Friday of Sorrows: A Sweet San Miguel Tradition
By Jesús Aguado
San Miguel de Allende’s sweetest religious tradition is perhaps the celebration of the Virgin of Sorrows, when she is placed over altars perfumed with chamomile atop brightly colored sawdust carpets. Her altar itself is decorated with bitter oranges, sprouts of wheat, and purple papel picado (cut paper) banners.
The events previous to Holy Week already began with the arrival of the Lord of the Column on Sunday April 7, and they continue with Friday of Sorrows on April 12. On this holy day, the Virgin is about to suffer the seven sorrows of the passion and death of her son, the Christ. And so she is pampered.
Mary cries the sweetest tears for the loss of her beloved son, which Sanmiguelenses represent with aguas frescas in sweet fruit flavors, with sweet, often homemade popsicles, or even with ice cream. These are handed out free to people who come to see the displays of the Virgin of Sorrows set up in various homes in Centro that are opened up to the public on Friday evening. Many of the families who put out a statue and open their home have been repeating this tradition for decades, even generations. There are also public plazas and churches where one can see altars to the Virgin done by local traditionalists, locals who preserve San Miguel’s traditions.
The Must-See Altar
Annually, a colorful altar is set up at the Parroquia’s esplanade. Director of Culture and Traditions Paulina Cadena told Atención that this year there will be a monumental altar at the Plaza Cívica that will hold all the typical elements of this day, after an investigation by historian Graciela Cruz. The Virgin will remain there on display until Saturday, April 13.
According to Cadena, the traditionalist known as “Cheme”—Luis Demetrio Martínez—will work on an altar to be displayed on Mesones 73. In addition, empachos—a choir made up of children—will sing the chants of the Passion, written especially for Holy Week in San Miguel almost 100 years ago. This year, the Church of San Francisco will also open its doors on Mesones so that people can enjoy a better route while visiting the various altars set up in the area.
A Short Guide to the Friday of Sorrows Family 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 on her face is a statue of the Virgin of Sorrows. The Christ is also surrounded by images of the Apostles and angels. Chamomile perfumes the air around the display. This is a scene that the family changes annually.
Casa de los Soles
María Dolores Chávez lived at calle Loreto 19. She inherited a picture of the Virgin of Sorrows with a brass frame from her mother. Jorge Olalde says that she always set up an altar in her house because she used to make tortillas and food for the priest from the Oratorio. Now the building is a hotel, but Olalde keeps up the tradition of setting up the altar, a tradition which includes a variety of representations of the Virgin (photos, painting, sculptures, and even old hotplates with images of the Virgin).
Dobarganes Family Altar
This is one of the showiest altars in the city, at Correo 25. This altar is popular not only for its images dating from the eighteenth century but also for its large, colored sawdust carpet, which contains some images from the Passion of Christ like the cross and the hammer and nails used for the Crucifixion; the rooster that crowed before Peter’s denial of Christ; the crown of thorns; the hair shirt used to punish Christ; and the dice used by Roman soldiers to gamble over 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 their house’s main gate.
“We place the images on a small altar because we work so hard every year to have a beautiful altar, and we want people to see it so that they can understand that Holy Week in San Miguel is more than alcohol and discotheques, so that tourists can understand that San Miguel is a traditional city,” explained doña Bárbara Dobarganes.
Pérez Bautista Family Altar
This altar 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 and surrounded by flowers, candles, bitter oranges, sprouting wheat, carpets of colored sawdust, chamomile, and papel picado. The wood and plaster Virgin of Sorrows that the family displays on its altar dates to the sixteenth century and was imported from Italy, as was the Christ in the display.
Each year, a children’s choir from the Oratorio of San Felipe Neri visits the main altars in Centro on 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,” (“The Divine Word”) is about the path of Jesus Christ to his Crucifixion. The lyrics say, “The Divine Word is on his way to the pain, to the cruel sacrifice. He offers his love to you, and he walks tiredly in cruel torment. His steps are slow.”
The Virgin of Sorrows on Insurgentes
Traditionalist Toño Rayas started setting up altars in different churches like San Francisco and the Santa Escuela 21 years ago. Nine years ago, he was invited to participate in the setting up of the altar at 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 architecture of the Oratorio. 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,” says Rayas.
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 items on the altar belong to Santa Ana Church, and during the rest of the year they are on the main altar. This was not set up in 2017, and this year as we went to press, those in charge were not still sure if they were going to do so.
Fountains are also sometimes acting as altars in town. Families and traditionalists get together during this day and work hard to clean, maintain, and adorn public fountains on this day. An altar that has been set up for almost 200 years is the fountain at Golpe de Vista, on Prolongación Aldama. The traditionalist Titoy does the work on this fountain.
The Traveler Virgin from Casa de Allende
The Virgin of Hope is one of the most spectacular statues during the Friday of Sorrows. She wears showy dresses made by the artist Alejandro Soleá.
Elements of the Altars and Their Meanings
The main items displayed on an altar are always the Virgin of Sorrows and Christ. But there are also surrounding elements that 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:
Altar cloths and white flowers: Mary’s purity
Purple cloak: pain and penitence
Bitter oranges: the Virgin’s sorrow; these oranges are often painted gold to recall the joy of the resurrection of Christ
Fresh chamomile: representing humility (green) and beauty in body and soul (yellow)
Sprouting wheat: Christ as Eucharistic bread
Ice cream, aguas frescas, and desserts made with squash: the Virgin’s sweet tears.
What are the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin?
1. When Mary presented the infant Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem and 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. The persecution of newborn babies ordered by King Herod, and the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt to save the Baby Jesus.
3. Jesus is 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’s burial.
The Virgin of Sorrows Traditions Throughout San Miguel’s History
Religious tradition says that the Passion of the Christ produced in Mary a deep pain that made her weep. The ice cream, agua fresca, lollipops, and other goodies handed out on the Friday of Sorrows is a sweet way to represent Mary´s teardrops.
The truth is that nobody knows how or when the tradition began in San Miguel de Allende, but traditionalists like Marisol Vidargas say it was brought from Europe in the sixteenth century. The late traditionalist Felix Luna also wrote that locals working with cardboard and fabrics were faithful to the Virgin of Sorrows, and so since the beginning of the twentieth century they have held a fiesta at the Chapel of Seven Sorrows at calle Piedras Chinas.
There have been interruptions to these traditions throughout México’s history due to external circumstances. Conchita Bautista, who has set up an altar at the corner of Mesones and Relox for many years, previously told Atención that the tradition of placing a religious altar was forgotten during the 1910 Revolution, and then, when the tradition was about to re-emerge, it was buried again by the Cristero War in 1929, which led to the government banning the Catholic Church and forbidding public expression of Catholic rituals. Bautista said that her relatives have told her that the tradition was only recovered in San Miguel in early 1940, when the economic and political situation improved.