Last Friday was the Friday of Sorrows, the day of the sorrows of the Blessed Virgin, and, though in the churches at the solemn high Masses celebrated, the people hid their faces in their rebozos and serapes and wept, in the early morning the day was celebrated as one of the most colorful fiestas of the year. Later, of course, there would be joy and happiness too.
The government, regarding the will of the people, makes holidays of these holy days. The period from the Friday of Sorrows through Easter is called the Spring Festival, and advertised in the newspapers and on billboards about the town as such. But the government does not succeed in making people disregard the religious significance of the days. The churches are full.
The fiesta begins at five in the morning at Santa Anita on the Viga Canal which goes from Xochimilco Lake into the city. Every morning boats bring into Mexico City vegetables and flowers, but this day booths were erected in the fields all along the canal for several miles, merry-go-rounds, dancing pavilions, ferris wheels and open air restaurants were set up, and business began at five.
It was very cold as we left our apartment in the city and drove out to Santa Anita, which is only a mile or so away from the centre of town. The city streets were deserted and we thought that no one was up yet. But when we got to Santa Anita there were literally thousands and thousands of people from the city, and the cobbled streets of the little puebla were so jammed with cars and trucks of people that it was impossible to move any further in the cab, so we got out to walk. As everyone else did, we bought wreaths of flowers and garlands to hang around our necks, made of gladiola blossoms of delicious colors. Then we sat down at a wayside restaurant for a breakfast of tamales, pancakes and coffee. The pancakes were impossible but the tamales were delicious and there were sweet ones for Teresa, so that her breakfast was just as good as though she had had sensible corn meal mush. Everyone else was eating mole (which is stewed turkey in a heavy spiced sauce), tamales made with chicken and chile, enchilades, tortillas, salads and beer. There was much dancing and riding on merry-go-rounds and ferris wheels—this at six o'clock in the morning!
One of the customs of the fiesta is to buy eggs that have been emptied, colored, filled with water and covered with heavy gilt paper pasted over the top, and to crash these on your companion's heads. The eggs are thrown, too, like confetti. Another thing everyone buys is a little wooden boat with a wax man and woman in national costume, surrounded by beautifully colored wax vegetables-the cabbages, cauliflowers, squashes, radishes and lettuce, very large in proportion to the figures. The radishes here are both small and large, the latter over a foot long and several inches thick. The men selling the little wooden boats, which are mounted on a stick, have them all stuck in one large radish and the effect is very gay. Everyone was carrying bunches of small radishes with their bouquets of flowers, and eating them as they walked along.
People of every class attend this fiesta at Santa Anita. There were the Indians from the surrounding pueblas, sitting along the canal and selling their wares, middle class Mexican families with their many children, charros on horseback, women with poblana dresses glittering with sequins, and many soldiers and officers with their girls. The richer (I do not like to say the better) class remained in their closed cars and looked out upon the scene.
One has a peculiar dissipated feeling after an early morning fiesta of this sort. Gaiety is more natural to us Anglo-Saxons in the evening. So it was with the proper subdued feeling that I assisted at the ten o'clock Mass in honor of Our Lady of Sorrows. The church was packed, so crowded that people were sitting on the foot of the altar rail, on every inch of the floor and on the steps of all the other altars around the church. I sat on the Gospel side of the altar of San Antonio, just where the feet of the priest had worn the carpet thin. Babies who were not yet able to crawl and were in no danger of rolling down the steps, were laid at the foot of the altar to kick blissfully throughout the long service.
That afternoon, Soledad, Teresa and I went to the country for the rest of the holiday. My little stone house in Xochimilco has a thatched roof, and geraniums, roses and cactus grow over the walls which bound my ten acres on two sides. On the other two sides there is the lagoon, where my funny flat-bottomed boat is tied to the bank. There is only one door and one window in the house so that it is dusky and cool and I must write outside with my typewriter propped up on a stone wall where melons and squashes are ripening in the sun.
We have finished our morning's work, or rather we have finished what we were allowed to do. As Soledad has an unfortunate habit of dropping half the dishes to the bottom of the lagoon, or breaking them by scrubbing them too vigorously, I wash the dishes while she cleans house. In the midst of it, Señora Torres, my landlady, came and took the escobeta out of my hand and refused to allow me to continue. "My pleasure," she kept insisting. It was my pleasure too, but she could not understand that. People hereabouts think it most scandalous that a stranger should do her own work. If she can afford to pay ten dollars a month for a house (three times what they consider it to be worth) and two fifty for a boat, surely she should have enough servants to do her work for her. So Señora Torres, who comes at seven every morning with the milk and eggs, sweeps out the patio, picks a bowl of flowers for me and insists on helping unless I hide the dishes until after she goes. When they are washed—they are of Mexican wear, the color of terra cotta, but shiny—they are hung on the outside wall of the house in the sun. Most people do their cooking, too, over a tin charcoal stove, but we are more luxurious and have an oil stove.
On our way to the plaza to do the day's marketing there is a little chapel of Santa Crucita, another of San Christobel and then the big parish church facing the market. We usually stop there for a moment and I watch with enjoyment Soledad's endeavor to teach Teresa to cross herself in the Mexican way. Here the large sign of the cross is made first, then traced on the forehead, the mouth and the breast; and then the large sign of the cross again. Sometimes this is repeated three times in honor of the Blessed Trinity, or of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. It looks, at first, a long and complicated process. At the end, one kisses one’s hand which has traced the sacred sign. The sign of the cross is the most natural gesture of these people. Religion is part of their life. It is not just of pious people I am writing. It is of the majority, 80 or 90 percent of the people in Mexico.
On Palm Sunday Soledad and I attended Mass at the parish church, which is as large as the church of St. Francis Xavier in New York. It was crowded to suffocation, the Mass was long and wearisome, and worst of all I had left my missal in the city and had only a tiny prayerbook which omitted the Epistle and Gospel of the day. Nevertheless, it was a tremendously uplifting and glorious spectacle, and my eyes were filled with tears of ten. All the people had palms. Not palms such as we have in New York, but palms braided and plaited and woven into crosses, little altars, long plumes and the semblance of stalks of flowers, and interwoven with flowers of every color and delicious odor. Most of the palms were six feet tall, so the church was like a field of wheat, blossoming with flowers, waving and stirring triumphantly. When the priests went up to the altar, the people raised their palms on high so that one could see only the palms and the dark, gleaming faces of the Mexicans, uplifted like the palms, radiant. It seemed impossible, but the procession was able to pass through the church to the rear, and out the side doors. Then after a long interval, while the organ played, the huge doors, fifteen feet high, opened, letting in a flood of sunlight. At the doors three life-sized figures of Christ, one crowned with thorns, one after His scourging, and one carrying His cross, a grim reminder of what was to come, met the incoming procession. I wondered, as the Mass went on, how these people could celebrate the Resurrection of Christ more gloriously than they did this day of His triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
I WROTE THE above at ten o'clock this Easter Monday morning and then the church bells began ringing so merrily and the firecrackers in the plaza, which had awakened us at dawn, became so noisy, that I had to venture out to see what the celebration was all about.
We had spent three hours on Good Friday in a sad gloomy church, and Easter Sunday we had attended the high Mass, which as I had expected, was nowhere near as glorious as that of Palm Sunday. And now it was Monday and the cobbled roads and paths across fields to the church were filled with gayly dressed Indians, children in pink and blue satin, the men in white cotton and linen colored blouses. All the seats in the church were taken and we had to find a place for ourselves on the floor as usual. In a few minutes, to gay and joyful music, the three priests came out in their white and gold robes, and showers of blossoms of all kinds began to float down through the church in steadily increasing density. The Mass was being said at the altar of the black Christ, blacker by far than any of the · Indians in the congregation. During the Gloria in Excelsis little Indian boys appeared at windows high up above the altars, looking like cherubs painted there, and came to lif e to hurl down handfuls of roses and poppies which fell softly before the altar. The steady storm of blossoms was coming from five other apertures in the domes of the church.
For once Teresa was perfectly happy to sit through the long service. She got directly beneath the falling blossoms at the back of the church and she and a little Indian boy swept the petals around them into piles and tossed blossoms at each other gleefully. The music was very gay. There were violins, violas and flutes beside the organ, and I strongly suspect grand opera music was being played. Through all the Mass petals of carnations, violets, roses and poppies and shreds of calla lilies came floating through the air, falling on everyone, until the flowers were so heaped up around us, that there was actually a wet sound of falling petals.
Sunday is a day in Xochimilco when every man, woman and child works, the women selling food and flowers, and the men and boys poling picnickers along the lagoons, and I wondered if this were the reason for the lavish celebration of Easter Monday. Coming out after Benediction, I tried to find out, asking in my Mexico City Spanish which is hard for these Indians to understand. One small boy said, "It is the feast of Christo Rey." Another said, "It is the Pascua." And a nice old Indian, who could not understand my questions about the black Christ, told me it was the Monday of Poppies and the feast of the Resurrection too.
[For more of Dorothy Day's writings from Commonweal, see our full collection.]