Report # 7 : Juquila

8 December 2014

A la bí, a la bá, a la bim, bum, ba,

Virgencita, Virgencita, rah, rah, rah.

And so it begins. Up at the Virgen de Juquila chapel at the mountain end of Calle Independencia, past where the street has gone from asphalt to concrete, from concrete to cement adoquinado blocks, and from adoquinado to dirt, where the dirt road fords a tumbling stream and becomes a track that climbs steeply into the mountain that rises another 1,400 meters—nearly a vertical mile—above Santa Cruz Etla. Another Virgin day.

Fifteen people, bundled in overcoats, down jackets, and ponchos, with scarves wrapped round their necks, and wool hats pulled down over their ears, sit on folding chairs. There must be 80 chairs in all, rented, probably, set up in rows on the dirt

facing the shrine, with three tables to one side. Most of those chairs are empty, but five on the concrete footbridge that crosses the stream hold people I know: Casiano, Claudia, Gabi, a couple of others. 

The bridge is in the sun, and it is December 8, the start of the winter season, and the temperature has dropped into the mid 40’s. Ten minutes ago a car pulled up and parked on the gravel and out stepped two guitars and an electric bass. Overcoats, no gloves. They set up their amplifiers, tuned their instruments, ran a sound check to make sure they had enough volume to rock a football stadium, and led us in what I presume is the traditional cheer: A la bí, a la bá . . .


Actually Juquila began weeks ago, or maybe centuries, or even millennia. Folks need their protective deities to stave off the incomprehensible forces of calamity. Big, impressive, all-powerful deities who rule the limitless heavens and are all but unapproachable by mere humans. And, more comfortably, local deities, who can be propitiated with time-honored ritual at neighborhood holy places. The Greeks, the Romans, the Hebrew Tribes of Genesis, the Berbers in their mountains and deserts, the Mayans in their jungles, they all had their hierarchies of protectors: big chiefs, captains, deputies; holy families with their joys and sorrows and intrigues. Just like us, but holy, and with powers. The Catholic missionaries who followed the conquistadors soon discovered that it was impossible to eradicate their cults, but it was a fairly simple matter to re-label them and welcome them under the comforting cloak of the Holy Mother Church. La Virgen de Guadalupe looks out for all of Mexico, but the Virgen de Juquila keeps her eye on the State of Oaxaca. Her feast day is December 8. La Virgen de Guadalupe’s is the 12th, but it is not celebrated much here in the south. It’s best to rely on the locals, the more local the better.


San Pablo Etla has a church. It is in front of the Municipio, down by the Mercadito. Masses are offered a couple of times every day. The Santa Cruz Etla agencia has a tiny church, in front of its Municipio, but it doesn’t seem to be used very much. And every neighborhood in the hilly sprawl that is San Pablo and its agencias has it’s own shrine to the Virgen de Juquila. And a Juquila shrinelet sits in a prominent corner of every house in town, at least the one’s I’ve visited (or into whose windows I have peeped).


Every local deity seems to have an origin myth, and under Catholicism they all seem to pattern in about the same way: there’s the prior cult, the coming of Truth, the validation by miracle, the spreading fame, the multiplication of miracles, and the fireworks. Juquila was a pre-European town in a fertile river valley halfway down to the Pacific coast in the midst of precipitous, heavily forested mountains. Fray Jordán de Santa Catalina founded the mission there in 1526 and then was called to another area. Before he left he gave his Indian assistant an image of the Virgin, carved in Spain, and told him to revere it as he had been taught. When the mission church burned, lo!, only the tiny statue was left unscathed. And so forth . . . Today the Juquila church is the major pilgrimage shrine in south-central Mexico, with thousands of pilgrims each year arriving on foot, on bicycles, or in caravans of cars and busses that have been tricked out for the occasion.



Santa Cruz’s Juquila santuario is at the edge of the mountain; San Pablo’s chapel is 50 meters below the border of San Pablo and Santa Cruz, which means that we can see it from the terrace of our casita.

Starting two weeks ago it got a major cleaning and refitting, repainted inside and out in a lovely glowing purple; yesterday it sprouted mountains of fresh flowers. Santa Cruz’s chapel, as I warm my bones in the sun on the footbridge, seems even lovelier. Claudia and Casiano Taboada, the people from whom we are buying our land, have encouraged me to be present and visible. Linda, alas, is in the States, tending to house stuff. Here I am the new man in town, and a gringo to boot. And even though at the moment I am bereft of Linda’s talent for bonding with people, this is a good opportunity for me to meet people and to project that gringos, despite the widespread stereotype, can be stand-innish as well as stand-offish.

The Juquila festival, just like a Jewish holiday, begins at sundown the previous night. And there the resemblance stops. Erev Juquila, like every Mexican saint’s day or holiday, is launched with fireworks, sustained by fireworks, and concluded with fireworks. The first rockets go off as the last orange fades and the full moon peeks over the mountain: whooosssshhh-bang! The sound reverberates from the surrounding hills. Whooosssshhh-bang! Bang! Brass bands—plural—, strike up in every neighborhood. Every school has one, and in every fifth house along the street lives the leader of one. I sometimes think that four out of five Mexican boys are given a trumpet at their baptism. The fifth gets a tuba. Girls get clarinets. Supple wrists and tin ears get drums. From our porch I can hear four brass bands blaring in differing tempos and keys.

I go to bed at 11:00. The bands are still oompahing and the rockets are still whooosssshhh-banging. The usual nighttime chorus of dogs is strangely silent. They don’t do well with rockets. The much-lamented Mica, in fact, used to go into a tremble that not even Linda’s wrapping her in a blanket and cuddling with her would quell. I wake up twice during the night—strange dreams—to the brassy sound of polkas.

At 5:15 Kalba, our lovely new black dog, wakes me with a lick on my hand. Kalba is Hebrew for female dog. The routine is that I roll out of bed, stagger to the door, open it, she sprints out to do what she has to do, comes back to the door, I let her in, and she lies down on her bed again until I have done what I have to do (it involves brushing teeth, making coffee, squeezing orange juice, putting on sunscreen ...). Then we go for a two-hour walk. Kalba’s been with us nearly two weeks now, and we both know the drill. This morning I open the door, start the percolator, go back to the door, and ... no Kalba. I put on a windbreaker and walk the terrain. Still no Kalba, though the gates are closed and I don’t see how she could have gotten out. I go inside for coffee. Maybe she’ll come back in a few minutes. 6:45, no Kalba. Maybe she’s walking our usual loop route. I walk it. No Kalba. 7:20, still too early to start calling around. I can’t drive anywhere: folding chairs in front of every neighborhood Juquila shrine have blocked the roads. I’ll try later.

I walk up to the Santa Cruz chapel, a little over a kilometer and 200-meters in altitude from our property. Across the fields I can see small processions working their way on the dirt roads from shrine to shrine. [PHTO 6]  I sit on the bridge, chat with the Taboadas and a number of old men. Casiano is on the organizing committee. He laughs when he tells me that they forgot to order paper plates and plastic cups, but at least they remem

bered the portapotties.

Claudia and Gabi shuttle to their house around the corner bringing Styrofoam cups of hot chocolate to the faithful, and passing out the dry, sugar-dusted puff buns that are a breakfast staple in Mexico. They’re best dipped. Several of us move to a table. The trio blasts us with up-tempo Virgin-centered songs. Between numbers I attempt conversation with some of the other folks at the table. One, named Orlando, is much better dressed than anyone else here at the chapel. I ask if he lives close by, and before he can answer, the trio launches into a popular love song. When they’ve finished, Orlando says that he lives downhill, in San Pablo, but that he owns a piece of property along the creek, and his father has insisted he put in an appearance. Orlando seems to be my age; his father is not present. One more song and my worry about Kalba and Orlando’s sense that he has met his obligation both kick in, and we bid our adioses, shaking hands and hugging all around as appropriate. I stop briefly by Claudia’s to say hello to Gabi’s kids, Renata and René junior.

From home I telephone Rebecca Raab. As expected, Kalba is asleep under Rebecca’s bed where it is safe and the thick walls of the house dampen the bangs! that follow the whoooshhhhes. Rebecca tells me that her dogs (probably a dozen, at the moment) are likewise cowering under various beds, so I shouldn’t think less of Kalba for her apparent cowardice. Just keep her inside for the holiday season and love on her a lot. We agree I’ll pick Kalba up this afternoon. Maybe the roads will be open by then.


The holiday season starts with Juquila and ends with Reyes, on January 6.


At 2:00 I am back at the santuario. Another trio, loud as the first but more melodic, is finishing its set. Six long folding tables have been set up in a row, the rental chairs arranged around them. A drunk old man with a white beard is shuffling to a music that only he can hear. His shirt is open to the waist. It is still cold: the wind has come up and I have zipped the windbreaker over my long-sleeved shirt. Maybe two-dozen people are sitting here and there talking. A man whom I don’t recognize greets me warmly, pulls me over to a drinks table, and offers me a mescal. I say no thanks and he offers me a beer. No thanks. He offers another brand of beer. I say I’d love to, but my doctors have forbidden it.

“It’s a holiday. A fiesta. Juquila. How can it hurt?”

I explain about the liver transplant. That not drinking is the price of being here. “Puedo tomar, o puedo estar.

He backs off.

A younger man, well into his cups, takes me by the arm, and in heavily accented pigeon English repeats the offer. I refuse, but compliment him on his English. Has he been in El Norte?

“Atlanta Georgia.”

He has to repeat it twice for me to catch it. “Dieciseis años, sixteen years. I do’ed sheengles.”


“You know, on roofs.”

I excuse myself and cross the footbridge to talk with Casiano and Claudia Taboada. Gradually their table fills. Gabi and her husband Benjamín and the two kids. Three of Claudia’s sisters. Two of Casiano’s brothers. I hear so much primo, tío, and cuñado (cousin, uncle, brother-in-law) that I quickly give up trying to keep them all straight. People stop by, I am introduced again and again. Casiano and Claudia get up and bustle about—they are on the organizing committee—so I take to introducing myself. A couple of people ask about the new dog they have seen walking with me in the mornings. Most of the people around me are drinking beer or mescal. I am surprised to see that the mescal is poured from bottles with labels, but then I get a close look at one and it’s a wine bottle. In the tradition of recycling. I drink Fresca, and then Claudia’s home made tepache, a fermented drink made from pineapple flesh and rind, sweetened with brown piloncillo sugar and cinnamon.

Two members of the committee set off a small armory of rockets from a metal rack about 5 meters uphill from the tables. Some of the kids clap their hands to their ears as they go boom!. The men tie a rope across the road, anchoring it to two trees, and hang from it a straw wheel with cane spokes. They light a fuse; it fizzles and goes out. They light it again, and before they can scamper away the wheel buzzes with fire, spins wildly, and begins spitting exploding firecrackers in every directions. No one is maimed, and calm descends.

About 3:00 food begins to appear, carried out on an assortment of trays from the house on the hill just above the chapel. Styrofoam cups of caldo, a tomato and chicken-based soup with a variety of vegetables and chopped chicken gizzards. Stacks of flour tortillas, the large Oaxaca-sized ones called tlayudas, good for dipping. More people come and go, the soup bowls come and go, the beer and mescal bottles appear and disappear, the kids run off to play in a field on the far side of the ford. Two new sets of Taboada in-laws arrive and are presented.


New Styrofoam bowls appear with spicy guacamole of the consistency of thick soup, a Oaxaca staple, and other bowls of a very pungent green sauce. Then plates (Styrofoam, of course) of barbequed goat accompanied by some sort of creamy corn mush, whose name I do not get. Each of us has a plastic spoon, left over from the caldo, but most folks tear off strips of goat, wrap them in tortillas, slather them with the sauces, dip them in the corn mush, and make them disappear. Gabi’s youngest, René junior, now a year and two months old, grabs handfuls from his mother’s plate and plasters them all over his face and hair and knitted cap. Some even go in his mouth.



Eating slows, even though some take seconds, or clean off half-finished plates. Despite the amount of beer and mescal that has been consumed, only two men are overtly drunk, but then they were both already plastered when I walked in at 2:00. Some folks leave. I start my goodbyes, and then out comes the desert, a blood pudding, set out on the Styrofoam in long black strips. It, too, quickly disappears, but not before I spear a small strip to taste. I am not sure I would order it at a restaurant if there were other choices available.


Pleading the need to go pick up Kalba, I say goodbye, walk down hill to where I have parked the car, and calculate a route to Rebecca’s. The paved roads are blocked with tables and bands and processions and tents. The best unpaved cut-across is under repair. I opt for the mountain road, and am sad to find that it has not been repaired since I struggled across it last year. But at 2 kph it proves passable.


Rebecca hears me pull in (since seven or eight dogs are barking in welcome) and brings out Kalba in her arms. I briefly relate my day and how degraded the mountain road has grown. Rebecca shakes her head.

“I am so sick and tired of Virgins!”

I put Kalba on the front seat of the car, and with her head on my lap find a slightly better crossing road to get me home.

As I write this, Kalba is sleeping on her blanket in the corner of the Casita. It is pitch dark outside, and the moon will not be out for another hour or so. The trails of rockets are faintly visible by starlight, and the brass band at the San Pablo Juquila chapel down the road is blasting out rancheros. This tuba player seems more competent than the one who was playing in the early afternoon, and their new drummer is terrific. From somewhere in the distance I catch a faint echo:


A la bí, a la bá, a la bim, bum, ba . . .