parroquia. The launching of fireworks, the Alborada, starts at 4am and lasts about two hours.
According to the book Festivities and Traditions of San Miguel de Allende, by Felix Luna, the Alborada is not a sanmiguelense tradition. It was brought by textile workers from Salvatierra. A textile company called Reforma was closed in Salvatierra, and the employees, who used to venerate Our Lady of the Light, were transferred to Fábrica la Aurora, located in San Miguel. In this city, they substituted their virgin with the Virgin of the Conception, who is venerated at Las Monjas church. Emigdio Ledesma, who worked for the Fábrica la Aurora, commented that the event was held for the first time on December 8, 1924, at Las Monjas church, and locals were greatly impressed with the giant wooden stars (which represented the light of the previous virgin from Salvatierra) and the noisy fireworks. For that reason, San Miguel’s mayor at that time, and the parish priest, Father Solís, invited the employees of the Fábrica la Aurora to hold this event during the fiesta honoring St. Michael the Archangel. So, in 1925 the second Alborada was held in honor of St. Michael. “Curiously,” said Ledesma, “they never went back to Las Monjas.”
Entrance of the souls, xúchiles, dancers and mojigangas
Although no one knows when the procession of xúchiles was held for the first time, it has undergone several changes over the years. Local historian Alejandro Luna commented that the entrance of the xúchiles is not a sensationalistic parade, but “a procession with a very deep meaning for the inhabitants of rural indigenous communities.” Luna said that the event is held in memory of the four captains of the conquest (who were the first to convert to Catholicism) and for all those who died during the process of evangelization in the village of San Miguel. Those victims are represented by the animas, the crosses carried at the head of the procession.
Luna also commented that the procession honors all those native Chichimecas who died in a bloody battle at the Bridge of Calderón. The natives placed the corpses of the dead warriors on frames built of sticks and decorated with flowers, which could be the origin of the xúxhiles.
The word xúchil comes from the Nahuatl xúchitl, which means “flower.” The xúchiles are large offerings made of marigolds and cucharilla, leaves from a type of cactus. Don José Centeno from el Valle del Maíz, who is in charge of making an offering for Fray Juan de San Miguel and another for St. Michael the Archangel, commented that his ancestors knew all about the origin of these offerings. “The xúchiles were something like a coffin for the ancient Chichimecas. Because they did not have enough money to buy coffins to bury their loved ones, they used to build structures that consisted of two parallel poles and crossbeams. The structures used to be decorated with flowers, and over them the corpse was placed in order to be carried to the grave. When the corpse was buried, the xúchil was placed over the grave as an offering.” Later, the marigolds and cucharillas were added to the offerings. Nowadays, the structures are carried by 12 men and can weigh close to 500 kilos. When the entrance of the xúchiles ends, the offerings are placed outside la Parroquia. Centeno commented that in order to maintain the tradition in el Valle they have formed the group “xúchil of the new generation” made up of children under 12 years of age, who will make smaller offerings for the festivity. During the entrance of the xúchiles around 12 large xúchiles are brought to the Parroquia.
On Calzada de la Estación, an ancient tradition known as “the encounter” is held. Several dancers from different neighborhoods and rural communities representing different tribes of Chichimecas who inhabited the village before the conquest meet up there. During this encounter, each tribe asks for forgiveness from the other tribes, for misunderstandings, mistreatment or other offenses. After they have forgiven one another, at 5pm the procession toward la Parroquia starts. The dancers follow behind the xúchiles. Román González, coordinator of special events for the Department of Culture, said that this year they already have confirmed that 46 local dance groups and 16 from other states such as Jalisco, Veracruz, Tlaxcala and México, among others, will take part in the xúchiles procession.
According to Ramiro Hernández, captain of the dance group “Chichimeca Indian Warriors,” all the existing dance groups in the city originally emerged from el Valle. One group, headed by Macedonio Ramírez, was formed about 90 years ago.
Luna said that in 1942, for the 400th celebration of the founding of San Miguel, the municipal government started participating in the festivity, mainly in the procession. Originally the expenses of the celebration were covered by the Catholic believers, but in 1942 the municipal administration offered money to the dancers to cover some of the expenses. When the dancers from other cities found out, they did not want to come anymore. Later, they returned little by little. When the government started participating, the beauty queens and other civic elements were added.
The origins in Mexico of these smiling, grotesque giants made of papier maché and cardboard, according to don Polo Estrada, dates from the conquest. “The mojigangas were brought in order to evangelize. The first images were those of kings and queens, as well as images of saints. The mojigangas were used at the beginning to represent the power of the governors and saints, and later to illustrate the biggest defects of public servants and celebrities,” commented Estrada. Don Polo remembers that he began taking part in the entrance of the xúchiles in 1979, after don Lupe Rodríguez passed away.
In 2010, the municipal government decided that the mojigangas, which used to head the xúchiles entrance, should go at the end of the procession, and for that reason don Polo Estrada decided not to participate anymore in the xúchiles procession. This year, his mojigangas will dance for one hour outside la Parroquia on Sunday, September 30, at 10pm. The xúchiles procession will end with 32 giant puppets made by Hermes Arroyo.
St. Michael the Archangel’s stroll
Alejandro Luna said that this event originated in the 18th century, and after 150 to 200 years of dormancy it was resurrected by Felix Luna and other sanmiguelenses in 1985. The “stroll” consists of taking the image of St. Michael out of the Parroquia and carrying the saint to the other main churches in the city. This stroll, which is held eight days after the saint’s feast day, officially ends the celebrations for St. Michael.