Politics and Religion – Mexico City

Travellers are generally warned to steer well clear of crowds and political gatherings. Such places provide many opportunities for the pickpocket or bag-slasher to make off with your belongings. Worse, if a protest of rally turns really nasty, you are caught up in the midst of an angry mob. The South American riot police are not known for their subtle handling of such situations or their ability to distinguish the innocent bystander from the rabble rouser or trouble-maker.

It appears to be a peculiarity of mine that I will continually ignore such advice. And I am more likely to cross the street to find out exactly why people are standing there waving flags and banging drums, than I am to take steps to avoid the situation.

In my travels to date, I have encountered numerous forms of protest and political activism as a result of this habit. A group of workers laid off from a chocolate factory following a merger with Cadbury´s, a union of insurance workers demanding job protection during the credit crunch, families demanding justice for their children who disappeared during the times of dictatorships; plus a variety of political parties campaigning vigorously in the street – from neo Peronists in Buenos Aires to a crowd of female supporters of Evo Morales in Bolivia.

I even attended an impromptu kerbside meeting in a Washington DC neighbourhood held by a militant African American separatist church loosely associated with the Black Panthers who were asserting that Barack Obama was not black, while attributing all of their community´s troubles to the fact that people had turned their backs on Jehovah.

But in Mexico City, I was given no choice whether I became involved in the public gatherings or not. As I slowly emerged into the bright sunlight of the main square in Zocalo from the stuffy and overcrowded darkness of the subway, I heard the dull and repetitive sound of bells from above me. Not the clear and joyous clarion call of a wedding or celebration, but the over-powering heavy note that fell half way between a medieval funeral march and the deafening primeval drum beats in Tolkein´s Mines of Moria.

I immediately found myself almost at the foot of the cathedral bell tower, so that I had to turn my neck almost fully back to see the source of the sound. Narrowing my eyes against the glaring mid-day sun which flashed between the towers of the cathedral, I could make out several figures striking the bells with large hammers. All were wearing giant ear plugs to protect themselves from the noise they were inflicting on the populace beneath.

The crowd was pressed tightly together between the high wrought iron railings in front of the church on one side, and a large wooden hoarding board on the other, fencing off an area where a stage was being constructed in the square. Progress was slow, as people were trying to proceed in both directions. Usually in Latin America I was able to see well ahead of me over the crowds, but here my view was obstructed by several small flags and various multi-coloured parasols.

A few moments later, however, I could make out a golden cross standing out above the people in front of me. It was about 8 feet tall and further raised from the ground since it was sitting in the back of a large black pick up truck. The cross was enclosed between 4 white pillars and covered by a roof, giving the impression of a simple temple. This construction was also encircled at its base with white and yellow flowers.

My first thought was that perhaps this was another Don Bosco event – the famous Italian Catholic educator, whose corpse had been on a grand tour of the Americas for the last several months, whom I had caught up with twice while in Bolivia. Bit the absence of children at the event persuaded me that this was unlikely.

There were a couple of men standing in the back of the truck next to the cross. They both appeared to priests, dressed almost entirely in white, reciting a liturgy and placing their hands on the cross at various points in the ceremony. After a few minutes, the recitation stopped, the men bowed their heads in humility and the assembled crowd cheered.

The two men then made their way into the cathedral, flanked on either side by the crowd, while the vehicle carrying the cross was driven away and parked in a nearby side street so that the flowers could be removed.

As the mass of people began to disperse, I noticed several nuns and monks among them. I also saw a group of around 10 men and women dressed in the most striking costumes and headdressed. Most of these appeared to be brightly coloured birds or beasts, though one man had a mask and costume making him look very much like a skeleton. Despite the lack of familiar Christian symbolism, these people seemed to be an integral part of the celebration.

Though the ceremony had finished, I was unable to evade the crowds. Walking down the narrow Calle Brasil which ran past the left hand side of the cathedral square, I came upon a group of stalls half blocking the pavement, and numerous colourful posters laid out on the ground. These were mostly associated with workers and communist parties of Mexico. A man was also standing by the roadside with a megaphone addressing a small group that had gathered around him.

Turning back to the main square again, I realised that there were more political protest banners erected there, having been able to see them due to the crowd outside the cathedral earlier. The whole square seemed to be filled with wooden stalls and small tents, all covered in flags proclaimed some social injustice in the country. Largest of all was a giant white inflatable mushroom shaped object almost in the centre of the square, declaring that there must be a solution to world hunger.

The issues, causes and messages being promoted were numerous – though all on the left of the political spectrum. Freedom for the presses from state censorship, justice for imprisoned comrades, the need to take a stand against indifference, calls for everyone to join up in the struggle, the return of Mexico´s borders to those of 1847 before the war with the USA, the rights of the Apaches to own their own territory in Arizona, demands for general human rights to be respected, the need to go on hunger strikes to obtain fair pay for work, appeals to patriotic socialism to uphold the memories of those who had fought in the past, a just immigration system which did not treat asylum seekers as criminals or terrorists.

The groups represented were just as diverse: the Mexican communist and people´s workers party, the Garibaldi Movement, an electricians union, the Emilio Zapata Brigade, an umbrella group representing diverse associations across the barrios of Mexico City and a group called Committee 68.

A favourite target for all demonstrators was President Calderon. There were two life sized effigies of him on display. One showing him carrying a bottle in one hand and a fistful of dollars in the other. While the other depicted him in the khaki combat uniform of the USA, a bottle in his pocket and a swastika on his head. There could be no mistaking the message that he was seen as a drunkard, in league with the US and large commercial interests, and suspected of warlike and fascist tendencies.

Later in the evening, a small stage appeared at the back of the square where a small group sang and played guitars. Once the music had finished the remaining supporters marched through the streets around the centre of City, chanting, singing and handling out pamphlets outlining their grievances as they did so.

Although the protest was only schedules for one day, it was several days more before all the tents in stalls were removed. The weather was hot and progress was slow. However, the remaining demonstrators were all gathered together in a much smaller corner of the square. The central area was being prepared for the forthcoming football World Cup, where it seemed as though a giant screen was being erected for the populace to watch the game.

If I was mistaken in thinking that the protestors would only be in town for the day, I was also mistaken in thinking that the religious activities were also over. While touring the city, I discovered that the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadaloupe is in fact the most important religious site of pilgrimage for the Catholic Church in the Americas, and second only to the Vatican City in the world. Around 10 million people visit the site each year – approximately 2,800 per day.

The bus towards the basilica took us past a large group of pilgrims on their way to the site. The group was made up of men, women and children who marched purposefully and sang as they did so. Many of the women wore traditional red and black costumes, decorated with white braid across the front. They also wore golden crowns. Each separate group of pilgrims also carried a banner showing the crest of their local church.

The importance of the site is due to a miracle which is meant to have occurred in 1521, a few years after the Spanish Conquest. Over the course of several nights in December, a local Indian man claimed that he had seen a vision of the Virgin come to him. The Spaniards had refused to believe that one of the Indians could have been favoured by the Virgin in this way so they ignored him. On the following night, the Virgin appeared again and told the man to appear in the church on the next day and walk up to the front in front of all the priests.

The man did as he was instructed, and to the surprise of the priests and congregation, when he arrived there, an elaborate full length colour image of the Virgin appeared on the clothing he was wearing. The miracle was confirmed and churches and shrines were built on the sites where the other visions had appeared.

The original garment still survives with the image of the Virgin still intact upon it. Sceptical materials scientists from NASA recently came to investigate the clothing to ascertain how the coloration and design had got there. Their conclusion was that they were unable to say what had caused image to appear. But they could say for certain that the colours were not part of the original material, and that they had not been applied by any other material. The design hovered between somewhere between the two.

Such subtleties and scepticism were clearly far from the minds of the hundreds of visitors to the old and new churches on the site. Large parties of pilgrims arrived every few minutes – all under the watchful eyes of the police and armed guards at the entrance to the basilica site.

The complex was filled with people of all ages – including children and the very elderly. A couple were getting married on the day I was there – and a large congregation stood outside in the main courtyard. Souvenirs of the Virgin and Jesus of all kinds were for sale – and it was possible to view the original garment in the new church. To keep visitors moving swiftly by, a moving platform had been set up – and pilgrims did not so much walk past the relic as glide smoothly by.