#8: Virgen de Guadalupe and Posadas

#7: Virgen de Guadalupe and Posadas


14 December 2018

I guess Advent season just means that every year, you're going to get a kind-of political, kind-of Marian letter from me, something as surprising to me as it is to anyone.

In Mexico, there's this tradition of "La Posada." Every night for the nine nights before Christmas, a couple, dressed up like Mary and Joseph, knock on the door of a house and ask for shelter. They're usually surrounded by half the town or the family or whatever, all holding candles, but for the purposes of dramatic tension, it's supposed to be just Mary and Joseph.

Houses in Mexico aren't necessarily like houses in the U.S.--there's no front walkway or driveway to walk up, no front porch to stand on. Instead, at least in the middle class and wealthier neighborhoods where my family lives they're built more like compounds: 8-foot whitewashed concrete walls with inset steel doors line the sidewalk, sometimes there's a vestibule before you come into the garden, enclosed in the walls, and the house within that. So it's in front of these imposing walls that the couple stands, asking for shelter, and because it's Christmas, there's a song. (I tried to find a recording, but all of them had the tinny sound of Christmas music, and it's not quite right unless it's your mom and your dad and your nine cousins and some of their neighbors and your grandmother singing it anyways.)

First, Joseph asks the homeowner if there's a place to stay, and the homeowner (someone's uncle, who takes pride in his baritone especially on this day of the year), replies, of course, that this isn't an inn, that he doesn't know him, that he might be some kind of crook. Joseph negotiates, the homeowner threatens to beat them if they don't scram. Joseph appeals again: his wife is Queen of Heaven, won't he let them spend the night? The homeowner doesn't believe them, which is when Joseph drops her full title. "Mi esposa es Maria, / es Reina del Cielo, / y Madre va a ser / del Divino Verbo." The homeowner changes his tune immediately: "Joseph? Mary? Is that you? I didn't recognize you! Come in!" A triumphant verse begins, the Spanish caroling equivalent of "Glo-o-o-o-o-o-O-ri-ah," everyone comes in off the darkened street, there's a piñata, there's sparklers, there's food and drink and light and warmth. 

Even though Joseph does all the talking and negotiating, Mary is the one holding all the power in this conversation. It isn't until the Innkeeper realizes who Mary is that his tone shifts: her body alone, hugely pregnant, without shelter isn't enough to convince him. It isn't until she's revealed to be mother of Jesus that she's given even the smallest amount of respect.

Another story: earlier this week was the day of the Virgen de Guadalupe, the iteration of Mary that is venerated in Mexico and other parts of Latin America. She first appeared to a peasant, Juan Diego, on December 11, 1531, and spoke to him in Nahuatl, telling him who she was. When Juan Diego told the archbishop, he wasn't believed. It wasn't until he returned the next day, out-of-season roses spilling from his cloak and the now-famous image of Mary encircled by blue rays printed inside it, that the archbishop's tone shifted. 

This comparison is such an obvious one that I'm almost embarrassed to make it, but yet here we are, in the year of our lord 2018, with babies and pregnant women and their partners and sisters and mothers and families and every other stripe of human, camped out in tent cities and soccer stadiums along our southern border, asking for a little shelter. I don't want their care to be predicated on whether one of them is carrying the Lord and Savior of all creation, and I find those kinds of exercises kind of hokey to begin with, but I do think that something that lies at the core of a kind of religion I could believe in is believing not that the least of these deserve care, because that is a baseline, but believing that the least of these has some holiness in him, that she is worthy of notice of the divine.

I want to say something about believing people, I want to say something about it not mattering whether you believe them, and helping them anyways, but I also know that with this letter, I'm more than likely preaching to the choir, and even if I wasn't, I don't know how to explain to someone who doesn't already know that a child dying of dehydration in ICE custody is wrong, that teargassing mothers and children is wrong, that a trans woman dying in ICE custody is wrong. I believe so much in the power and ability of bearing witness and writing, but it's also feeling like an increasingly inescapable truth that I can't write someone into having more empathy, that I can't write someone into greater action. 

Here's my best shot though: open the door. Let them in from the cold, if for no other reason than that they are cold.