Honoring the Holy Cross in El Valle del Maíz
By Antonio De Jesús Aguado
Religion, tradition and folklore come together every year in the festivities honoring the Holy Cross from El Valle del Maíz. The events will feature locos (people wearing crazy disguises), dancers, mojigangas (giant puppets), fireworks and a coloquio (mystery play). For the celebrants, these events represent a direct communication with God.
El Valle del Maiz is located just off Salida a Querétaro, and according to the inhabitants it was founded at the same time as the Villa of San Miguel el Grande. When the Spanish conquerors arrived in the village, they needed people to work the land and build their houses, so they brought in Otomí, Chichimeca and African slaves and housed them in El Valle. Don Polo Estrada told Atención that there is no written history about El Valle because the Spanish only wrote down what was important for them, not for the slaves. He said that some accounts state that in El Valle there were 30 Indians with blue lines painted across their faces or missing an ear. The name of Valle del Maíz may come from the once-fertile land of the area, which had water in abundance, so it was easy to grow corn. Don Polo, who is in charge of the mojigangas for the festivities in the barrio (neighborhood), recalled that when he was six years old people used to have their own wells at home and only had to dig two or three meters to reach water. Later, wells were drilled to support agriculture in the upper part of the city and as a consequence the wells dried up in El Valle.
Meaning of the Holy Cross
When the conquerors arrived in the new world they tried to convert the natives to the Catholicism and eliminate their gods, representations of which were made of stone. According to Don Polo, the Spanish wanted the natives to venerate a cross made of wood, but they refused to do so if it was not made of stone, because through the stone they could find a way of worshiping their own gods. This was the origin of the Holy Cross in El Valle del Maíz. During the conquest, each time that a new village or neighborhood was founded, a friar would scoop up a handful of earth and throw it to the four winds, declaring the place founded in the name of God and the King of Spain.
The Holy Cross of El Valle is made of stone and decorated with signs of the passion of Christ; inside it is housed a crucified Christ, which can be seen through a small crystal. This cross remained for 70 years on the main altar of the chapel of El Valle, and when it was taken down for a procession through the neighborhood in 2002 those responsible for the festivity found a document stating that the Holy Cross was used for the first time on June 19, 1902. This sculpture, which is considered miraculous, has its own curious story. Don José Centeno, who has chief responsibility for the festivity, said that when they took the cross down from the altar in 2002 they laid it on a table and the Christ inside turned his head “as if he wanted us to see him,” and later he returned to his original position.
In 1802 a rustic chapel in El Valle was built where the cross was venerated, and in 1936 Fray José Luis Chávez Garibay began the construction of the current church, which houses several paintings called “miracles” placed there by people who have received a benefit from the cross, such as recovery from a terrible illness. Inside the church there is also a pilgrim’s Holy Cross, which in the past was taken to other rural communities, and when it was returned to El Valle it was accompanied by beans, corn and other seeds that were sold to finance the festivity. On Salida a Querétaro there are two more crosses that were put up by the residents from El Valle to commemorate the hangings of two people in those spots during the Cristeros War.
Everyone is invited to the celebration
This generations-old tradition in El Valle represents the end and a beginning of a cycle, and during the celebration the inhabitants thank God for benefits (rainfall, a good harvest, health, and above all the opportunity to be alive) granted to them throughout the year. The new generation needs to understand that this is not a fair where everything is sold, but rather a celebration in which they share what they have. The festivity of El Valle has remained largely unchanged over time. The local government is not involved, and it is completely financed by the devotees to the Holy Cross and others from several communities who have received miracles. Everyone is invited to the celebration, but those attending should respect the traditions and the rituals, especially those taking photographs or videos.
Prior to the beginning of the rituals, musical events are held in the plaza in front of the neighborhood church. These are not part of the ritual elements of the celebration but have become a tradition that has been preserved over the years. On Thursday, May 23, the Leones de la Sierra band, from Xichú, gave a concert; the Leones have been participating in the festivities for more than 20 years. The band is one of the few that criticizes through its lyrics the political, social and economic life of the country.
The celebration officially starts on Friday, May 24, at 8pm with the Ensaye Real (Royal Rehearsal), which consists of a procession through the main streets of El Valle and is the way the devotees of the Holy Cross ask God’s permission to begin the celebration. The procession features locos, mojigangas, dancers, bands playing live music, donors of candles, and devotees. The ritual concludes at midnight, and the construction of the crucero (offerings made of flowers and other elements) in honor of those devotees who have passed away begins. On Saturday, from 5–7pm fireworks are set off, and later volunteers offer atole (corn flour based-drink) and tamales to the celebrants. At 5pm it is a tradition to hold guerritas (“little wars”), a mock confrontation between foreign armies and the Chichimecas, next to the Plaza Real del Conde. It seems like a genuine battle, and the winners are those who have taken the most captives. Sometimes the invaders win, and sometimes the Chichimecas.
The celebration has expanded to the historic center
On Sunday, at noon, the mojigangas, dancers, locos, bands and floats leave from El Valle and pass through the main streets of the historic center. This parade started a long time ago and it used to include only a violin and a flageolet, but it has grown over the years. At the beginning the parade was held to collect items for the festivities. The parade concludes in El Valle, where the dancers keep dancing. In a special dance unique to this celebration, one of the dancers is symbolically killed. Another dancer, dressed as a skeleton, pretends to dismember the body, which he shares between a dancer depicting a crazy man and a devil. Later the “murdered” man is resurrected by another dancer, and the cycle begins again and is repeated several times.
The coloquio titled “The Hidden Treasure” starts at 7pm. It lasts 12 hours and is about the devil’s schemes to mislead the shepherds on their way to see the newborn king in Bethlehem (it ends at 7am on Monday). The celebration includes fireworks displays, greased pole climbing and a greased pig chase.
Check out the whole program in Qué Pasa.