Our Lady of East Austin and the Downtown Aztecs
December 12th is the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe. You probably already knew that, but I had to learn the hard way. I woke up in the wee hours of the morning to the sound of horns and some soft drumming.
I decided to see what was amiss.
When I opened the front door, I saw a group of around 15 people holding flashlights, horns, small drums, and tambourines. They formed a slow procession that surrounded a man shuffling along the street on his knees, using a couple of yoga mats for cushioning. Once he had shuffled the length of one yoga mat, one of his buddies brought the rear yoga mat to the front.
I retreated back inside and groggily Googled "Austin parade knees dawn why." Eventually I learned that the Catholic church down the street has a large Mexican congregation, and that this morning marked the anniversary of the day the Virgin Mary appeared to an Aztec man on a hill in Mexico and told him she needed him to build her a church. This particularly Mexican version of the Virgin Mary came to be known as Our Lady of Guadalupe (OLG)®.
I returned to bed.
A few hours later, a much larger, noisier procession appeared. Most of the performers wore Aztec costumes. The musicians played wild Aztec jazz.
For the rest of the afternoon I saw people headed for the church, many of them carrying bouquets of flowers and pictures of OLG.
"EXCUSE ME! CAN I TAKE YOUR PHOTO?" I hollered at this mother-daughter duo as they scuttled to catch up with the rest of the parade.
In Austin, you can see evidence everywhere of the strong ties between the Aztec people and OLG.
On Cesar Chavez there is a popular business called Leal's Tires. According to Yelp, they quickly and efficiently patch tires.
Leal's owners pay tribute to the Aztecs and hot Aztec maidens with the murals on the sides of their building.
I'm not a fan of the body language on display here. Mostly because I'm not a fan of the fucking patriarchy, even if it puts on a feather headdress and disguises itself as a marginalized indigenous people.
On all fours? Really, Moctezuma?
I'm sure there's a lot about the Aztecs that we can all still appreciate. Stepped pyramids? Give em to me. Ritualized heart removal? Can't get enough.
But based on this one mural they seem like macho dicks.
Directly across the street you can visit a liquor store called East 1st Grocery. Emblazoned on the side of the building is Our Lady, looking on pityingly at the tire store Aztecs, as if to say "U think ur hot but ur not."
All of the stories of OLG that I read online seemed flat and colorless. In the mist of a sleep-deprived daydream, I suddenly remembered where I had first heard of her.
A certain little storytelling dog named Wishbone covered the legend of OLG in the mid 90s.
Wishbone played Juan Diego, the Aztec man that bumped into OLG on Tepeyac Hill. Tepeyac Hill is significant because it has served as the location of an Aztec temple before the Spanish smashed it to bits. OLG told Juan Diego that she needed a church in that same spot. She spoke to him in the Aztec language of Nahuatl, so Juan Diego would get that she was down with the cause.
According to the legend, Juan Diego was not a man qualified to build churches. As in so many Bible stories, Juan Diego was chosen specifically because of his unimpressive resume. OLG told him he needed him to convince the bishop to build a new church.
I know what you're thinking, Cynical Cindy. Why the middle man? Why did she not go directly to whoever's in charge of new churches?
They explain in the Wishbone episode that Juan Diego had to wait in the bishop's waiting room for an extended amount of time. Our Lady doesn't wait. But she doesn't butt in line, either.
Juan Diego was her only hope.
So he went to the bishop and waited almost all day in a smelly Spanish waiting room.
The bishop told Juan Diego that he needed to see something pretty darn out of the ordinary before he would sign off on the new church.
When Juan Diego saw OLG on Tepayac Hill for the second time, he told her about the bishop's request for her to get buck wild. "No problemo," she responded. All Juan Diego had to do was meet her the next day on top of a mountain.
But when Juan Diego returned home that evening, he found his uncle had become gravely ill.
In the Wishbone episode, Juan Diego's uncle is played by a human, something that barely registered with me when I was 7.
The next morning, instead of meeting Our Lady on the mountain top as he had promised, he went to go find a priest to give his uncle last rights.
Fearing that his uncle's imminent death wasn't a good enough reason for skipping their appointment, Juan Diego decided to go around Tepeyac Hill in order to avoid any awkward run-ins with the Virgin Mary.
She immediately popped out of nowhere to call him on his shit.
"You should have trusted me," she explained.
Juan Diego started to tell her about the whole thing with his uncle. Mary cut him off.
"Yeah, yeah, blah, blah, uncle, blah. C'mon, I've got something that will blow your mind."
Juan Diego obeyed.
"I guess I'll go fuck myself," Juan Diego's uncle muttered.
Even though it was winter, the mountaintop was covered in flowers.
"Flowers?" said Juan.
"Pretty good, right?" said Mary. "I mean, what could be more miraculous than something that isn't in season?"
There was a long pause.
"YOU LIKE MY MIRACLE FLOWERS, RIGHT?" she said.
"Yeah! Oh my god, yeah!" Juan Diego said, his voice suddenly squeaky and nervous.
OLG helped him gather the flowers in his tilma.
A tilma is a cloth made of cactus fiber, which they neglected to explain in the Wishbone episode.
"I'm 7, Google doesn't exist yet, and the Encyclopedia is all the way downstairs," I said at the time. "I guess I'll go fuck myself."
Juan Diego gathered the out-of-season flowers to bring to the bishop as proof that he had met with supernatural forces.
Little did Juan Diego know that ol' Blue Robe Betty had a few more tricks up her tilma.
When he unrolled his tilma to show the bishop the flowers, there was an image of the Virgin Mary right there on the cactus fibers, glaring reproachfully at Juan Diego.
And also Juan Diego's uncle got better. TA-DA!!
The bishop gave a curt nod of approval. Everyone dropped what they were doing (caring for the sick and needy) so they could build the Real Housewife of On High yet another house.
Here is the nearly 500-year-old church that still stands in a suburb of Mexico City.
So the next time a musical procession wakes you up at dawn, just remember: Many centuries ago somebody's uncle seemed like he might be about to eat it, but then didn't.
Go in peace.