Every mexican town has its patron saint; that is, a favorite saint whom the people ask to watch over them and pray for them, and whose devotion instructs and inspires them.

The patron saint of Casas Grandes is San Antonio de Padua.  The local parish is named for him.  His statue in the church, like most of his statues, shows him in a monk’s robe.  His left arm is extended at the elbow with palm up to form a seat on which the child Jesus is sitting.  His right hand holds a long stemmed lily.

During his lifetime Antonio had a number of mystical experiences in which Jesus appeared to him as a little child, maybe of one or two years of age.  Antonio was privileged to hold the child Jesus in his arms, and cuddle him, and talk with him.  While he did not publicize his experiences, naturally folks figured out what was happening.  So they would bring their prayer requests to Antonio and ask him to whisper them into the ear of the child Jesus the next time he had a visit with him.  Antonio did so, for the people felt that prayers presented in this indirect manner were more likely to receive favorable answers.  And they still do.  Some people to this day pass some of their prayers through the hands of Anthony, asking him to whisper them into the ear of the child Jesus.

The feast of San Antonio occurs on the thirteenth day of june.  On that day the Church of San Antonio here, along with churches named for him throughout the world, observes his day with a solemn mass.  Sometimes the mass is said near midnight of the night before, so as to make it the very first act of the day.  There may be other festivities, including singing and eating.  But this is just for the saint’s day itself.  The ferias will generally be observed for a week or more, leading up to the day.

Feria” is a word that bothers me.  I first learned it as a latin word in the context of the church calendar.  In the calendar it refers to a weekday which has no saint’s commemoration or other special treatment.  It is an ordinary weekday.  But as the word is used in spanish, it means a holiday, a day of vacation, a fair, a holy day—the same thing it meant in classical latin, but just about the opposite of its church-latin meaning.  So how did this switch in the church’s usage occur?  I’ve never been able to find out, and that bothers me. I suffer unrequited curiosity.

At any rate, during the ferias the village plaza and the streets around it are filled with attractions.  Motorized rides; sales of art and craft items, and household items, and junk; booths and tents where all manner of food and drink are sold.  In the street at one corner of the square is a stage where there is nightly entertainment.  At the far corner there is a large tent with tables and chairs for those who just like to sit and drink beer.

Entertainment can mean almost anything.  This year we had a number of groups presenting folk dances of various periods and regions of Mexico, the dancers being in full costume.  There were a few singers, a guitar band, an act reminiscent of the old Three Stooges movies, and even a company of belly dancers.

From time to time in these stories I mention Delia.  Delia is a widow of five years and my friend.  She is more recently become my landlady as well.  When we met she was renovating her huge old house and planning to make the east wing into a separate apartment.  She did so, and was kind enough to rent it to me.  We have become good friends and helpers for each other, being , as we are, without spouses.

But I was going to tell you the curious story of our meeting.  It happened last year.  I had just recently obtained my casita on the outskirts of Casas Grandes, and was still spending the bulk of my time in Lordsburg.  For family reasons I had to go to New Jersey for three months and my house in Lordsburg had just sold and I had to get all my stuff out of the house and bring some of the stuff here and store the rest as well as getting my visa issued and so I was running around trying to do all that had to be done and was as breathless as you are if you read this whole sentence out loud without a pause.  So it happened that on the twelfth of june I brought down a load of gear in my car, put it in the casita, paid la dueña three months’ rent, and went to bed, to get up early and head back to the States the next day.

And so it was very late and I was almost fast asleep when I heard a Bong! and a pause and then a series of bongs, and a pause and one more bong.  In Mexico this signal, rung out on a church bell, means that a mass will begin in thirty minutes.  Now I was dead tired.  But something in that Bong! seemed to be saying to me, –Get up.  Get dressed.  Go up to the church.  Yes, you have to.  Now go.

So I got up, and got dressed and walked up to the church shortly before the mass began.  It was a midnight mass, commonly called in spanish a misa del gallo [literally “mass of the rooster”], since roosters tend to put out a few warm-up calls about midnight.  And it was the solemn mass of the feast of San Antonio.

There was a full choir and many instruments, and the church was full of people praying, and the plaza outside full of children playing and couples courting and old men talking, and the mass began with chanting and clouds of incense, and the doors were wide open so those inside and those outside could hear and see each other.  In some mystical way there was not a division, but rather a unity, as the whole people of this mexican village celebrated their saint.

Now the sanctuary was so full of flowers there was hardly room for a priest and his altar boys to move around.  But when the mass ended the choir broke into a magnificent hymn, I couldn’t understand the words, but it was built on the chorus of Beethoven’s ninth symphony.  It was boisterous, jubilant, yet reverent.  And as they sang a man came out of the sacristy carrying a flower arrangement as big as he was, and placed it in the sanctuary.  And after him came another, and then another, and more as the music soared higher.  And in this moment I understood the mexican idea of beauty.  You decorate something with as much beauty as you can.  And then you add a whole lot more.  You make a church, or a public building, or your home, to come near bursting with beauty.  You make it reflect the love of beauty that beats in a mexican heart.

Well, after much singing, ending with the mañanitas, everyone went out to a patio for a light meal.  It was there that I met Delia.  Just a brief meeting, no time for much talk.  But a seed of friendship was planted, and I was not surprised to find we became pretty good friends three months later when I came back to town.

What did surprise me was learning, a number of months later, that the village’s patron, Antonio, is called by many the “marrying saint”, as many a lonely man or woman profits by asking his help in finding a spouse.  Could be.  Could be he helps folks to find each other as friends, too.  Why else was I here on the vigil of his feast, and why else did I know, when I heard that bong, that I had to get up and go to church?

*     *     *

The ferias this year provided a charming example of mexican justice.  Among the many that passed their evenings at the beer tent were two men who, growing full of beer and weary of frequent hikes to the baño [bathroom, restroom], just walked out of the tent and peed, right there on the street, in front of everybody.  Now you can do that in Mexico on the shoulder of the road, where there is no baño and some relief is necessary.  But you should not do it in the public square with half the town present.  In this case the police came, took the two to jail, and put them to bed.  At first light next day the cops rolled the men out of bed, took them with mops and buckets to the plaza, and made them scrub the street.  Then they let them go.

Mexican justice!


© 2004 Joseph Mansfield