Mobile Classroom Part III – Guadalupe, at travel’s end

Editor’s Note: This is the final installment in which Father ‘Rick LaBrecque, the pastor of Conway and Loris, shares the experiences and lessons of his passage through the homeland of his Mexican parishioners.

We concluded the previous installment as we accompanied “newlyweds” Eduardo and Hilaria Rivera and guests through the humble streets of Colonia Santiago, walking several blocks from St. James Church to their home. All was in readiness for the reception, a fiesta for family, friends and the entire neighborhood.

In remarkably quick order all were seated at tables in the front yard under the large awning which covered the block outside their gate. The pork (carnitas), slow roasted all night, was served with tortillas, rice, refried beans, salads, home made salsas, etc.

On the stage at one end of the block a popular band from the capital began to play a mix of Mexican songs and current international popular music (American rock). A disc jockey operated from a platform at the opposite end. Young, old and in-between mingled, munched, danced and shared moments with bride and groom. I was served at the head table along with the couple and the major padrinos (godparents).

Traditional dances and customs, some mirroring typical wedding celebrations and others peculiarly Mexican, filled the night. At one point, a group of men took hold of the groom and, during some lively music, continually tossed him skyward. At another point, Eduardo was lassoed and led around by Hilaria, now fitted with pants, sombrero, cigar and the stereotypical trappings of a padron (boss). Somewhere approaching midnight, I said my goodnights and drifted into the joyful oblivion of a restful sleep.

Sunday morning was time to move on. Amid the typical tearful farewells and pleas to stay longer, I bade the happy couple farewell. Former parishioners Alberto and Neomi Espino drove me to Mexico City’s cavernous Central Bus Station — North, and soon I was en route to my next destination — Calvillo in the small state of Aguascalientes. It was a bus ride of several hours northward to the capital city, also called Aguascalientes (warm waters). Arriving after 9 p.m., I decided to spend the night in an ancient, but still respectable hotel near the main plaza.

The next morning, after a walking tour of this provincial capital, I hopped on a bus for the hour-long ride to Calvillo, a small city that is the center for the guava-growing countryside. Sadly, I saw abundant evidence of the destruction caused by more than two years’ drought, with dried-up trees all around. This is the type of tragedy that prompts so many to seek employment thousands of miles to the north.

After a phone call, my hosts, Don Jesus Velasco and his son, Don Pedro, had me warmly received at home and enjoying a delicious dinner. For three days I enjoyed the hospitality of family and friends of the many Loris parishioners who hail from Calvillo and the surrounding area. The highlight was a day-long excursion trip to the Sierra, the beautiful, but tragically parched, mountains which surround the city. We traveled in a large truck. At my hosts’ insistence, I rode in the cab along with the driver and an elderly woman. Everyone else, 15 to 20 people of all ages, endured almost two hours out back under the boiling sun.

We were welcomed by others who had gone ahead of us. Some family members have property with a small house and served a wonderful barbecue dinner. Barbecue in Aguascalientes means paper-thin beef strips marinated, seasoned and seared on a wood fire, served with tortillas, sauces and all the typical accompanying dishes. We enjoyed the views and woods, and concluded the day with a beautiful Mass under spreading shade trees (preceded by Confessions in the same spot). A tired but happy crew made the descent in late afternoon, hoping the next visit would be after the long-prayed-for rains. Visits were also made to some of the out-lying villages which are hometowns to many parishioners. There, as always, hospitality was overwhelming and it was striking to see the struggle to eke out a living tending animals and trying to cultivate a few crops.

Wednesday I was back on the bus, heading further north to Colima, capital city of the even smaller state of he same name, best known for the Pacific resort city of Manzanillo. My destination, however, was a small “colonia” just outside Colima City, from which an amazing number of Conway parishioners hail. This includes Juan Moreno and Jose Montoy, who were among the small group of collaborators with whom the Hispanic community of St. James was begun in May of 1995. What a surprise on my arrival to find Juan and Jose to greet me. They had made an emergency trip home for the funeral of a cousin who had been raised with them like a brother.

Colima was really another experience of visiting welcoming families, observing the economic plight of just about everybody, being treated like royalty, and seeing beautiful sights. The brothers’ mother, Maria, as well as Jose’s mother-in-law, provided hospitality no four-star hotel could ever equal. Archeological digs of indigenous sites, mountaintop shrines and vistas, and the colonial capital were among the impressive sights.

Thursday was time to return to Mexico City, an all-day “express” bus voyage. This time, I was welcomed by the Espino family, who were also hosting my secretary, Paula Loehr, her husband Tim, and children, Michael and Justin. Both are teachers, but had spent time doing menial work in South Carolina because of the economic advantages it offered. We had a pleasant reunion.

I had definitely saved the best wine till the last. Thursday was dedicated to La Villa, Tepeyac — the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I had been there several times before, when studying at language school and on subsequent visits to Mexico. Nonetheless, it moves, inspires and invigorates me more with every visit. The once-remote hilltop where the Blessed Virgin appeared to Juan Diego in 1521 is now surrounded by urban sprawl, but the sanctuary grounds retain the feel of a sacred site.

The vast plaza is always filled with pilgrims of every stripe. Most moving are the country folk who sometimes have walked for days and now approach their goal on their knees. Inside the modern basilica, where I was privileged to concelebrate Consecration Mass in 1976, the focus above the main altar is the amazing miraculous image of the Virgin Mary., After all these centuries the image is still perfectly preserved where she placed it on Juan Diego’s homespun tilma (cloak). An amazing system of subterranean ramps allows pilgrims to pass and pause in front of the image at all times and feel a mother’s never-ending love and care. The strength of the unwavering faith of the Mexican people is somehow comprehended here.

Just as moving is the ascent of Tepeyac Hill to the little chapel on the site of the miraculous roses, as well as the other chapels, devotional monuments, museum, Juan Diego’s hermitage, and gardens. A few hours in LaVilla is akin to a full-week’s retreat. I prayed for family, friends, parishioners, and the children of the Virgin of Guadalupe far and wide. If you have never been there, put it on your list of “must do” experiences.

On the last day — Friday, we saw the Loehrs off in the morning and then the Espinos took me for a couple of hours to Buena Prensa, the retail outlet of Mexico’s principal Catholic publisher. I was able to stock up on devotional, liturgical and catechetical material which is hard to come by at home. In the afternoon, it was one last grateful goodbye and flights to Atlanta and Charleston, where parishioners were waiting to drive me home.

How much I had learned, how much I had been given, how much to be thankful for. I will end this series with a few random snapshots and reflections:

— Early in the morning, on Mexican TV’s equivalent of “Today” or “Good Morning, America:” along with news headlines, weather, sports — the day’s saints from the Roman Martyrology!

— The tremendous importance of godparents in Mexican Catholic society. They are part of every sacrament of the living, and events are often delayed until just the right padrinos can be found. Ever after, they are addressed as “compadre” or “comadre,” rich relational expressions for which there is no English equivalent.

— The genuine love the people have for the clergy and religious. It brings out the best in you, feeling so unworthy of such unconditional love.

— The importance of watershed events like sacraments, and the work and expense that are put into making them joyful moments to treasure always in a generally difficult life. One culture might be tempted to consider some of these priorities as skewed, but in the context one understands or feels what is right.

— The powerlessness of most people in a society where all wealth is concentrated in the hands of the very few.

— The indomitable spirit of the poor and the important role that true religion plays in giving meaning to difficult lives.

— The seemingly-overwhelming task of Mexican priests in trying to serve such a tremendous population of the poor, yet the ever-increasing role of competent, dedicated laity along with women and men religious. A corollary: how much can really be done with next to no financial resources.

— Family is number one and the sustaining force in life, and it is all-embracing: multiple generations, siblings and families, cousins to the “‘nth” degree, and dogs, cats, cows, chickens, goats and pigs and …!

Is travel the best classroom? Often, I am convinced, and this field trip was a learning experience which will serve me for the rest of my life.