Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Cuicuilco's rise and tragedy

Just south of the National University campus is an overlooked archeological gem.  Have you visited Cuicuilco?  Probably not.  Yet Cuicuilco is where much of the history of human settlements in the Valley of Mexico begins and illustrates the great benefits and even the risks of living in Mexico City that may still apply today.  Located in the southeast quadrant of the intersection of Insurgentes and the Periferico in southern Mexico City, it is a stop on the Metrobus route and a marvelous large urban park. Despite easy access and free admission, the site draws very few visitors.

Its ancient location was both privileged and dangerous.  Cuicuilco was privileged with what may have been the best location within the most important valley of all of Mesoamerica.  The Valley of Mexico sports good volcanic soil and an abundance of fresh water, both in the lakes as well as from springs which flow year around from the volcanic ridge.  At 2,200 meters above sea level, free of tropical diseases and tropical vegetation, with a rainy season which comes like clockwork and is just long enough to grow a full harvest of their staple foods, farmers couldn't have even dreamed of a better valley in which to live.   Within that bountiful valley, Cuicuilco was in the best location--close to the springs and blessed with excellent soil and the most abundant rainfall in the valley.  Its farmers could, and did, increase their production by building islands in the shallow lake on which they could farm year around.  Soon Cuicuilco had neighbors on either side.  Picture the Valley of Mexico being inhabited from south to north as each new group settled on the next-best land along the shores of the lakes.  

But paradise may have had a price and Cuicuilco was in a dangerous location because sometime between 1,000 and 800 BC, Huehueteotl, the god of fire and volcanoes, became Cuicuilco's unwelcome neighbor.  He moved into small, flat topped Xitle and put out ash from time to time and even caused occasional earth tremors.  The ancients knew Huehueteotl could live in any volcano.  We can tell where he is living by seeing which volcano is active at any given time. In today’s world Huehueteotl lives in Popocatepetl.

People had seen volcanic eruptions, or if they hadn't seen one they certainly had heard about them.  That may have been what led the Cuicuilcans to get a small number of the village's inhabitants to agree to dedicate their whole life to figuring out what Huehueteotl wanted from them, when he wanted it, and how to deliver it.  In exchange for taking on that responsibility the rest of the villagers agreed to provide for the sustenance of what became one of Mesoamerica's earliest priest classes.  Cuicuilco was way ahead of its contemporaries in Central Mexico, creating a priest class at a time when most of the rest of Mesoamerica was still worshiping on a family basis.  The priests needed a temple and built Cuicuilco's pyramid, certainly the oldest in the valley, perhaps even oldest surviving pyramid mound in Mesoamerica.  Most Mesoamerican pyramids were built after 250 AD.

Cuicuilco's priests must have done a very good job keeping Huehueteotl happy. The city grew and flourished and by 150 BC was a major metropolis with a population estimated at between 20-30,000. Although never on the scale of today, the Valley of Mexico has always been a densely populated valley.  But something the priests did, or neglected to do, around 50 BC caused Huehueteotl to unleash his fury.  The sky filled with ash and lava flowed from Xitle.  Fortunately for the people of Cuicuilco, the lava flowed on the other side of the forested ridge at Cuicuilco's western boundary.  As it entered the lake, steam rose, fish died and the rising water temperature affected the aquatic agriculture throughout the valley.  Once lava filled the depression in the lake floor it turned towards Cuicuilco.  Inhabitants had no option other than pack up their last corn, bean, and chile harvest, grab some farming implements and kitchen utensils, and flee. 

To the north lay the lake, to the west lava flowed, to the south an erupting volcano -- the only escape route was east.   And not just far enough to get ahead of the lava flow -- their neighbors had already claimed that land.  In fact, all the best land was already inhabited.  If the Cuicuilcans wanted to stay in the Valley of Mexico they would have to go to the least desirable location. The once mighty Cuicuilcans became refugees and were forced to relocate in the very north of The Great Valley.  It would take them a while to get there but Cuicuilcans would be the founders of Teotihuacan.  Once there they made the best of a bad situation; Teotihuacan would become the greatest of the Mesoamerican empires.  But that's a story for another day.  

Only nine buildings are left at Cuicuilco.  To survive they had to be tall enough and strong enough to resist the pressure of the flowing lava.  Two are easily accessible in the archeological park. The others are scattered on neighboring private property (the National School of Anthropology, with great foresight, has backdoor access to the site.) The grandest structure is the main pyramid.  Very different from others you may visit in Mesoamerica, this one is round in its design and, with the exception of a central core of stone, is a mud and adobe structure.  The lower third was buried by lava; only the top emerges, soaring over the bleakness of the lava flow.  Picture it drawing more pilgrimages after the destruction of the city -- it had become the Miraculous Temple of Huehueteotl.  The temple that the god himself had intervened to rescue! 

Let's save an introduction to the pyramid itself, for next week. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Whats blooming in Cuernavaca this spring

“¿Donde vives?” 
“Ahhh, la ciudad de la eterna primavera.” 
Those of us living in Cuernavaca are frequent participants in this near-ritualized dialog.  
Indeed it does seem that Cuernavaca is almost singularly blessed with such a wide variety of flowering trees that it is always Spring. 

Malcolm Lowry, in his world-renowned Under the Volcano, reminds us that Cuernavaca is found at the same latitude as the southernmost tip of Hawaii.  Indeed many of the beautiful flowering trees of Hawaii and other tropical areas have found transplanted homes in Cuernavaca making the city a veritable feast for the eyes as varieties of trees bloom throughout the year.  

In Lowry’s day, as described in the opening chapter, most of these trees could be found on the sprawling grounds of the magnificent Casino de la Selva.  Sadly this forest was removed and paved to make way for one of Cuernavaca’s big box stores. Fortunately, Cuernavaca is home to Guardianes de los Arboles a non-profit organization providing some protection for the trees of Morelos.

This month the Jacaranda trees provide spectacular clouds of intense color against a cerulean sky and, as flowers begin to fall, reflective pools of deep blue purple below.  The Jacaranda, native to South America but present in Mexico for millennia, is a favorite;  Jacaranda seedpods were used as musical instruments in pre-Hispanic times and are still worn around the ankles and lower legs of Aztec dancers.  Another tree currently in flower is the Ipê (Tabebuia), better known in Mexico as the Primavera.  Mexican Primavera trees are found in shades of both yellow and pink.  The inner bark of the pink Ipê is used by the indigenous to make an herbal remedy tea to combat flu, colds, and as an expectorant for smoker’s cough and lung infections.

The Tabachin (Royal Ponciana or Flame Tree) is known for its thick clusters of orange-red flowers and a wide crown.  Originally from Madagascar, the Tabachin is now a favorite shade tree in tropical climates throughout the world.  Long narrow seedpods of the Tabachin are also used as musical instruments.  In the state of Guerrero pods are whimsically painted to resemble animals or other creatures.  The Tabachin is in full bloom during the month of May.

Not surprisingly the Flor de Mayo also blooms in May. Native to Mexico this fragrant tree is the popular Plumeria used in Hawaiian leis.  It is also know as Frangipani after the Italian family that first used this flower to make perfume. A relative of the Oleander the Flor de Mayo comes in many colors, is somewhat poisonous and easily propagated.

Another highly fragrant, though also toxic, tree is the Floripondio (Brugmansia or Angel’s Trumpets).  It blooms throughout the year and has a long trumpet-like yellow or white flower that is highly hallucinogenic. Gardens with blooming Floripondio perfume the night air.  A Mayan shaman told me that putting a sweet-scented white flower under my pillow would bring Technicolor dreams and that the dreams would come true.  I don’t have access to a Floripondio and can’t speak to the veracity of his claim. 

In the Fall the Tulipan (African Tulip Tree), is in full bloom.  The color is similar to the Tabachin but with much larger flowers.  Though gorgeous in full-bloom seed pods are full of thousands of tiny white transparent seeds.  When they open it can look like snow and the nearby ground (and swimming pools) are quickly covered with a film of seed. 

The somewhat scrubby looking Cazahuate is the state tree of Morelos.  When it blooms in December in can cover the landscape in an incredible white feast for the eyes. 
The Clavelin’s flower, in either pink or white, appears as a solid hanging bulb but instead of slowly opening, explodes, making a sound that could be confused for a gunshot.  This tree demands serious attention.  The Ceiba or Kapok tree, the Lluvia de Oro and the Arbol de las Orquideas  are other trees that make spectacular, flashy, appearances in Cuernavaca at various times in the year.

I hope readers will decide it’s worth a trip to see this display of color yourself and highly recommend a visit to the Museum of Traditional Medicine and Herbolarium (Jardín Botánico y Museo de Medicina Tradicional y Herbolaria,  Matamoros 14, Colonia Acapantzingo, Cuernavaca).  The museum is housed in a residence purchased by Emperor Maximilian for his lover, La India Bonita and the Botanical Gardens are home to many varieties of flowering trees. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Irishmen who died for Mexico

Thursday is the special day of Patrick, patron Saint of Ireland.  Thanks to a heroic band of Irishmen during the “Mexican-American War,” St. Patrick’s Day is deeply honored in Mexico.

The devastating Irish potato famine began in 1845.  By the tens of thousands, whole families boarded ships and sailed to the United States where they faced further mistreatment and discrimination.  Signs reading "Irish need not apply" were the courteous ones. There was a pressing need for young Irish immigrants to put bread on the table and then, as now, when jobs are hard to come by, an easy place for young able-bodied men to find a job is in the army.  Most of them Catholic, not yet citizens, they soon found themselves in the U.S. Army where discrimination against the Irish, and Catholics in general, was rampant.

Those of us who studied US history in elementary and high school should remember the details of the Mexican-American War (1846-48) but strangely this war with its closest neighbor is glossed over in U.S. history books.  Mexican school children asked what they think about the Mexican-American War may respond with a blank stare.  It's not that they haven't heard about it; it's that they know it as the North American Invasion. As recently as 1940 text books used in Mexican elementary schools showed the southwestern part of the USA as a shaded area, labeled "occupied territory".  Grandparents of today's school children may remember those books.  The maps were only changed when Mexico became an ally of the United States in World War II.

In the 1840’s Manifest Destiny became a somewhat vague, but self-proclaimed, United States right to claim all territory from the Atlantic to the Pacific.  Much of that land was under Mexican rule.  When the U.S. annexed Texas, Mexico broke relations and war ensued.   It was a highly controversial U.S. war of aggression and hotly objected to as a southern tactic to bring in more slave-holding territory.  

A number of generals who later made names for themselves in the U.S. Civil War had early military experience in Mexico -- not as generals or presidents, but as young captains and majors -- Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Robert E. Lee among them.  In his memoirs, President Grant wrote of the war as a massive land grab.  “Generally, the officers of the army were indifferent whether the annexation was consummated or not; but not so all of them. For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.”

At the war’s inception Irish Army conscripts arrived in Mexico and encountered an enemy of fellow Catholics carrying banners of the Virgin of Guadalupe.  Having no particular allegiance to the United States many deserted for the Mexican Army.  In return, Mexico promised them citizenship, land, and freedom to practice Catholicism.  

John Riley, a private in the U.S. Army, deserted to Mexico prior to the U.S. declaration of war and began to form what would become the San Patricio Battalion.  Ultimately the 175-200 members of the Battalion would be primarily Catholic but with members of many European countries as well as some escaped slaves.  Most of them knew there were only two possible outcomes, the death penalty for treason or Mexican victory.  In battle after battle they fought heroically, most famously at the Battle of Churusbusco (August 20, 1847). 

For Americans of the generation who fought the Mexican-American War, the San Patricios were considered traitors. For Mexicans of that generation, and generations to come, the San Patricios are heroes who came to the aid of fellow Catholics in need.

U.S. policy at the time was firing squad for treason or desertion during wartime. Hanging was reserved for spies and those who committed atrocities against civilians. Although 9000 soldiers deserted the Army during the Mexican-American War, in violation of the U.S. Articles of War, only the San Patricios were hung. At their mass hanging at Chapultepec Castle, the bound prisoners, awaiting the noose and in a last act of defiance, cheered the Mexican flag. 

Capt. John Riley, who had deserted before the Declaration of War, was spared a death sentence.  He and others received 50 lashes, were branded with a large D on their cheeks, and wore neck irons throughout the duration of the war. The Mexican government described the hangings and brandings as “cruel deaths and horrible torments, improper in a civilized age, ironic for a people who aspire to the title of illustrious and humane.”

Last year Ireland’s famous band The Chieftains released “San Patricio,” a CD dedicated to the San Patricio Battalion with a number of ballads (in Spanish and in English) commemorating their heroics.  It is available on iTunes.  

Names of members of the Battalion are posted on a plaque on the west side of San Jacinto Park in San Angel.  As there is every year, this Thursday there will be a commemorative event near the plaque in San Jacinto Park, across the street from the Saturday Bazaar (Bazar Sabado) building.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

In the tradition of Don Sergio

Bishop Sergio Mendez Arceo, known, affectionately, throughout the world, as Don Sergio, was as beloved by the people of Cuernavaca as he was scorned by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.  He would be 103 this year.  In 1959 he consecrated Cuernavaca's cathedral -- now world famous not because it was built during the time of Cortez nor because it's open chapel is the oldest Spanish building in the western hemisphere, but because of the man responsible for its consecration as a cathedral.  
Sergio Mendez Arceo put the diocese of Cuernavaca on the map and made a simple and plain cathedral the most visited spot in Morelos.  Never intended to be a cathedral the church of the Ascension of the Virgin Mary was the interim cathedral for many years; its walls covered with the usual niches and religious figures.  In preparation for its consecration as a cathedral Don Sergio ordered it stripped to the bare walls. He often said that without "clutter" the church could get down to the basics of what Christian life is all about in a simple and austere cathedral.  Don Sergio’s Cathedral’s elegance thus lies in simplicity,  reflecting the vision and philosophy of the man – the importance of Christ’s ministry to the poor and His message of social justice.  From his pulpit Don Sergio taught those values to overflow crowds each Sunday.  In his walk he lived them.  Depending upon one’s political point of view he became known as the “Bishop to the Poor” or “The Red Bishop.”   
Upon his death in 1992, as the community mourned, the Sergio Mendez Arceo Foundation was founded to continue his legacy.  Each year it awards a human rights prize to a Mexican individual and group recognized as continuing Don Sergio's work. 

Last Thursday the 2011 award winners were announced.  The group prize goes to The Defenders of the Rio Verde in Paso de la Reina, Oaxaca; Norma Librada Ledezma Ortega of Chihuahua receives the individual prize.  The awards ceremony will be on the Cathedral grounds, May 7th.  It will be preceded by a forum titled Challenges Faced by Contemporary Social Movements.  

Before voting for the award recipients this year, members of the jury heard an overview of Mexican human rights issues.  José Sotelo, a political analyst and collaborator of Don Sergio's, told us something that newspaper readers should enjoy hearing and many of us will find true. "Don Sergio said one of his ways of praying is reading the newspaper, 'because that is where I find the will of God -- what He wants me to do.  It is in the dailyness of our life where I, on a daily basis, find what I should do.'" 

Indeed, Don Sergio's homilies were like going to a class in current events.  I have no doubt that were he alive, his homily this week would have been about Javier Sicilia, a man on whose shoulders has descended a tragic burden and responsibility.  He has had the unnatural tragedy of burying his young assassinated son, Juan Francisco. While still mourning that loss, he has taken the leadership and responsibility which has descended onto his shoulders. 

A recipient of national literary awards as a poet, Javier is also a columnist in Proceso, Mexico’s prominent news weekly.  Some readers admire his skillful use of poetic language; others await his opinions of and explanations for social issues confronting Mexico.  I, and many others, read him for both.   His points of view are summed up in his signature last paragraph of each article or talk he gives -- it begins with "Además opino" followed by a listing of the causes in which he participates as an activist.  Like daily lists we make, causes are only removed when resolved.  Professor Sicilia speaks to young and old, rich and poor, the left and right.  He understands the several Mexicos and is a bridge between social classes.  

Javier Sicilia spent two hours Wednesday at Los Pinos with Felipe Calderon and was back in Morelos in time to lead the largest demonstration in Cuernavaca’s history.  Not afraid to speak truth to power, and with the ability to do so, Professor Sicilia reported that the most important thing Felipe Calderon said in their meeting "and this speaks well of him, is that he is in agreement with saying he has made mistakes, I don't know which ones he recognizes, . . . my interpretation is that he is repentant; not of combating, or of the war, but of the manner in which he did it -- the precipitation with which he did it," [Reforma, April 8, 2011, page 14].

Javier Sicilia's has the ingredients to be a new national movement, which can pull Mexico out of despair and give voice to the voiceless.  In addition to being a published poet, journalist, and social activist, he has a following as a university professor, a pacifist, and Catholic lay theologian (founder and director of Ixtus magazine).  He is bringing into the forefront that which is obvious, but not spoken about in public forums.  Drug addiction should be treated as a health issue just as alcohol and tobacco addiction, drug trafficking will not go away by decree, cartels must commit to a code of ethics, the government must treat prisoners in ways which respect their human rights; neither side should involve civil society in its struggles.  He questions why Mexico should be tearing itself apart to protect the USA from the scourge of drugs when the US will not restrict its demand, nor the flow of weapons to Mexico.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Aspiring to Inspire

Today, March 8, 2011, is the 100th celebration of International Women’s Day!  Its inception, in socialist European circles, was originally as International Working Women’s Day but has evolved throughout the world into a global celebration of women’s contributions to society.  Mexico has a close link with the current designation of the day, having hosted the United Nations' International Women's Year meetings in 1975.

In 1911 Mexico was in the beginning stages of a decade-long Revolution in which women played a critical role fighting beside the men as soldaderas, as well as serving as nurses, cooks, and clandestine messengers.  The individual stories of these women have been mostly lost but legend remains personified in the honorific rank of Las Adelitas.  Lucia St. Clair Robson’s excellent read, Last Train from Cuernavaca, is a mostly fictionalized story focusing on the varied roles of women in the Revolution.  

Nearly 100 years later, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador exposed a government plan to privatize petroleum interests and held a capacity crowd rally in Mexico City’s Zocalo.  AMLO asked the women in the crowd if they were willing to protect this valuable national resource from privatization.  The answer, a thundering “Si!”  With that “si” another generation of Adelitas was born.  

As I mentioned in my column at the time of Bishop Samuel Ruiz’ passing, I have the honor to serve on the Board of the Don Sergio Mendez Arceo National Human Rights Prize.  Beginning in 1993, a Jury has received candidate nominations for this coveted award in the area of human rights.  More than half of the winners have either been women or groups in which women have played important roles.  I’d like to use International Women's Day to give you a brief introduction to these women who have made major contributions to Mexico and to human rights. 

In 1993 Don Samuel Ruiz and indomitable Rosario Ibarra de Piedra shared the inaugural prize.  Ms. Ibarra’s son, political activist, Jesus Piedra Ibarra disappeared in April 1975.  With that began one mother’s fearless quest to hold the government accountable for those who disappeared or were killed by the government.  Ms. Ibarra, the first female presidential candidate in Mexico, has served several terms in the Mexican legislature, currently as a senator. 

Prominent actress, Ofelia Medina, won the 1995 prize for her work on behalf of the indigenous.  A strong supporter of the Zapatistas, Ms. Medina campaigned tirelessly for tolerance of cultural diversity and a change in the Mexican constitution allowing indigenous languages to have the same standing as Spanish.

Catholic Women for the Right to Choose won the 2002 Prize.  In a Catholic country with strict laws against choice this group of women courageously champions the rights of women to choose, AIDS/HIV education, the use of condoms, and the exposure of sexual molest within the church. 

The 2003 Prize went to another group of women, Mujeres por Mexico en Chihuahua -- born in the Mexican peso devaluation of 1994-95 and the enormous economic hardship it brought to the people.  By 2000 they had broadened their mission to include legislative transparency and social justice issues of crimes against women, eradication of poverty and violence.
Attorney Barbara Zamora Lopez was honored in 2005 for her body of work on behalf of the dispossessed, the falsely imprisoned, and her willingness to take a case and stay with it no matter how complicated or time consuming.  As a specialist in the area of land reform, Ms. Zamora formed the Bufete Juridico Tierra y Libertad civil association and since 1991 has provided legal counsel to peasants and indigenous people in the area of agriculture, human rights violations, and criminal defense.   
In 2006, courageous journalist Lydia Cacho Ribeiro was the recipient of the Don Sergio Human Right’s Prize.  Ms. Cacho was honored for a long body of written work on the behalf of women and child victims of sexual abuse. In addition to her writings Ms. Cacho founded a shelter in Cancun for terminally ill AIDS patients, was co-founder of both Estas Mujeres de Quintana Roo and The National Refuge Network for Female Victims of Family and Sexual Violence.    
Last year's winner (2010) was Sara Lopez Gonzalez.  Her background is in health care, which she has offered to the dispossessed in Chiapas, Nicaragua, and her native Campeche.  Searching for the causes of poverty led her to the Theology of Liberation.  In 2008 she was arrested for her activism in protest against the high cost of electricity.  An Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience, she received the Sergio Mendez Arceo National Human Rights Prize in her prison cell in Campeche.  She was released three months later. 
In 2011 one of the nominees for the prize is Las Mujeres de la Patrona, a group of women in Veracruz who have very little but for years have generously shared what they do have with Central American migrants passing through their town aboard La Bestia.  Each day they assemble and package beans, rice, and water in plastic bottles that can be grabbed by migrants on the passing freight train.  When asked why, their answer is invariably, “It is the right thing to do.”  Two weeks ago the Senate approved legislation guaranteeing safe passage for migrants -- the Chamber of Deputies' approval is necessary for it to become law.  Las Patronas are among those credited for this humanitarian change in the law.  What they have done goes beyond charity; they have shown solidarity with their brothers and sisters in the struggle for social justice. Whether they win this year's prize or not they deserve to join the pantheon of Mexico’s Adelitas.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Chalma calls forth its devotees

I haven’t been paying attention to the calendar and almost missed writing a timely story about one of my favorite places.  Everyone in Mexico, indeed many around the world, know about Mexico’s number one shrine, the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  Less known is its second most visited shrine, the Sanctuary of Chalma and the revered Señor de Chalma, a life-sized Christ figure.

16th century visiting Augustinian priests to the valley west of Cuernavaca were appalled to see Indigenous people worshiping the stone image of Ostoc Theotl (lord of the caves) in a cave smelling of decaying flesh and blood.  The priests decided to return with Christian symbols intending to convert the population to the “True Faith.”  Returning, a few weeks later with a Christian cross, they found Ostoc Theotl broken into a thousand pieces; miraculously replaced by Christ on the cross -- the cave emanated a floral aroma!  

The image is now in the beautifully, but starkly, decorated Augustinian church a hundred meters from the cave.  The Augustinians' early visits are described in huge painted canvases hanging in the sacristy.  St. Augustine's life is told on smaller canvases in the adjacent monastery.  If you know enough of the life of St. Augustine you can 'read' his story in the paintings.

Chalma is a festive pilgrimage destination.  A few kilometers uphill from Chalma, a spring emerges from the roots of a massive Ahuehuete tree where pilgrims purchase wreaths of flowers -- yes, you are a pilgrim.  Across the highway, violinists play so pilgrims can dance in front of the chapel on their way to Chalma.  The color of the flowers traditionally indicated the number of pilgrimages in which the wearer had participated -- that custom is now lost.  

Those that visit with a petition for the Lord of Chalma know that it is only granted if they get there under their own power -- walking or bicycling.  And the time to go is on, or just before, Ash Wednesday.  Mexicans also know that if something is truly impossible, it can't be achieved even if they dance at Chalma -- ni yendo a bailar a Chalma.  

Cuernavaca is the beginning of the 'narrow part of the funnel' for pilgrims from Puebla, Oaxaca, and beyond.  Chalmeros, walking single file, carry bundles with blankets and food.  Several in each group carry glass lanterns.  Many residents along the route put out tables with free offerings for the pilgrims; water, lemonade, perhaps hot chocolate and tamales.  

The walk over the mountains is a grueling 12-hour hike-- steep and sometimes hot.  Many prefer to tackle the ridge at night, hence the need for the glass lanterns and candles.  Pilgrims know to not complain --  rocks on the sides of the paths are previous pilgrims who complained.  They can be helped, by rolling them towards Chalma.  If they reach the church they'll turn back into people. 

The narrow road out of Cuernavaca is appropriately named Subida a Chalma. The street becomes a paved road over the ridge to Chalma.  Pilgrims sometimes walk the road, sometimes shortcuts on well-beaten trails.  Once the city is left behind there are no more houses with tables and free food, but there is no shortage of small entrepreneurs who set up puestos selling hot chocolate, coffee, tamales, tlacoyos, and gorditas.  Once the sun sets, the temperature drops; popular puestos have a bonfire to keep their owners and patrons warm.  

As they walk, pilgrims sing songs with dozens of verses -- verses sung by those that are going and verses, that are answers, sung by pilgrims on their way home. The flickering lights, going both directions, can probably be seen tonight on the trail over the mountains -- Ash Wednesday is a week from tomorrow.

I suggest you leave your car in one of the parking lots as you enter Chalma, on the edge of town.  Look for one on the right, near the cemetery.  A paved path runs between the parking lot and the cemetery; follow it downhill and turn right, through an unmarked narrow gate set in a long, high, wall -- the enormous white church will be visible below you.  That narrow walkway to the church -- bypassing most of the vendors -- leads through a tranquil, beautiful, very steep garden.  When the walkway forks, go right, to the cave, then rejoin the steep walkway and enter the atrio by way of the pilgrims' guest rooms.  Have your picture taken -- you'll leave your wreath behind, as you enter the church.  The Lord of Chalma will be straight ahead of you above the altar.  In the sacristy, to the left of the altar you'll find the huge canvases with a written description of the arrival of the first Augustinians and the apparition of the image of the Lord of Chalma.  Everyone, Catholic or not, is welcome to receive a blessing from a contemporary Augustinian priest.  Let him know where you've come from -- the farther the better -- if you're lucky he may assign a seminarian to accompany you into the choir loft; if not, keep going and wander through the ground floor of the adjacent monastery; following the life of St. Augustine in the paintings.  

If you enjoy crowds, go this week.  Otherwise go midweek any other week and take in the tranquility and beauty of a place that will transport you back in time.  

Upon leaving the church grounds and exiting the atrio through the gate facing the main entrance to the church, you'll be on a pedestrian street teeming with shops, vendors, and pilgrims.  Take the first left and it will lead you up to the highway; from there, uphill to your car.  

Chalma can easily be combined with a visit to Malinalco, just 9 kilometers away -- with its 16th century church and monastery, wonderful museum, and archeological site perched on the cliff overlooking the town and valley.