The Most Beautiful Virgins Cry Sweet Teardrops
By Jesús Aguado
Friday of Sorrows is a day of mourning but also of faith and tradition. It is the day when social classes are not as important because both poor and rich open the doors of their houses for visitors of all social strata and allow them to admire the spectacular altars that are placed to honor Virgin Mary—under her title of Our Lady of Sorrows—prior to the pain that she is about to live because of the passion of the Christ.
Tradition tells that the passion of Christ causes deep pain to Our Lady of Sorrows, that pain led her to shed tears. Since the Virgin’s tears of anguish should not fall on the ground, they are collected symbollically by the devotees and turned into ice cream, flavored fresh water, or popsicles that are given to the visitors by homeowners.
The roots of the tradition are unclear. San Miguel traditionalists, like Marisol Vidargas, state that the custom of setting up altars came from Europe to Mexico in the 16th century. It was not as it is nowadays. The altars were placed only in the interior of the churches. Later the tradition spread out from the religious venues and went into public plazas, fountains, buildings, and even to private homes. The late Don Félix Luna (RIP) once commented that in San Miguel, Our Lady of Sorrows was the patron saint of those who worked with fabrics. Those workers used to hold a showy celebration at the Chapel of the Seven Sorrows, situated on calle Piedras Chinas.
Conchita Bautista noted that the tradition of setting up religious altars was forgotten during the revolutionary times (1910-1920) and when it was restored, the Cristero War emerged (1929). Bautista highlights (with information from her ancestors) that it was not until 1940 that the political, economic, and social life returned to tranquility, and the traditions were recovered.
The traveler virgin from Casa de Allende
Alejandro Solea’s companion is Our Lady of Hope, a sculpture that he found at the family house at calle Correo 73 seven years ago. The connection between Solea and Our Lady of Sorrows started when he was three years old. At that age, he remembers, he attended the Holy Burial on Good Friday, and he was shocked when he saw the virgin´s image for the first time. There she was, wearing purple and black, with a sword piercing her heart, plus an incredible 12-meter cloak. Solea fell in love, not just with the religious image, but also with the music, the colors, and the perfumes of the procession. That is the reason why he started placing an altar at his home in honor of the virgin.
Later, when he found the Virgin of Hope at the family house, “there was a special connection; it was very singular,” says Solea. From that moment, he could not be apart from her. Solea was studying in Querétaro and at his apartment there was a special space for the virgin. “There was solitude, and I talked with her, and of course she talked to me in her own way,” notes Alejandro. Before the Friday of Sorrows, the house at Correo 73 was a shelter for the image. From there Our Lady of Sorrows was taken to Casa de Allende, and then it remained for five days on Correo before it finally went to Querétaro again with him.
The Virgin of Hope is one of the most spectacular images during Friday of Sorrows. She stays at Casa de Allende from Friday March 27 through 31. Last year, the image wore a white dress—like those of the old Spanish noble widows—and a black mantilla. This year the virgin will wear a red dress plus pearls and a blue cloak. This year, the image will participate in the revival of Procesión del Pésame (Procession of Condolences), which will be held on Saturday, April 4. The procession will leave from the temple of the Santa Escuela and will stroll through Correo, Corregidora, San Francisco, and the Plaza Principal, to end at the parish of St. Michael the Archangel. The virgin will wear a black silk dress.
The virgin of pain from Insurgentes
Traditionalist Toño Rayas started setting up altars in different churches like San Francisco and the Santa Escuela 20 years ago. Seven years ago, he was invited to participate in the altar of the church of Santa Ana on calle Insurgentes. Last year, the street was closed for the occasion, and the altar was placed in the middle of it, having as scenery the old architecture of the Oratorio. Marisol Vidargas, who is in charge of the altar, said that this year calle Insurgentes will be again closed to traffic because Santa Ana church will set up an altar in the middle of the street. The centerpiece of the altar was a virgin made of glass fiber by artist Hermes Arroyo. It is a virgin made with pain “from personal experiences of Hermes Arroyo,” comments Rayas. Regardless of the pain, the sweet teardrops are everywhere. The altar is set up at 4pm and stays open until 11pm.
Casa de los Soles
On calle Loreto 19 lived María Dolores Chávez. She inherited a picture of the Virgin of Sorrows with a brass frame from her mother. Jorge Olalde says she set up the altar at this house, which always had the doors open to everybody because she used to make tortillas and food for the priest from the Oratorio. Now the building is a hotel, but that is not an obstacle for Olalde, who keeps up the tradition, setting up the altar, which includes all kind of virgins (photos, painting, sculptures, even old hotplates with images of the virgin). The altar remains up from Friday, March 27, until Tuesday, April 31.
Dobarganes family altar
This is one of the showiest altars in the city. It is set up on 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 his robe. More than 4,000 people visit this altar, according to the Dobarganes family, every year. On the Saturday after Friday of Sorrows, a small altar remains inside the main gate of the house. “We place the images on a small altar because we work so hard every year to have a beautiful altar, and we want the people to see it so people can understand that Holy Week in San Miguel is more than alcohol and discotheques, and the tourists can also understand that San Miguel is a traditional city,” explained doña Bárbara Dobarganes.
The Association of Traditionalists of San Miguel de Allende has set up this altar 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 Santa Ana church, and during the rest of the year they are on the main altar.
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 on Reloj 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 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.”
Parish of St. Michael the Archangel
The virgin of this parish “is the most beautiful of San Miguel” says Luis Pantoja, in charge of setting up the altar at the main arch of the church. The decoration of this altar changes year by year, and religious music is featured from 7-9pm. The altar closes at 11pm.
The Seven Sorrows of the Virgin
1. 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 was ordered by Herod, and the flight to Egypt to save baby Jesus
3. Jesus was 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 takes place
6. Mary receives the body of Jesus when he is taken down from the cross
7. Jesus is buried.
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 the Virgin Mary feels when she discovers that her son has been condemned to death. These are the most common symbolic elements:
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.