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Tortugas Pilgrimage for la Virgen de Guadalupe

By Tom Lynch

Last updated on Friday, July 18, 2003

I'm awakened at 5 in the morning by the sound of gunfire.

No, it's not some gang bangers blasting away in the dark, nor even hunters harrying doves; it's something entirely different, my neighbors in nearby Tortugas pueblo beginning their dawn ceremony in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

According to the story, la Virgen de Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego in December of 1531 on Tepeyac Hill, outside of Mexico City.  The young Juan Diego, who had been known by his Nahuatl name Cuautlatohuac before his recent conversion to Catholicism, spoke no Spanish.  But La Virgen obliged by speaking to him in Nahuatl.

The meaning of this tale is widely debated.  In the official Catholic interpretation, La Virgen de Guadalupe is an apparition of the Virgin Mary come to welcome the indigenous people of the Americas into her holy, Catholic, and Apostolic fold.  Others, however, see her as an aspect of the Aztec goddess Tonantzin who has, perhaps, adopted this shrewd disguise as a means to survive the conquest.  Tepeyac, where she appeared to Juan Diego, was the site of an Aztec temple to Tonantzin that had been razed by Cortes.  La Virgen de Guadalupe requested that a shrine be built to her on that exact spot.

Chicana writer Gloria Anzaldua says that "Today, la Virgen de Guadalupe is the single most potent religious, political and cultural image of the Chicano/Mexicano.  She, like my race," Anzaldua continues, "is a synthesis of the old world and the new, of the religion and culture of the two races in our psyche, the conquerors and conquered."

La Virgen is as rich, as complex, and as contradictory as the history of Mexico and the American Southwest.  The conflicts and the uneasy synthesis Anzaldua alludes to, between la Virgen de Guadalupe as icon of the conquering Catholic Spaniards and la Virgen as indigenous goddess secretly sustaining her people through these trying centuries, is evident in the various events that comprise her celebration here in Tortugas, New Mexico.

Last night in Tortugas, the image of la Virgen was removed from la Capilla, the little chapel where she resides most of the year, and carried in a candlelight procession, accompanied by dancers, to the community center, la Casa del Pueblo.  Following a night in which she is honored by the dancers, she is being carried this dawn, actually in the darkness preceding dawn, in a processional to the church.  Two men with shotguns keep guard over her, blasting into the air every few minutes to ward away evil spirits.

These are the blasts that trouble my sleep.

Later in the morning, at 7:00, a pilgrimage will carry her image 4 miles to the top of Tortugas Mountain, also called "A" mountain due to the prominent "A" for the New Mexico State University Aggies that mars its face.

The most faithful have been up all night, but I snooze until 6:00.  After a quick breakfast and packing a lunch, I walk through my suburban neighborhood into Tortugas and find my way to la Casa del Pueblo to sign in for the pilgrimage.  The sky is dark with clouds, only a bit of deep purple pre-dawn sky shows through.  It is customary to pay a token fee when signing in, but I'd forgotten to bring my wallet.  Though I'm embarrassed - the dumb Gringo - I sign in and it's not really a problem. Next time I do this I'll make an extra large donation.

I stand in a gathering crowd outside in the chill air.  Over the distant Franklin Mountains the dawn sky grows an unbelievably brilliant orange as those leaden clouds turn molten.

Tortugas pueblo borders the suburban neighborhood where I've recently moved, on the southern edge of Las Cruces.  The pueblo was founded in 1852.  Its residents mingle the blood of Manso, Janos, Tompiro, Tiwa, Piro, Suma and various other indigenous cultures who had settled, some voluntarily, others by force, in the missions around El Paso in the 17th century.  While there, these tribal peoples intermarried with the Hispanic and Mexican people who had moved into these northern territories of New Spain.  In the mid 19th century, with southern New Mexico now under the control of the United States, and with the Apache raiders now kept at bay, some of these people moved north and settled adjacent to the new town of Las Cruces.

Compared to the other pueblos in New Mexico, Tortugas is little known. Indeed it is not a federally recognized Indian tribe.  The blending of the Indian cultures and their hispanicization at the missions has placed the Tortugans outside of the usual definitions of "Indians."  Regardless of official government sanction, however, Tortugas retains a culture quite distinct from that of its surrounding neighbors in Las Cruces.

And among the more obvious cultural distinctions is this 3-day ceremony, every Dec. 10-12, in commemoration of the Virgin of Guadalupe, conducted under the auspices of Los Indigenes de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe.

After a brief wait in the sunrise, and with minimal ceremony, we line up:  the women 2-by-2 on the left, and the men 2-by-2 on the right.  In front of each line stands a Capitan de la Guerra, holding a tall willow staff. Between the Capitans, a man carries an image of la Virgen.  Following her, and obedient to our Capitans, we pass down the street, Guadalupe Street, of course, and stand before the church, Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, of course.  The women enter first, then the men.  Singly or in small groups, each approaches an image of la Virgen beside the altar, kneels.  Some pray, some touch the image, then depart through a side door.

Outside, we line up again and walk to a dusty parking lot where our two lines, male and female, diverge into a large circle.  Less than 100 yards away, morning traffic roars by on Interstate 10.  The cacique, ceremonial leader of the pueblo, wafts ritual tobacco smoke into the air and blesses the 4 directions.  Hats are removed, heads bowed.  This blessing to the directions is a solemn, if not very Catholic, ceremony.  Switching between Spanish and English, he briefly explains the events of the day.  "We've been doing this here for 150 years," he reminds the crowd.

No one wears what we might think of as "native" dress.  A few of the women wear shawls adorned with the virgin.  Most of the folks, about 50 or 75 in all, are Hispano/Indio, but there are enough Gringos that I don't feel conspicuous.

We begin our pilgrimage along Stern Dr., the frontage road that parallels Interstate 10.  A passing truck honks from the freeway and I wonder if the driver knows what we're up to. I notice that the man in front of me wears a Pittsburgh Steelers cap. Then I notice that a statue of la Virgen, with a worried expression on her face, peers out of his backpack at me. She jostles up and down with his every step.

Most of the 4-mile walk is up Tortugas arroyo through an undeveloped section of the NMSU campus, past the football stadium and then along dirt roads to the base of the mountain.  The capitans keep a steady pace, and a few folks begin to lag.  This is not an easy stroll, and most of these pilgrims are not joggers nor the sort to spend time on the stairmaster at the gym.

At the base of the mountain we halt, then split up to find our own path to the summit.  By now the trails up Tortugas Peak are filled with people. Some walk the dirt road to the summit, but many climb the much steeper and rockier trails, pausing periodically to rest and admire the view.  Nearing the summit, I smell smoke and at the top find many small fires with groups of families and friends huddled around.  I would estimate there are roughly 1,000 people.  The mood is festive rather than somberly religious and all ages are present, including many teenagers who cluster together, banter, and ogle the opposite sex with, I fear, other than virginal thoughts on their mind.

The summit of Tortugas Peak encompasses 1-2 acres.  It's rocky with many low shrubs, lots of creosote bush and prickly pear, and a few tall yuccas. Between the observatory domes stand two altars with statues of la Virgen. Many people have brought candles to place before the statues, but the wind blows most of them out.  Some people kneel, cross themselves, pray with bowed heads.  A few weep.  Some people make this pilgrimage to thank la Virgen for the comfort and aid she has given them in time of need: to heal a loved one from disease, to overcome an addiction, to mend a wounded heart.  As a witness, I can only imagine the tragedies that compel this climb and draw these tears.  It feels intrusive to watch, so I move away.

As I begin to eat my lunch - a bagel, cheese, an apple - I note what a Gringo I am.  Most of the people around me are heating burritos, wrapped in foil, over their small fires.

At 11:00 the local bishop conducts a mass.  This seems to be the event most of the crowd has come for, and I sense some effort on the bishop's part to make it clear that this is a celebration of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, and not a festival for any other female religious figure with whom she might be confused.

Though festivities on the mountain continue until after dark, most people depart after mass.  I decide to leave too. On the way down the steep, rocky trail, I follow a woman hiking, not quite barefoot, but in socks.  I've heard some folks do the entire walk from Tortugas pueblo in bare feet, but this is the closest I've seen to that degree of religious ardor.

As I walk back down the arroyo towards home, a few sprinkles of rain fall. The forecast is for rain and a chance of snow overnight.

But the next morning, when I go out to get the paper, I see nothing but a cobalt blue sky overhead, not a cloud nor sign of the predicted snow.  At 10:30 we hear the shotguns at the pueblo, so Margaret and I and our two boys walk over to see the dances.  I carry the little one, Riley, in a backpack.  Cody rides his bike.

It's cold and windy, I guess one might say brisk, but there's a stunning light pouring down from that blue sky which casts across the ground the vivid shadows of the bare branches of chinaberry and mulberry.

Several groups of dancers participate in this celebration.  As we arrive, one group, los Indios, are dancing down Guadalupe Street toward the community dining hall, la Casa de Comida.  Beside the dancers are the two men with shotguns.  From a distance, my boys think the blasts are cool, but when we get closer, the blasts are almost painful; they startle us without warning and the boys' fright overcomes their fascination.

We move to watch another group of dancers a block away beside the church. This group is dancing the matachine.  Unlike yesterday, distinctive costuming is everywhere.  The dancers wear scarlet and crimson costumes, on the back of which shimmers the glittering gold, green, and blue image of la Virgen.  Those brilliant colors, under that amazing sky, is a stunning sight.  They dance a silent drama to a steady drumbeat.  A tiny girl, face veiled, is the focus of the dance.  A huge portrait of la Virgen stands at the east end of the dance plaza, behind her the A of Tortugas Mountain, behind that the ragged chain of the Organs, and beyond that the infinite blue of the sky.

Few folks stand out as tourists.  These dances are not performances for outsiders, they are a form of worship for the community.  Little publicity is given to these events, no effort is made to entice the presence of tourists, and no accomodation is made to cater to them.  On the other hand, everyone is friendly and we feel perfectly welcome.

In a short while, Cody, who's 7 and possesses a prodigious appetite, begins to whine that he's hungry.  We shush him a few times, then Margaret relents and walks him home.  We should have thought to bring some snacks. Riley's on my back enthralled by the spectacle before us, so we linger.  I point out the little girl in the dance to him, her face veiled. She can't be more than 3 years old, his age.  The other dancers nudge her to follow her steps, but her attention lapses and she wanders off among the shuffling feet and twirling colors.  Her meandering, a bit of chaos amid the orderliness of the dance, is accepted by the others, trusting, I imagine, that under the watchful eye of la Virgen her movements are guided by a higher force than choreography.

Soon the drums stop, the dancers relax, walk from the plaza, and this part of the celebration in honor of la Virgen de Guadalupe is over.  Other activities will continue into the night, but Riley and I head for home, our witness to these events ended for this year.

More information on Tortugas pueblo and on the Virgin of Guadalupe can be
found in the following sources:

Tortugas.  By Pat Beckett and Terry Corbett.  Available at Coas Books, 317 North Downtown Mall, Las Cruces, NM  88001
Goddess of the Americas: Writings on the Virgin of Guadalupe.  Ed. by Ana Castillo.  New York: Riverhead Books, 1999.
Barren, Wild, and Worthless: Living in the Chihuahuan Desert.  By Susan Tweit.  Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1995.
"The Aztec Goddess Tonantzin and the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe."

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