“I’m here. I’m free, and I can imagine anything. Everything is possible. I only raise my eyes and once again, I become the world.” ~Marion the Trapeze Artist, “Wings of Desire”
“I think that most people have that feeling and a kind of lostness... An incompleteness and the need for something beyond ourselves to make sense of things. “
In the days leading up to December 12th, millions will visit the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, “La Villa” in Mexico City. Even though a percentage of the visitors are there merely because of curiosity, the majority will be ‘peregrinos’, pilgrims arriving with an enduring faith and devotion. They will request miracles, express gratitude for prayers answered or simply pay homage to the patron saint of México, inspired by the compassion and blessings associated with La Virgen de Guadalupe.
My own pilgrimage happened in 1997. In many ways, it had begun four years earlier when my father had taken me to La Villa a few days before the twelfth. It was not my first December in Mexico City, but it was the first time I had witnessed crowds in the plaza focused on the preparations for Our Lady’s Feast Day. And it was a feast for the senses: flowers, fabrics, incense burning, the hammering of scaffolding under construction; with vendors selling food, beverages and ephemera.
As we entered the basilica, many people next to us entered on their knees. The ‘guadalupanas’, those devoted to La Virgen, had been traveling great distances for weeks, alone or in groups; often walking most of their journey, if not all of it. When we exited the plaza through the main gate, more could be seen arriving from the wide pilgrim’s path down the center of a one way, three mile avenue: the Calzada de Guadalupe.
When I arrived in Mexico City the summer of 1997, I had returned for three reasons: to spend time with my family, to learn how to navigate within the city and country that I loved without a chaperone and to find the gravesite of ‘Lita’ my abuelita, Emma. Soon after my arrival, I let my family know that I had made a ‘manda’, a vow, to walk the entire Calzada de Guadalupe to the Basilica every Monday that I was in the city. This raised a few eyebrows, but my cousin agreed to show me how to take public transit to the beginning of the Calzada, and walked with me for the next three Mondays. Two bus rides and a forty-five minute walk later, we would arrive. In a pew I meditated, while she prayed. We stopped for flan or esquites before taking the metro or a bus home. During our first walk she explained the meaning of the verb ‘aguantar’, which I had heard used often by family members. Meaning to bear or endure, she joked that even if I was capable of carrying her to the Basilica, I couldn’t bear it. In time, I would become very familiar with the word and learn what I could endure.
In the weeks that followed, there were opportunities to travel with family to various neighborhoods within Mexico City; as well as other cities and states. Wherever I was, my attention was focused on how to navigate streets, stations and situations; how to ask for help and where to find it. I became aware of ‘angels’ all around me. As my independence increased, I never forgot how quickly I could be in danger while out on my own. Being lost for very long wasn’t an option. But in many regards, I had actually felt lost for quite some time.
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue.”
To be in Mexico, I had sold most of my possessions and was considering the possibility of relocating there indefinitely. Disillusioned with the life I had created in California, going on a quest to find my abuelita’s grave and making a pilgrimage to La Villa seemed a good way to strengthen family ties, my spanish skills and a feeling of agency. But even as this was happening, I was acutely aware of how often I felt adrift. After climbing El Cerrito de Tepeyac and standing under one of the four archangels that looked over the city, I often quietly requested the ability to not only shift my perspective, but to understand the purpose of my life, and feel connected with something beyond my current experience.
By the time my visa expired, I had enjoyed time with my family and successfully learned how to travel easily within Mexico by myself. But I had not been able to locate Emma’s grave. I wanted to be there for Dia de Muertos, to honor her memory and bring closure to the questions I had been asking for as long as I could remember. Where had she been buried? And was she still there?
“When we are in the presence of a loss that cannot be fixed… we feel helpless and uncomfortable, and we have a tendency to run away; either emotionally or actually distance ourselves.”
My family seemed surprised when I returned in late October, attempting to complete my quest. They had been generous and accommodating; humoring my independent behavior, even as they disapproved of it. I was profoundly grateful for all they had done for me. And yet, I was frustrated by their inability to help me find my Lita’s grave; which was not found by, nor celebrated on November 2nd. Sensing that I was wearing out my welcome and knowing that I needed more than a few hours at the La Villa each week for clarity, I boarded a bus to Chiapas.
“May you be surrounded by friends and family, and if that’s not your lot, may the blessings find you in your solitude.”
It was four in the morning when the bus arrived in the town of Palenque. Apart from the yellow light of the bus station, the main street was dark; the moon setting behind the surrounding rainforest. I could have sat at the station until dawn but chose to walk toward a dim light in the distance. I had learned to trust dim lights, knowing that they became brighter when you approached them. For the next few weeks, I had many to choose from as I traveled through Chiapas and into Oaxaca. By the end of the journey, the hours of meditation, prayer and long, solitary walks equaled the tender connections with locals and fellow travelers. Being in contact with the triumphs and challenges of those I barely knew, allowed me to view my family and friends with fresh eyes and an open heart.
“Finding your community and then looking for your angels… I’ll think they’ll come and I think you’ll find them…”
Back in Mexico City, chatting with my Tía, I finally asked the questions that allowed her to remember the information I needed to locate and kneel at Lita’s grave. And three days later, on December 12th, I was awake before dawn to begin my pilgrimage to La Villa. Deciding to walk the eight mile distance to the beginning of the Calzada, I stopped at a corner for a tamal and cup of atole; purchasing flowers along the way. Nearly three hours later, I arrived and took a deep breath.
From my journal December 13th*: In June I knew that I would do it, though I didn’t really believe it until I placed my knees on the pavement, at the entrance of the Calzada. Moments I remember: This wonderful group of five women helping me cross my first street… they left and returned with safety pins, a bedspread torn in two pieces, folded several times; making me thick knee pads and promising to return later to help me… surrounded by a group of pilgrims, with a band and dancers, that sang and danced all around me… thinking that I’d like a stick to support myself as I inched forward… one appearing, the perfect size, standing straight up in a flowerbed… a police officer nearby handing it to me… people looking at me with fear, anger, joy, support, love… the jogger that jogged backwards for a while, looking me in the eyes shouting “Ánimo, Ánimo!”… Yonny and Socorro, returning to help me… using the bathroom in Vips with eyes staring at me, my dirty knee pads… interviewed by a television reporter... offered an orange, chocolates, ginger candy, water and gum by strangers…the anger I felt as I became weary, exhausted and could barely move forward… the beginning of euphoria on the block of the
yellow building… taking breaks, sitting on benches and crying…Yonny singing la Guadalupana…humming Amazing Grace and Tucanaso… laughing… feeling wretched... Socorro suggesting that I ask la Virgen to walk the rest for me and almost agreeing… the other women finding us near the end of the Calzada… the sight of the old basilica with clouds framing the cupolas… the beautiful whisper of the peppertree… Yolanda giving me back rubs… Paty’s silence… three drops of water falling on my forehead as I looked up to the sky… Aztec drummers in the distance… crawling with tears of joy toward the entrance of the Basilica as a mariachi band played… kissing the ground at the doorway… slowly standing and hugging those beautiful women… taking off my stained ‘knee pads’... seeing La Madre Sagrada and giving her the flowers I had brought for her…
My pilgrimage was complete. I had experienced miracles, and felt a deep gratitude for prayers answered not only that day but all the days of my life. Now a proud Guadalupana, I left La Villa with an enduring faith and devotion to something beyond myself.
In many ways this is a love letter to all of the angels that have appeared in my life when burdens have felt more than I could bear on my own. Whether or not I can see them, they’re a welcome and appreciated presence; their compassion and encouragement, a blessing.
“I’m here. I’m free, and I can imagine anything. Everything is possible. I only raise my eyes and once again, I become the world.”
*journal entry gently edited to improve narrative flow
Rebecca Zendejas has had a lifelong fascination with places of worship and the creation of sacred space within daily routines. Inspired by the celebrations of Samhain and Dias de los Muertos, in October of 2020 she created a Community Memorial Altar at Paradise Found. The public was invited to add the names of departed loved ones to the altar. In the years that have followed, it has become a beloved autumn ritual. As an artist and woodworker, Rebecca designs and creates one of a kind altars for the home, office and community spaces. She can be found on Instagram @zendohous or contacted by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.