Father LaBrecque presides at marriage in Mexico

Editor’s Note: Father ‘Rick LaBrecque continues his account of a field trip among the people and places, the “roots” of many of the Mexican parishioners he serves in Conway and Loris.

The local train from Oaxaca brought me to Puebla early Thursday evening. The next 24 hours would be the only time on the trip when I would actually be alone before going to Solidaridad for a wedding.

Checking my guidebook, I took a chance on the Colonial Hotel, a somewhat faded grand hotel just off the zocolo (central plaza) of this proud colonial city. After a taxi ride from the station, I approached the front desk with my luggage, only to be told that the hotel was full.

However, I stood my ground and various hotel personnel conferred. I was suddenly registered in a top floor room with three double beds–all for about $30. I enjoyed a traditional dinner in the formal dining room and then took a late night stroll around the zocolo.

Friday morning was spent walking around this aristocratic city whose inhabitants consider it the crown jewel of Mexico’s colonial heritage. In the metropolitan cathedral, I had a friendly conversation with a group of touring Mexican high school students who were anxious to practice their English. By noon it was time for lunch and checkout from the Colonial.

My next stop was the rather grandiosely named “Colonia Santiago, Valle de Chalco, Solidaridad, Estado de Mexico.” Broken down into comparable terms, that’s “St. James Subdivision, Chalco Valley Community, Town of Solidaridad, Mexico State.” But don’t expect an idyllic community of recently constructed designer homes. The wedding would take place there.

For two years, until last November, Eduardo Rivera had lived and worked in the Conway area, mostly in construction, and had become a valued member of St. James’ Hispanic Community. He served as a lector, choir member and leader. He had left his wife and two children in Solidaridad to come to South Carolina, where he hoped to earn enough money to return home to purchase the small lot on which their little house stood, and hopefully have enough of a nest egg to establish himself on his return. Of course he would also need to survive here and regularly send money back to his family.

The Mexican Civil War earlier in this century had pitted, to put it simply, the pro-church against anti-church forces. The latter won and the newly implemented constitution was filled with provisions seeking to disenfranchise the church. The church was despoiled of property and not allowed to own anything in its name. Priests and religious could wear no public sign of their identity (e.g. clerical clothes, religious habits), could not vote, be employed as teachers, etc. Church schools could not operate officially. Also, clergy were no longer recognized as having any legal authority, including the right to witness marriages. As a result, couples were required to be married first in a civil ceremony, and then go to church for their sacramental wedding, which had no legal standing in itself. Although, especially since Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to Mexico, a number of these provisions have either been abrogated or fallen into benign disuse, however, the requirement to be married “under both laws” remains.

One result has been the frequent practice of couples waiting a good deal of time between court and church weddings. There are various reasons, but one is the desire to make the “real” wedding the event of a lifetime. Given the tremendous poverty of so many, that may result in a delay of years until the couple and their friends can afford the event. One custom that helps is the role of “padrinos,” literally “godparents,” for the wedding. There is no best man nor maid of honor. Instead, an older married couple is asked to serve as “padrinos de la velacion.” They, and the newlyweds, become lifelong “compadres,” and are advisors and trusted friends throughout the marriage. They are also responsible for expenses connected with the church. Neither bride nor groom’s parents have any financial responsibility for the wedding!

Although the bride and groom are primarily responsible for everything else, especially the reception, other friends serve as padrinos for music, food, and special features of a Mexican church wedding: arras, anillos, libro y rosario, cojin, flores, laso.

Eduardo and his wife, Hilaria, had been civilly wed for several years and had a daughter, Jasmine, and son, Diego. Now he was going home for the real sacramental wedding and celebration. He wanted me to officiate, and so, my Mexican field trip and their wedding, were scheduled to coincide.

The Riveras, like most of their peers, have no phone. I called their more prosperous neighbors across the street and Eduardo came running over to give me traveling instructions. I was to take the Estrella Roja (Red Star) Bus Line from Puebla’s enormous central bus station to El Puente Rojo (Red Bridge). Eduardo met me and abrazos were followed by his grabbing my bags and our setting off on a 20-minute walk. He has no car. We soon entered Colonia Santiago, trudging the untended dirt streets of a poor barrio.

Eventually, we arrived at the gate of the couple’s dream house and entered the dirt courtyard to find a beehive of activity. Wood and cinder blocks were in piles, a small cement mixer was working, two fattened pigs were in a lean-to, various food items were in preparation. The little home was being enlarged literally on the eve of the wedding — a separate little kitchen was under construction. Everything else was wedding preparation.

I was greeted warmly by the bride and family — just about everyone was a relative. A tasty lunch was served, and I was escorted to my lodgings in the comfortable home across the street. My hosts were Don Moises and Dona Lupe, who had a private room and indoor plumbing with hot water. As everyone was so feverishly occupied, I, with a cousin as escort, walked several blocks to Parroquia Santiago Apostol (St. James the Apostle Parish), where I found Padre Antonio attending to parishioners at his little desk just outside the sacristy. I thanked him for delegating me to witness the wedding and we went over some particulars. He told me that there would be four weddings Saturday, including one immediately before ours and another immediately afterward.

Back at the house, I witnessed the ongoing feverish activity to have the house ready and the feast prepared. The highlight (?) of the day was the slaughtering of the pigs to prepare them for slow-roasting throughout the night! After having been nurtured for months almost as members of the family, the pigs knew exactly what was coming when they were led from their pens. A pig is smarter than a lamb and can by no means be led quietly to slaughter. I retired relatively early as the rest of the party worked late into the night.

Saturday morning saw the night’s activity continuing at an even more intense pace. The wedding was scheduled at 4 p.m. Around 10 a.m., I wandered away to explore the barrio. Public services are almost non-existent. No roads are paved and many have big rocks and gullies. Unemployment is so high and wages for workers so low that one gets a graphic demonstration of what moves people to risk anything for a chance to earn something across the northern border.

Back at St. James, I walked in to find the church completely filled with about 200 children, roughly 6 to 12-years-old. A team was leading the weekly catechism lesson. Songs, cheers, lessons spoken and then repeated by the children, storytelling — it was a masterful melange of pedagogical praxis that wonderfully held the children’s attention.

I walked back to the house and found the block closed off to traffic. Carpenters were constructing — from scratch — a stage, on which the band would perform at the fiesta that evening. The kitchen was getting the finishing touches as the stove and refrigerator were moved in, the yard was being raked and picked up, and tables and chairs were being set up there and in the street. An enormous tent was covering a good deal of the block. The bride was off having her hair done and the groom was dressing.

I went to church around 3:30 p.m. and caught the end of the previous wedding. Guests of both couples began to mingle as one group left and the other entered. I vested and wandered around while things organized themselves. My secretary from Conway, Paula Loehr, arrived with her husband, children and another family of former parishioners now living in Mexico City. Paula had spent a month studying at a Cuernavaca Language School and the family had joined her for a week’s vacation before her return home. Besides, Paula and Tim were to be padrinos of the anillos at the wedding, as Eduardo had lodged with them during most of his time in Conway.

Shortly after 4 p.m. all was ready, and the long procession came down the aisle — Diego as ring-bearer, Jasmine as flower girl, the several couples of padrinos, and Eduardo and Hilaria, a most beautiful and elegant bride and groom. Mass was Mass and the sacramental ceremony came, of course, after the homily. Here Mexican custom intervened. The designated padrinos came forth and draped the couple with the “laso,” a rosary-like chain that binds them literally together, with obvious symbolism. Then vows were lovingly exchanged. The next padrinos brought forth the anillos (rings), which were exchanged in traditional fashion. Next were the padrinos of the “arras” (13 coins), which the groom places in the bride’s hands with words expressing his commitment to work hard to provide for the well-being of wife and family. She accepts them expressing her commitment to use well and providently all that he provides, book and rosary, bouquet and cushion are likewise presented and blessed and then the Mass resumes. The conclusion is the joyful march from altar to plaza in front of church where rice is thrown, fireworks are set off, and hugs and kisses are given all around.

Now it was time to go back for the reception — fiesta! Limousine? Not a chance. Newlyweds Hilaria and Eduardo led the procession through the streets to their humble home, now gloriously decorated and ready to host the joyful celebration into the night.