The Sorrows Are Better with Popsicles
By Jesús Aguado
A sword cuts through the sorrowful mother’s heart and announces that her son Jesus Christ is dead. And the tears spilled by the Virgin, instead of being salty, were sweet.
In the city of San Miguel de Allende, as in the rest of Mexico, 94 percent of the population is Catholic, according to figures from the National Institute of Statistics. It is no surprise that on Viernes de Dolores (Friday of Sorrows), the most emblematic gates of the city are specially opened to show their gardens and their central fountains adorned with a mournful Virgin of Sorrows. The sweetest Virgin wears purple as a sign of mourning. The colorful altars set up in her honor are open to all those who want to share her pain but also to taste her tears that are collected in glasses in the shape of popsicles, ice cream, conserva—candy made from gourds—or just flavored fresh water.
The Showiest Altars
On Aldama 54, an altar is set up in a small chapel by the Pérez family. From the street though a window, people can see a recumbent and bloody Christ, crowned, and lying on a bed of flowers. Looking at him with tremendous pain is a sculpture of the Virgen Dolorosa. The Christ is also surrounded by images of the apostles as well as angels, and chamomile perfumes the air.
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.
Casa de los Soles
María Dolores Chávez lived on calle Loreto 19. She inherited a picture of the Virgin of Sorrows with a brass frame from her mother. Jorge Olalde says she always set up an altar at this house, 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 of setting up the altar, which includes a variety of Virgins (photos, painting, sculptures, and even old hotplates with images of the Virgin). The altar remains up from Friday, March 18, until Tuesday, March 22.
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 Jesus’s clothes. More than 4,000 people visit this altar every year, according to the Dobarganes family. On the Saturday after the 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 people to see it so they can understand that Holy Week in San Miguel is more than alcohol and discotheques, and so that tourists can also understand that San Miguel is a traditional city,” explained Doña Bárbara Dobarganes.
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 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 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 the 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.”
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 again be closed to traffic because Santa Ana church will set up an altar in the middle of the street. The centerpiece of the altar is a Virgin made of glass fiber by artist Hermes Arroyo. It is a Virgin made with pain “from the 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.
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 on the altar belong to Santa Ana Church, and during the rest of the year they are on the main altar.
The Traveler Virgin from Casa de Allende
The Virgin of Hope is one of the most spectacular images during the Friday of SorrowS. She stays at Casa de Allende from Friday, March 18 through March 22. In 2014, the image wore a white dress, like those of the old Spanish noble widows, and a black mantilla. In 2015 the virgin wore a red dress plus pearls and a blue cloak. This year, the virgin will wear a black silk dress.
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 the Calvary.
If you want to set up your own altar, these are the main elements:
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: Christ as Eucharistic bread
Ice cream, flavored water, and desserts made with squash: the Virgin’s sweet tears.
The Seven Sorrows of the Virgin
When Mary presented infant 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.”
Persecution ordered by Herod and the flight to Egypt to save baby Jesus.
Jesus lost in the temple for three days.
Mary encounters Jesus carrying his cross on the way to the Calvary.
Christ’s crucifixion and death.
Mary receiving the body of Jesus when he is taken down from the cross.