The Mexicans

In preparation for next year’s Year of Mexico, I’m reading Patrick Oster’s The Mexicans: A Personal Portrait of a People (1989). Oster was a journalist stationed in Mexico City in the 1980s and the book is a collection of his columns, each one dealing with a different aspect of Mexican society, not all of them flattering (e.g., police corruption or journalistic cowardice). I was curious to read the chapter entitled “The Evangelista,” as it deals with an interest of mine:

There are those in San Juan Jaltepec who say that their village’s luck changed when they got a new patron saint. All villages in Mexico adopt a special saint who is supposed to watch over them. For centuries, the patron saint of San Juanito, as most call the tiny settlement, had been San Juan Bautista, or St. John the Baptist. But some time early in this century – no one seems to remember exactly when – there was a change. Things were going very badly for San Juanito. The village priest suggested a new patron saint might bring better luck. He proposed a switch to the Virgin of Candelaria.

The Virgin was known to bring good luck to children if they were brought before an image of her shortly after their birth. Sometimes she even performed miracles, it was said. Another village already had the Virgin as a patroness. But that was all right, the priest had said. her goodness was big enough for San Juanito, too.

To make the switch, the villagers bought a three-foot-high plaster statue of the Virgin. Her white countenance now looks down from the altar upon a sea of brown faces that worships her from the cold marble floor of the village church.

While the Virgin’s miraculous abilities seem to focus on infants, the story goes that if you ask her for something else – better crops, good health, a son – you might get that, too. But if you do, you have to offer some sacrifice in thanks on her feast day. February 2. Typically, people bring flowers, such as the red gladioli and yellow mums that festooned the altar that February night that I visited San Juanito’s church. But gifts of candles and homemade clothes for her statue are common, too.