The Pilgrimage

Each December, far flung and local devotees of the Virgin of Guadalupe come together in Tortugas Pueblo to scale Tortugas Mountain, an exercise of faith and gratitude.

 

NEED TO KNOW

Our Lady of Guadalupe Fiesta begins at 6:30 p.m. on December 10 and goes through 7 p.m. December 12. You can undertake the pilgrimage on your own (many do), but to walk as part of the ceremony, under the direction of the cacique and capitáns, you need to register between 6 and 6:45 a.m. on December 11 at the Casa del Pueblo. A donation is requested. If you intend to make the pilgrimage, dress warmly and in layers. It is usually quite cold in the morning and on the return trip.

The Village of Tortugas is located in southern Las Cruces. The Santuario is located at 3600 Paroquia St.; the Casa del Pueblo is located at 3600 Casa de Pueblo. For more information, contact David Fierro, Tortugas Spokesman. (575) 496-1693

Lodging

The Comfort Inn offers good value and easy access to the village. 1300 Avenida de Mesilla; (575) 527-1050; comfortinn.com

Dining

Old Mesilla offers a range of excellent choices. Two favorites are the Double Eagle Steak House (2355 Calle de Guadalupe; 575-523-6700; double-eagle-mesilla.com) and La Posta (2410 Calle de San Albino; 575-524-3524; laposta-de-mesilla.com). For coffee and a pastry, check out Café de Mesilla. 2051 Calle de Santiago; (575) 652-3019; cafedemesilla.com

THE SHOTGUN BLASTS FOLLOW ONE ANOTHER like voices in a round. It’s one of the first bitter-cold nights of the year, and there’s nothing—not the clear sky or the hard-packed dirt in this Tortugas courtyard—to muffle the sound. Everybody—families, clumps of teenagers, couples—flinches a little, even though they know the blasts are coming. Each shot echoes in response to prayer coming from the capilla (chapel), and as a warning to evil spirits. It’s the beginning of one of southern New Mexico’s most important and unheralded cultural events: Tortugas Pueblo’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Fiesta. The icy wind that first night is a far cry from the warm environs of Mexico City in 1531, where, according to tradition, la Virgen appeared on a mountain to the indigenous lad San Juan Diego, forming an influential connection between Catholicism and Native spirituality. But for the people waiting in front of the doors of the capilla, in the little village of Tortugas just outside Las Cruces, to celebrate that event and its implications, the warmth is evident in the care for one another, for the community, and for the tradition that has defined the Pueblo.

Held over three days—always December 10, 11, and 12—the Fiesta has followed the same basic schedule for the last hundred years, a point of pride for the Pueblo. From the ecstatic procession that begins the celebration, through the moments of contemplation and fortitude of vigil and pilgrimage up and down Tortugas Mountain, to the moments of transcendent dance and communal feasting, it’s a unique opportunity to experience the rich cultural blending of Native and Hispanic traditions that is exquisitely New Mexican.

Although the fiesta has never been about attracting visitors, and the fact that there’s very little of what might be called infrastructure to support them, the door is open. “Just come with an open heart,” say Laurence Jimenez, who is serving a term as the fiesta’s sponsor, the mayordomo. “All are welcome.” And almost everyone—from the formidable capitáns to the weathered abuelas—is happy to answer questions or point a visitor in the right direction. The result is a feeling that while you’re not exactly at home, the time spent at the fiesta—on the pilgrimage, watching the dances, and feasting with the community—will be intimate and unpretentious.

THE PROCESSION Singing soon joins the whisper of a violin. Low, almost a murmur, then rising as the Danzantes—the dancers—approach the doors of the small chapel, the song crystallizes into a hymn of adoration for the Virgin. Inside, her image stares placidly from the back wall as two lines of dancers approach and drop, two by two, to their knees. Each man murmurs a prayer before bestowing a kiss on the image, then making room for the next supplicant.

Mike Molinar, a fortysomething with an air of utter competence and strength that telegraphs his years in the Marine Corps as well as his role as Tortugas War Chief, clarifies the moment. “For me, this is the beginning, not just of the fiesta, but of another year of life for us. Taking la Virgen into the Casa del Pueblo—into the heart of the community—is an act of joy.”

The joyful procession, lit only by candles and a few torches, winds maybe 100 yards from one building to another, but the ceremony that accompanies it is a rushing river of color and sound. At its heart, la Virgen is held aloft, supported by the mayordomos and other community and religious leaders, under the watchful eyes of Molinar and his war captains.

The soundtrack ought to be cacophonous, but isn’t. Instead, the singing, the accompanying violin, and the timed shotgun blasts merge perfectly with the excited conversations and commentary of the community.

It is the Danzantes—dressed in crimson, green, yellow, and blue, shards of light reflecting from their cupiles (a headdress similar to a miter)—who offer the first hint of the powerful role dance will play in the fiesta. Arrayed in two lines as before, the dancers move in a constant gyre of light and sound, each pausing at la Virgen to bow before moving back into the stream.

By the time the Lady reaches the Casa del Pueblo—its entrance surrounded by locals and visitors alike—the tone changes. It is still celebratory, but now more somber. For many visitors, once her procession has passed into the building, and after the priest has offered the rosary—broadcast over loudspeakers to the crowd outside—the night has ended. Others will crowd inside, taking up three rows of benches, and spend the night in watchful vigil and joyful dance.

THE ASCENSION

Pilgrimages are often described as journeys into the self, into one’s own beliefs: a spiritual journey mirrored by a physical one. The pilgrimage to the top of Tortugas Mountain is a re-creation of Juan Diego’s journey to the hilltop outside Mexico City, from disbelief to belief, from darkness to light. For many, undertaking the pilgrimage is an act of faith supported by a manda or promesa—a promise that obligates the pilgrim to the pilgrimage in exchange for the beneficence of the holy.

“Many years ago in Mexico City, I saw folks crawling on their knees and dragging themselves up to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. That impressed me, and I’ve never forgotten the scene,” says Angie Tooley.

Seventy-three years old, trim, her shock of white hair shining in the sun, Tooley has lived near the Pueblo for many years but had never made the journey. “I’ve always had excuses: ‘It’s too cold,’ or ‘I’m tired,’ or ‘I don’t feel well.’ But I’ve always wanted to do it. This was the year.”

“If you are a devotee of the Virgin,” says Tortugas spokesperson David Fierro, “there are two places that are must-gos: Mexico City and here.” And so it’s no surprise that the number of people who participate in this fiesta can reach into the thousands.

For the 100 or so who choose to make the pilgrimage as part of the official group, the day begins with the pilgrims gathering in a wide circle around the cacique (the Pueblo’s leader) and the capitáns (ceremonial and ritual leaders). For many, the circle is a reunion; for others, it’s the first chance to meet, to literally stand shoulder to shoulder, with fellow travelers.

Dar el Camino, the ceremony of the road, gets under way just as the sun breaks the top of the Organ Mountains. Under the direction of the cacique, tobacco smoke is used to honor the four spirits of the North, South, East, and West, and through them to open the pilgrim’s road to the mountaintop.

Men and women walk in separate columns, with a “buddy”—a protective consideration for the trip. The camino itself is mostly a sandy arroyo, so the going, while not hard, is far from effortless. Priests and pilgrims recite the rosary, and occasionally a hymn rises into the warming air. Before too long, Tortugas Mountain rises in front of the pilgrims, and each must make a choice: which of the three trails to take to the top. All are steep, and all require fortitude. It’s the way of the pilgrimage.

Whether young or old, barefooted or swaddled in spandex and nylon, there’s a palpable sense of communion among the pilgrims that goes beyond the contemplative nature of the climb. For Angie Tooley, her heart pounding with a combination of exertion and determination, the hands reaching down for her and pulling her on make her ascent anything but solitary.

Pilgrims choose to undergo the hardship of climbing the mountain for many reasons. Often, it has to do with family, and for Tooley, it’s her husband. “With Jim free from cancer for six years, after all those trips to Mayo, I thought it was time to fulfill my manda and offer thanks.”

Paul Gonzales, a seriously intense guy who exudes a practiced calm, grew up in Tortugas but now helps run an international architectural-design firm in L.A. He’s making the trip to honor his father, who died 11 years ago. “This helps me feel closer to him. The pilgrimage was such an important part of his life, of our family. I want to continue it for him, to honor who he was and what this community meant.”

Pete Serna, in his late 50s, a close-cropped gray beard framing a face that’s seen a lot of outdoor work, makes his way slowly to the top, leaning heavily on his walking stick. He watches each step, but every once and a while he stops to turn around, his eyes tracing the contours of the valley. “Fifty years ago I almost died,” he says, talking about an accident he won’t elaborate on, “and I made a promise then that I would honor the Virgin, and thank her for my life. Every year since, I’ve come.”

The Arellano family—comprising six pilgrims, ranging in age from 11 to their mid-40s—struggles together up the southern trail, stopping every few minutes to let the stragglers catch up and to encourage one another. “My father made this climb for 50 years,” says Monica Arellano, a green knit cap pulled low to a pair of sunglasses against the morning glare, and a colorful scarf disappearing into her jacket, its zipper open a little to the still, cool air. “He can’t do it anymore, and so we come to do it, and to remember his efforts and his love of the Virgin.”

They’re joined at the top by hundreds of people. Some years, over a thousand make their way here. Many are in family groups, sitting on rocks or standing with hands in pockets, wood fires burning. A pleasant haze of yucca smoke hangs over everything.

“Some families have had the same spot on top of the mountain for generations,” Mike Molinar says, “and will often come up the day before to drop off wood.” Almost everyone brings something to eat: the casual and the first-timers, an apple and maybe a PB&J; the experienced, burritos, pots of beans, and chile.

Atop the mountain is a shrine to the Virgin, and priests stand off to the side, their black cassocks and purple stoles contrasting with the winter shades of the high desert. They hear confessions and bless the fulfillment of promesas and mandas.

Many pilgrims spend the entire day on the mountaintop. For many, it’s not only a time to commune with the holy, to give thanks, but also to eat, to spend time with family and friends, or to fashion the quiotes—walking sticks made from yucca stalks—that will ease their descent in near darkness at the end of the day.

As night rolls in over the valley, great bonfires burst into light in front of la Casa del Pueblo, four miles and a thousand feet below the mountaintop—beacons for the returning pilgrims. Answering bonfires on the mountain, carving a path through the darkness to the base, signal those back at the village that the return journey has begun.

For visitors and residents who didn’t stay the entire day on the mountain, this is a time to gather at la Casa del Pueblo courtyard, share stories, and try to stay warm as the desert bleeds warmth from the air. They waits for the lines of pilgrims to emerge from the dark.

And, almost suddenly, they do. They’re tired and wind-burned, but the firelight reveals broad smiles. They walk around the bonfire, then approach the doors of la Casa—locked at night against strangers.

Barred from entrance, the pilgrims take part in the ceremony called Los Abuelos (The Grandfathers) of the Pilgrimage. Like many of the events over the three days of the fiesta, this ritual approach to and denial of entry to la Casa has both religious and cultural explanations. “I remember my father yelling three times to announce our arrival,” Mike Molinar recounts. “Since we’ve been gone all day, we’re treated as special guests, as grandfathers, when we return. But we must ask permission to enter.”

David Fierro adds another layer of meaning—one that’s more universally familiar. “Mary and Joseph were denied repeatedly when they struggled to find a place for the night. Once the door opens, the celebration—here on the eve of the feast day—begins, as it did with the birth of Jesus.”

DANCES

By the time the church bells fill the silence of the village the next day, a crowd has gathered out front, awaiting the appearance of the new mayordomos and the beginning of the final day of celebration. This day of dancing and eating is often the only day visitors come to the Pueblo.

“The Virgin is our mother. We dance to honor her, we dance to honor our tradition,” says Molinar. The line between entertainment and sacred observance is a hard one for the uninitiated spectator to see; capitáns sometimes have to step in and chasten overeager photographers.

The Pueblo Dancers—the men dressed in red-fringed jacket and pants, their faces painted, the women in white capes with multicolored streamers cascading down their backs, feathers in their hair—perform the morning dance as the church empties into the courtyard. The day is under way with the ringing of bells and the sounds of rattle and drum.

Molinar, who danced for years, recalls that moment. “The drum is the beating heart of the Pueblo. To be that first dancer, to move to that drum, is a great honor.”

Next up are los Danzantes, whose cupiles reflect the morning sun, and whose red sashes and white aprons emblazoned with images of la Virgen offer a swirling cacophony of color. The clothing and story line of los Danzantes is similar to the two Matachines groups that have also come to dance: Azteca de Chichimeca and Azteca Guadalupana, each representing a clan of dancers that range across the American Southwest and into Mexico.

The fiesta is unique in the United States in that it brings together the two dominant styles of Matachines. And standing in the courtyard of the Santuario, buffeted by beating of the drums, the shouts filling the air, the sound of hundreds of feet hitting hard-packed dirt at the same time, you can see and feel the effect. To one side are the Aztec Chichimeca, their plains-style war bonnets undulating in rhythm with each shout and stomp. To the other, the Azteca Guadalupana, their cupiles swaying with each shoulder dip and clack of bow and arrow coming together.

And while the appearance of difference is striking, the Dance of the Moors and the Christians unites Native and Hispanic communities from northern New Mexico through South America. Both groups tell a story that goes back to the Reconquista—the expulsion from Spain of the Moors, in 1492—and was originally a tool of missionaries to demonstrate Christian righteousness. The bishop’s miter captured in the cupile, the palmas (a three-pronged sword representing the Trinity), and the iconography of the ceremony’s patroness offer a powerful testament to the enduring call of Catholicism.

At the center of it all, watching the Azteca Guadalupana, a river of color and sound surging in time with the voices of drum and dancer, stands a lone girl dressed in white, her dark hair hidden under a veil but shiny where it has escaped. She is Malinche—perhaps a representation of the Virgin, although she shares her name with the concubine of Hernán Cortés. Her job is to defend El Monarca (the king), resplendent in a high crown, from El Toro (the bull, representing the Devil). El Toro moves through the dancers, who step lightly or jump quickly, avoiding his torments and taunts. The abuelos (grandfathers, often with a slightly comedic edge) follow closely, encouraging the dancers to be strong.

As the dancers tighten the circle with each revolution around the axis of girl and bull, Malinche taunts El Toro, drawing him to her scarf and then whipping it away at the last moment. It’s like watching a bullfight. Finally, exhausted and confused, El Toro is captured by the abuelos and castrated.

Into this story is woven, as well, the moment of revelation and transcendence experienced by Juan Diego. That moment is the central event of the Fiesta, told over and over again throughout the day. Michael Pacheco, whose family has danced Matachines for generations, and who has attended the fiesta for every one of his 48 years, can’t imagine not dancing. “It doesn’t matter,” he says, “whether or not people come, this will never die. It is part of who we are. It’s our story.”

THE FEAST

After two days of spiritual sustenance, everyone seems ready for the corporal kind. And Tortugas is ready. The Pueblo’s greatest collective undertaking of the year is the feast that caps the fiesta’s final day.

Mayordomo Laurence Jimenez recalls the old days, when the mayordomo would simply invited celebrants into his house for dinner. Those days are long gone, he says, noting that for the previous month volunteers from the village and surrounding community have been working steadily on tasks such as preparing biscochitos and gathering, measuring, and preparing ingredients for the main dishes.

It’s when dawn breaks on the day of the pilgrimage that things really get going in the Casa de Comida. By the time the pilgrims have returned from the mountain, the 30 or 50 people who have been working in the kitchen all day are getting things cooking. And the sounds of the kitchens mix with those of celebration.

By late the next morning, a line—drawn by the unmistakably seductive smell of bread and chile and meat—begins to form at the Casa de Comida. These folk understand what’s about to happen: a full-on, sit-down meal for a thousand people. As it must, the line snakes around into a circle, and near noon, into that circle come dancers. And shortly, the singing and joyful movement give way to an unmistakably Catholic benediction.

Inside the Casa de Comida are long communal tables in five rows, each row 50 feet long. Even so, it will take a few hours to feed all those waiting outside. “There’s just so much food,” says Yolanda Betts, who came in from Fort Bliss, Texas, her eyes wide as she turns her head from side to side, staring down at the table. “And I love these,” she says, pointing to the star of the show: great metal bowls of albondigas, rich, seductive steam rising from the handiwork of three days of mixing, rolling, and cooking

To accompany these meatballs are shared bowls of sharply flavored chile stew familiar to all New Mexico travelers, perfectly al dente macaroni, beans dripping with spices and the fullness of lard, as well as never-ending baskets of bread. Everyone around the table eats with a broad smile, and frequent exclamations of how good everything is. And it is. The hosts bring around jugs of water and tea, and everyone has his or her fill before rising, slowly and full.

“But wait,” says one of the nice ladies at the dessert table by the door, piled high with those biscochitos, “won’t you have something sweet?”

Back outside, as we blink hard in the bright sun, the line only barely diminished, it’s not hard to understand David Fierro’s explanation of the importance of Tortuga Pueblo’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Fiesta: “We can, after this, face once again our ancestors. We’ve done our duty.”

Peter BG Shoemaker is a contributing writer to New Mexico Magazine.