Faith in San Miguel: preparing for Semana Santa
By Jade Arroyo
San Miguel de Allende is distinguished by its religious festivities, a mixture of an ancestral pagan past and the Catholic faith. Its magnificent churches and close relationship with the sanctuary of Atotonilco, the site of spiritual retreat for thousands of faithful across the country, are testaments to the influence that religion has had on the city through its history. The celebration honoring the Lord of the Conquest, celebrated the first Friday of March, and the festivity of the Holy Cross at el Valle del Maíz are evidence of the area’s pre-Christian past, mixing elements of Catholicism with pre-Hispanic dances to give thanks for good harvests. The solemn processions of Semana Santa (Holy Week) and the via crucis (stations of the cross) held in places like Atotonilco and San Luis Rey show the strong influence of the Catholic Church through the centuries. The active participation of many sanmiguelenses in the pilgrimage to San Juan de Los Lagos, which takes place in January, is another sample of the great faith of many of the city’s residents.
Popular religious celebrations
The mix of Catholicism and paganism is evident in the majority of celebrations: solemn mass is followed by Aztec dancing and the burning of copal. This mixture of religious beliefs has been termed “popular religion” by some anthropologists. Rituals
combining magic and religion among indigenous groups are practiced in a bond between Catholic and pagan traditions. Pre-Hispanic elements, such as xúchiles, large floral offerings created with the cactus called cucharilla, offered to the patron saint of San Miguel and the spectacular dances during the celebrations for Our Lord of The Conquest are further examples of this combining of faiths.
The traditions of Semana Santa are almost 300 years old. The festivities begin eight days before Easter with the arrival of Our Lord of the Column from Atotonilco, a procession that dates from 1823. The statue is carried into San Miguel on Sunday morning, the bearers walking on a welcoming carpet of chamomile, fennel and mint. Beginning on that day the town is flooded with tourists and non-stop celebrations. Good Friday has been celebrated here since the 17th century, and families set up altars to Our Lady of Sorrows in their homes, with symbolic elements of mourning such as sour oranges, chamomile, wheat and purple cloth; they offer visitors to their altars ice cream or popsicles, which represent the tears of Our Lady of Sorrows. During Palm Sunday there are several processions recreating the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem; in one of them Jesus is represented by an actor riding a donkey.
The Holy Encounter and the Holy Burial are processions held during Good Friday. The first, the encounter of Christ with his mother, was established in the 18th century by Father Luis Felipe Neri de Alfaro, who walked from Atotonilco carrying a cross. Currently it is performed outside the Parroquia. The second, Christ’s burial, was originally only performed by resident Spaniards. Nowadays, women from the oldest families in San Miguel take part in this procession; wearing all black and mantillas, they carry an antique image of Our Lady of Solitude.
Faith and tradition in San Miguel
Father Saturnino is a priest at El Oratorio. He has been a priest here for 34 years and recalls that the best decision of his life was to pursue his religious vocation. “Why would somebody want to dedicate his life to religion and exclude himself from the worldly?” many ask themselves. “Faith is a mystery impossible to understand for those who do not believe. Miracles seem to happen every day to the faithful; others don’t even notice them,” he says. According to the cleric, in San Miguel religion is still palpable because of the current practice of traditions, which keeps them from being forgotten, such as the procession of the Holy Burial, which is still done as it was in the 1700s. “What keeps the Mexican people together is religion, a word that means union. And what unites all Mexico is undoubtedly Our Lady of
Guadalupe, none can deny her,” the priest remarked.
Religion as a profession
Since the 17th century religious orders have been an important part of life in the city. Currently there are several orders of nuns who live and work in San Miguel. Not all of them are dedicated to the contemplative life; some are educators or run shelters for orphans, lending an additional meaning to the word madres (mothers).
The temple of Purisima Concepción, better known as Las Monjas, is the oldest convent in town, founded in 1765 by Sor María Josefa Lina de La Canal. The convent houses a contemplative order principally engaged in prayer and reflection. The nuns rarely go out. They earn their living sewing and washing clothes for religious images in the different churches and by selling baked goods. They also derive some income from a small shop selling religious items at the church’s entrance. The concepcionistas also provide food to indigents who knock on their doors asking for a meal. Other groups of nuns in San Miguel are teachers or help orphaned children or those whose parents cannot care for them. The Adoratrices Perpetuas Guadalupanas run a school, and the Dominicas de María run the casas hogares (orphanages). These two orders are more integrated into society than the contemplative nuns.
Sister Azucena (an alias) has spent 51 years in the convent; she took the habit at age 21. In her generation were a group of eight applicants, but now there is only one novice, who has been living in the convent for four years. “We haven’t had applicants for years and years; we’re running short. Currently we are a group of 30,” she said. According to her, this has to do with a loss of family values, in that parents do not teach their children religious practices; women’s liberation and changing social standards also influence the lack of applicants, she commented. Sister Azucena said she decided to devote herself to religious life because the worldly life did not seem to offer her much. “That was not for me, but it was very hard to get used to this life. It was not a thing to overcome in a month or a year; it took years of struggle to learn to be alone in here,” she remarked.
In San Miguel there is no seminary as such, but the El Oratorio is considered a seminary school for young people. It welcomes children to attend middle school early in their seminary studies. When they finish, they are sent to Morelia for high school and to study theology. There currently are 10 boys in the seminary. Asked why there are so few students, the priest Saturnino says this is a result of our modern times so influenced by technology and the lack of religious instruction. “Many parents are not concerned about the religious education of their children,” he commented. “The young confess just as a formality,” he added. But he also stated that the number of priests has dropped because there is a diocese in Celaya. “Many boys go there instead,” he said.
Faith or superstition?
Another feature of religiosity among Mexicans is the fact that many people rely more on faith, magic and luck than on science. According to the Survey on Public Perception of Science and Technology in Mexico 2011 (Enpecyt), 72.59 percent of respondents trust more in faith and less in science, 79 percent said that the application of science makes their way of life change too quickly, and 72.24 percent recognized alternative medicine, herbology and “limpias” (cleansings) as treatment for some illnesses.
Some native sanmiguelenses (several of them merchants) who were interviewed asserted that because of their knowledge the researchers are “dangerous” and scientific development generates a dehumanized, cold life. They consider limpias and herbal medicine to be options for alleviating diseases of the body and soul that science does not recognize. Owing to its large population of indigenous origin (mostly Otomí and Chichimeca) in San Miguel and rural communities the practice of herbolaria, shamanism and sobandería is still prominent and many people seek these alternative services.
Sister Azucena said: “A very devout lady is worried about her daughter. She says that the more her daughter studies the farther she gets away from God.” Several young university graduates, some of whom have lived abroad, also commented on this gap between young people and religion, citing disagreements with the church’s stand on issues such as gay marriage and contraception. Jorge, who was raised in a very Catholic family and attended religious schools, said, “I’m grateful to the nuns for teaching me the importance of spirituality, to have it and preserve it. When I was growing up, I drew myself away from religion because I disagree with the ideas of the church. They teach you to fear what’s different and won’t allow you to think independently. Even if I don’t go to mass or confession, I still believe in a supreme being and in miracles.”
According to numbers of the DATATUR System, San Miguel de Allende in the eighth weekend of 2014 had a hotel occupancy of 39.75 percent and was ranked as one of the 10 most visited colonial cities and had more visitors than Oaxaca, Zacatecas and Taxco in Guerrero.