Two saints are particularly important to traditional farmers in Central Mexico. St. Isidore Labrador is a farmer himself; his feast day is May 15 and marks the date farmers should have their seeds in the ground as the rainy season starts.
Then St. Michael the Archangel takes over. He protects the growing crops and fights off the devil on behalf of the farmers. His feast day is today, marking the end of the growing season and the beginning of the harvest.
You’ll catch glimpses of observances for St. Michael in Central Mexico, if you know what to look for. St. Michael’s crosses made from the tiny, bright yellow pericón flower made their appearance this morning over doorways of homes, stores, and workshops. They are also on the front grills of cars, buses and trucks. You’ll see them all over Morelos, and in neighboring parts of the Mexico City, Guerrero, Puebla, and the State of Mexico.
In the countryside, farmers have tied pericón crosses to a tree or corn stalk at each corner of a their fields.
Rarely are they larger than 25 x 25 centimeters (10 x 10 inches).
It’s all part of the marvelous syncretism of a Christian holiday finding a place in ancient Mesoamerican traditions.
Look closely at the crosses and you’ll see that for the most part they are not Latin crosses. All four arms are equal in length. Anthropologists think that’s been their design since before the conquest and that they represent the four cardinal points.
A few days ago I was alerted to the approach of St. Michael’s Day not by the news but by a boy sitting at an intersection with yellow flowers on his lap. He was waiting for the light to change before walking from car to car selling the crosses he had made.
Last night, families took down last year’s cross — looking like brittle straw — and put up a new one with green stalks and bright yellow flowers. Last year’s cross was buried or burned according to each family’s custom.
St. Michael goes on his rounds blessing the places where there are crosses. Sometimes he comes across the devil, so he’ll use one of his crosses like a sword to fight him off.
One of the more unusual St. Michael’s Day observances is that of the Cofradía (brotherhood) of ‘weathermen’ in Xalatlaco in the State of Mexico. Today they go to Chalma, one of Mexico’s principal pilgrimage destinations, to return St. Michael’s weapon. They’ll leave the weapon in the care of the Lord of Chalma until next year’s rains begin.
Ramiro Gómez Arzapalo describes their pilgrimage in his book, “The Divine Among Humans.” On St. Michael’s Day “Xalatlaco’s meteorological specialists go to Chalma to ‘turn in the weapon’ with which they have worked and fought during the rainy season. They refer to it variously as if it is a mauser, a shotgun, or a whip with which to herd sheep.”
Gómez Arzapalo quotes the ‘weathermen,’ “We turn in the weapon and give thanks that we came out of this well. None of us were left without strength, or struck by lightning. The clouds obeyed us. Hail did not mistreat us, or our crops. The last of the needed rains have arrived … we have a good crop.”
It’s understandable that Xalatlaco has a special relationship with St. Michael. Its elevation ranges between 2,800 and 3,300 meters above sea level — that averages about 9,000 feet.
Not only is it high, the municipality of Xalatlaco straddles the continental divide and borders on both the Federal District and Morelos. Weather is harsh where the Pacific air meets the central highlands.
There are years in which Xalatlaco’s weathermen don’t have a good report to give to the Lord of Chalma. However, they probably wouldn’t let on to us if that were the case. The town would make it through. The people of Xalatlaco have developed a backup plan to farming.
Before dawn every morning a couple of hundred residents carrying large baskets — the size and shape of a baby’s bath — board buses for the trip to Mexico City. Xalatlacans are among the most famous producers and sellers of tacos de canasta (basket tacos).
Look for them outside Metro stations, bus terminals, hospitals, and government office buildings. Also known as tacos sudados (sweaty tacos) they are made of the agricultural products of the top of the mountain — corn, beans, potatoes, pork, lamb, eggs. Rice from the valley of Morelos is also an ingredient.
Tightly packed into the cloth-lined basket, they keep each other warm and sweaty — but tasty. The vendors know which corner of the basket contains each of the different combinations of taco they have for sale.
Keep these tacos in mind for a party or reception. You can order a whole basket — with price set per hundred tacos — and have it delivered. The salesperson will come back for the empty basket another day.