San Miguel: Faith Is Culture
By Joseph Toone
The thinking that led to it escapes me, but when I was in Catholic high school the powers that be decided it was a good idea to host a fundraiser where the varsity basketball team played against the teaching staff, on mules. I recall these events as being well attended, as what adolescent wouldn’t pay to see a mule get the better of Sister Mary of Perpetual Pain, the obviously unstable fine arts teacher?
Here in San Miguel de Allende, the mule is firmly established in the culture (though not sports) and faith, largely due to the role the domesticated animal had in carrying pregnant Mary to Bethlehem. To most northern neighbors the impact of the mule is confined to the Christmas story and corresponding crèches.
Mary’s mule’s appeal started here in Colonial times when the Franciscans introduced the concept of live nativities in and around San Miguel, which was met with widespread appeal. Not only was the Christmas story now experiential but also between the shepherds, wise men, and manger animals nearly everyone (indigenous, Spanish, livestock) could play a part! This tradition continues today with the partial live nativity (starring mules) featured in the Jardín each holiday season.
Plus, the mule joins Mary and Joseph for the holiday posadas, reenactment processions of Mary and Joseph searching for an inn in which to give birth to Jesus. The impact on mules continues yearlong with Mules Day in June. Día de las Mulas is associated with pre-Hispanic rituals in which people gave thanks to deities through offerings. It is also believed that a mule knelt in reverence to God on the day of Corpus Christi (body and blood of Christ featuring local processions and altars), which is celebrated the same day.
To give or receive a toy mule is considered a friendly joke on Mules Day. With this tradition in mind, stalls line Plaza Civica for Mules Day selling hand-crafted mules and other toys. Also, street vendors in Centro often sell mules throughout the year.
As for nuns playing mule basketball, that became a relic strongly associated with the 1980s much like Rubik’s Cubes and Dynasty, particularly after animal rights activists got involved. As for Sister Mary of Perpetual Pain, she had a well-placed center of gravity and never once toppled off her sturdy mule. Her coif was knocked askew once, proving my older sisters wrong in that nuns did actually have hair. Coarse and short like a mule’s, but still, it was glimpse of actual hair and well worth the price of admission!
As the number-one-rated local tour guide on culture by TripAdvisor, I provide tours Thursdays and Fridays at 9am from the Oratorio church. To learn more about faith and culture in San Miguel, visit CatholicSMA.com; it benefits children’s library and art programs.