Sweet tears on Viernes de Dolores
By Antonio De Jesús Aguado
Every Viernes de Dolores (Friday before Holy Week) statues of a sorrowful Virgin Mary, a sword crossing her heart, can be seen on impressive altars set up around San Miguel in public spaces and private homes. The altars, covered with cut purple paper, fabric and flowers are to honor the Virgin, to recall the moment when she was about to live through the pain of the Passion of Christ. The virgin sheds sweet tears, which are symbolized by ice cream, popsicles and fruit water of different flavors and other candies that are handed out to those who visit the altars.
Origin of the tradition
“With no doubt, the tradition comes from Spain,” says Marisol Vidargas, a member of the Tradicionalistas group. It is believed that it came from Europe in the 16th century, when the altars were only set up in churches, and after the 18th century the tradition spread to homes. In San Miguel, according to the book Fiesta y Tradición en San Miguel de Allende, the Virgin was the patron saint 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 (sweet squash preserves) and cold water with fruit handed out at the altars.” The text also suggests that the tradition was stopped during times of conflict (the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and the Guerra de los Cristeros, or Cristiada, between 1926 and 1929). The elderly used to comment that it was an age when people had to hide themselves and their own 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.
Altars not to be missed
Casa de Allende
When Alex Soleá López was a child, he used to go to the Holy Burial ceremony held on Holy Friday, and he remembers that Our Lady of Solitude caught his attention, there among the music and drama, with her black velvet dress. For 18 years, López has found a way to show the human pain with a “human image, with an alliance between the mortal and divine, through a Goddess-Mother who is as vulnerable as any other human.”
Soleá and his family have set up an altar of sorrows for 18 years, first on calle Correo and later on Murillo. Six years ago, Matilde Rullán, former director of Casa de Allende, invited Soleá to place the altar in that museum, and he accepted. Since then he has prepared the altar there. For him all the holy pious Virgins transmit pain, regardless of whether they are called Our Lady of Sorrows or of Hope.
Perhaps in the entire historic center the statue of the Virgin owned by the García Rincón family is the showiest; it was recovered from a family storeroom and later restored. The Virgin is carved of red cedar. According to Soleá, it dates from the 18th century. Every Friday of Sorrows, the Virgin visits Casa de Allende, where she can be seen wearing a white dress with pearls—which represent tears—dressed as a noble Spanish widow, featuring a white shawl, a six-meter black cape of velvet and a big silver crown.
Soleá has a special connection with the sculpture and takes it with him wherever he lives, currently in Querétaro. Every year on the Friday before the Viernes de Dolores the Virgin begins the journey to San Miguel, where she remains until the Wednesday following Easter. Early on the morning of Friday of Sorrows, the sculpture is brought to the Casa de Allende, where it stays until Palm Sunday, when Our Lady of Hope is carried to calle Correo 73, where she can be seen from the street in a huge window. On the first Wednesday after Easter the sculpture is taken to Querétaro again.
Dobarganes family altar
In 2013, at 6pm there was a huge
line of people waiting for the opening of the altar of the Dobarganes family, but it opened at 7pm. This is one of the showiest altars in the city and it is set up at Correo 25. This altar is not popular just for its images dating from the 18th century, but also 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 denial 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. 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 Dobarganes.
This altar has been set up by the Association of Traditionalists of San Miguel de Allende for 30 years. They chose this location—which houses the local radio station—because it is a public space where everybody can enter. The images of the altar belong to the Santa Ana Church, and during the rest of the year they are on the main altar. Marisol Vidargas, who is in charge of the altar, said that this year calle Insurgentes will be closed to traffic, because the Santa Ana church will set up an altar in the middle of the street.
Altar of the Pérez Bautista family
This is another representative altar in the historic center and has been put up by the Pérez Bautista family for about 100 years. The altar originally used to be placed in a fountain at Relox 29, surrounded by flowers, candles, bitter oranges, sprouting wheat, and carpets made of colored sawdust, chamomile and papel picado (cut paper). The Virgin of Sorrows that the family has on the altar dates from the 16th century and was imported from Italy, as well as the Christ. These images are made of wood and plaster.
Each year a choir made up of children from the Oratorio of San Felipe Neri visits the main altars in Centro on the Friday of Sorrows to sing the cantos de pasión, which were written around 100 years ago by local composer José María Correa especially for Holy Week. One of those songs, “El Verbo Divino” relates to the path of Jesus Christ to Calvary. “El Verbo Divino is on his way to the pain, to the cruel sacrifice, he offers his love to you, and he walks tired in cruel torment, his steps are slow.”
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 calles 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.
The seven sorrows of the Virgin
1. When Mary presented Jesus at the temple and the priest Simeon 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
Main elements of the altar for Viernes de Dolores
The elements included on 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