Sweet teardrops on Friday of Sorrows

By Antonio de Jesús Aguado

The celebrations for Holy Week began on March 17 in the city with the arrival of the Lord of the Column, a miraculous image that is brought in a procession from Atotonilco and remains for more than three weeks in the Church of San Juan de Dios. Viernes de Dolores (Friday of Sorrows) is celebrated the last Friday of Lent in San Miguel to honor the Virgin of Sorrows and comfort her for the pain she is about to experience following Jesus’ arrest and passion. Elaborate altars are set up in churches, houses and public fountains, a tradition that dates from the 18th century that was temporarily abandoned and later restored.

History of the tradition

As with many other traditions, the history of when the people started setting up altars to honor the Virgen Dolorosa is uncertain. Nevertheless, it has been said that the tradition started in Mexico during the 16th century but was limited to the churches and in the 18th century the tradition spread to houses and public spaces. In San Miguel, according to the book Fiesta y Tradición en San Miguel de Allende, the virgin was the patron of those who worked with fabrics, who used to hold a big celebration in the Chapel of the Seven Sorrows, which was located on Callejón de Piedras Chinas. The book also states that “during the night it was a custom to walk through the streets and visit the altars and taste the conserva (dessert made with squash) and cold water with fruits handed out at the altars.” The text also suggests that the tradition was stopped during the age of conflicts. Rodolfo Pérez Bautista, who is known for preserving the traditions in the municipality, said that there were many reasons why the tradition was lost in the 20th century, such as the Mexican Revolution, which began in 1910, and the Guerra de los Cristeros, or Cristiada, a conflict (1926–1929) between the Mexican government and factions of the Catholic Church. This was instigated by laws promulgated by President Plutarco Elias Calles that restricted some religious rights. Article 130 of the Constitution, which called for the closing of religious schools and the expulsion of foreign priests, also limited the number of priests to one for every 1,000 inhabitants in the country.

On August 1, 1926, the government closed every church, private chapel, convent and religious school across the country. “It was an age when people had to hide themselves and their religious images. By 1940 people started to recover their economic stability and businesses as well as their religious activity, and of course they started to revive what had been lost—the traditions,” said Bautista.

Altars with history

One of the showiest altars in the city is set up at Correo 25, a tradition begun by Dr. Felipe G. Dobarganes 22 years ago. His wife, Bárbara Dobarganes, who arrived in San Miguel 65 years ago, told Atención that they had some friends in Mexico City who had a huge house and a small chapel with two European images, a Christ and a Virgin of Sorrows, dating from the 18th century. Their friends sold the house and gave the images to Dr. Dobarganes, who brought them to San Miguel and started setting up the altar. “For my husband, who passed away 14 years ago, it was something really important and special. We are still taking care of the images, and even if he passed away, we still set up the altar with sweet memories and love,” said doña Bárbara.

The entire family gathers at the Dobarganes’ family home to prepare the altar, along with some others who have faithfully helped the family set up the altar since the first years. “Our organization is a very disorganized one. When we are placing the altar there are many people, but when we have to remove it, there are just two or three people,” notes doña Bárbara.  Maribel Dobarganes commented that every year they have been thinking of changing the Virgin’s dress to adapt it to earlier times. “We do not believe that the Virgin was wearing sumptuous clothes at that time,” she said, and commented that they have changed the original dress twice.

The wheat adorning the altar is sown at the house. Maribel commented, “Two weeks before Friday of Sorrows, we move the statues of Virgin Mary and Christ from the chapel to the library. In the chapel we cover every source of light and we sow the wheat in special molds made by my father.” Doña Bárbara said that the planting must be done carefully and the wheat must be watered every other day. The chamomile for the altar is donated by a friend of the family, and when the day comes Maribel and her brothers, sisters and friends go out to buy the oranges, candles and other decorations.

This altar is also known for its large colored carpet made of sawdust, which contains some of the images from the passion of Christ, such as the cross, hammer and nails used for the crucifixion, the rooster that crowed before Peter’s denying of Christ, the crown of thorns, the cilice used to punish Christ and the dice used to decide who would get Jesus’ clothes. This altar, according to the Dobarganes family, is visited every year by more than 4,000 people. Years ago they handed out ice cream, but more recently, because the man who used to make the ice cream passed away, visitors receive popsicles. On Saturday, after Friday of Sorrows, a small altar remains inside the main gate of the house. “We place the images in a small altar because we work so hard every year to have a beautiful altar, and we want the people to see it. And so people can understand that Holy Week in San Miguel is more than alcohol and discotheques, and the tourists also can understand that San Miguel is a traditional city,” explained doña Bárbara.

Main elements of the altar for Viernes de Dolores

According to Rodolfo Pérez, the elements included in the altar have changed over the years; in earlier times purple and white fabrics were used, as well as mountains made of cardboard representing Calvary. The main images are always the Virgin of Sorrows and Christ. The surrounding elements represent the suffering felt by the Virgin Mary when she discovers that her son has been condemned to death. The most common elements and their meaning include these:

Altar cloths and white flowers: Mary’s purity

Purple cloak: pain and penitence

Bitter oranges: the Virgin’s sorrow; these oranges are painted gold to recall the joy of the resurrection

Fresh chamomile: its colors represent humility (green) and beauty in body and soul (yellow)

Sprouting wheat: represents Christ as Eucharistic bread

Ice cream, flavored water and desserts made with squash: the Virgin’s sweet tears


The seven sorrows of the Virgin

1)    When Mary presented Jesus at the temple and the priest told her: “This child is meant to be the ruin and resurrection of many in Israel, and a sword will wound your heart”

2)    Persecution ordered by Herod and the flight to Egypt to save Baby Jesus

3)    Jesus lost in the temple for three days

4)    Mary encounters Jesus carrying his cross on the way to Calvary

5)    Christ’s crucifixion and death

6)    Mary receiving the body of Jesus when he is taken down from the cross

7)    Jesus’ burial

Altars at public fountains

In the municipality about 45 public fountains are decorated by residents. The most notable are located at the corner of Pila Seca and Zacateros, at calle Cardo and Prolongación Aldama, at the corner of calles Hospicio and Barranca and on the corner of Ancha de San Antonio and El Cardo, among others. The one located next to the Ángela Peralta Theater, decorated by Raquel Marroquín, features a young girl dressed as the Virgin Mary. Entire families start setting up the altars early on the morning of Friday of Sorrows, and at approximately 6pm they start giving out fruit water, ice cream, and popsicles until about 12am.

See Qué Pasa for the location of the main altars in the city.


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