The priest intones the prayers of the Mass. . . only he’s not at the altar in his church. He stands before a shrine on top of Tortugas Mountain — the one many call “A” Mountain — in Las Cruces. Pilgrims gather round to participate. Smoke from a greasewood fire, called the sacred humero, carries their prayers heavenward. This Mass is being conducted in the middle of the three-day Fiesta of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Every year from December 10 – 12, this fiesta is held at Tortugas Pueblo, nestled between New Mexico State University and Mesilla Park.
It is home to the Tiwa and Piro people who left Northern New Mexico during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and the Manso people who have always lived in Mesilla Valley. Before Diego de Vargas came back to retake New Mexico for Spain, many of the people from these tribes resided at the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo in El Paso. Over time, some returned to their homes in the north. Others settled in the Mesilla Valley. They incorporated their pueblo in 1914 as La Corporación de Los Indigenes de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. Bill Acosta, current president of the corporation, said, “We did this to preserve our culture and our community.”
From 1853 – 1919, the Indios held their Fiesta of Our Lady of Guadalupe celebration among themselves. In 1919, they began celebrating at St. Genevieve’s Catholic church in downtown Las Cruces. Later, they moved it to their own church at the pueblo.
This is the story behind the fiesta. A peasant named Juan Diego was walking to Mass in Mexico City on December 9, 1531. Along the way, at Tepeyac Hill, he had a vision of the Virgin Mary who told him he was her chosen messenger. He was to tell the bishop of Mexico City to build a church where they were standing.
The bishop demanded proof. A recent convert to Catholicism, Juan Diego felt unworthy to be the messenger, but he returned to the hill to ask Mary for something to show the bishop. The Virgin Mary was still there, and she instructed him to take the roses growing nearby to the bishop for proof. It was winter. Roses shouldn’t have been blooming. Juan gathered the flowers in his tilma, or poncho, and took them to the bishop.
When he opened the tilma, he revealed not only the roses but also an image of the Virgin Mary embedded in the cloth.
Juan Diego was sainted, and on December 12 every year since, Catholics in the New World celebrate the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, who became known as the Patroness of the Americas.
Bill Acosta says the fiesta is a sacred event for everyone who participates. “We are taught to love one another, to care for one another,” he says. “This is a way to focus our attention and to commit to fulfilling that obligation.” The fiesta begins December 10 with an all-night vigil in the Casa de Pueblo. At dawn on the 11th, pilgrims gather at the Casa de Pueblo and begin the four-mile trek to the mountain, climbing to the summit, led by captains appointed by the cacique and the capítan de guerra. The cacique and the capítan de guerra remain to protect the pueblo. Remember, when this all began, bandits and Apaches still roamed and raided.
Following Mass on the mountain, people stay until sundown. Some continue to pray. Some meditate. Some share time and food with family. Many people construct quiotes, religious artifacts made from the woody yucca stem (also called a quiote). A cross is fashioned from yucca leaves and attached to the top of the stalk.
Back at the pueblo at sundown, a huge bonfire, or luminaria, is lighted to bring the pilgrims home. Other fires are lighted on Tortugas Mountain in the shape of the cross and acknowledging the pilgrims have seen the bonfire. When everyone has gathered around the luminaria at the pueblo, the cacique leads them to the Casa de Pueblo. He knocks on the door. There’s no answer. They return to the bonfire and repeat the ritual twice more.
Finally, the third time he knocks, he’s answered, “Who’s there? Who are you looking for?”
The cacique says, “I’m looking for a virgin. Virgin Maria.”
From inside, a voice says, “How do you know she’s here?”
The cacique says, “If I didn’t know, I wouldn’t be here.”
Then the door is opened, and the pilgrims are welcomed.
The cacique has to knock three times, Bill explains, because “three times represent the Trinity. It signifies the Three Wise Men and also
Joseph and Mary seeking shelter in Bethlehem.” He adds, “There’s a fine line between Catholicism and Native American ways. We retain our native beliefs, because that’s who we are.”
As they enter the Casa de Pueblo, people touch their quiote to the door frame and can leave it at the door to be blessed. Some take them home to display in a place of spiritual significance.
Soon everyone is seated around a table sharing a meal provided by the people of Tortugas. There is no charge; the pueblo funds it through donations. There’s chili and pinto beans, macaroni and cheese, and thousands of albóndigas, savory meatballs lovingly made by the people of Tortugas.
Bill says, “We feed the pilgrims as a sense of community. You know the scripture . . . ‘Whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me.’ It binds us together.”
December 12 is the day of the dances. Following Mass, four groups dance before the church. Three danzante groups join the Indios of the pueblo. The groups each perform several dances on the packed-dirt plaza, connecting them to the earth. They wear distinctive ceremonial clothing, including veils over their faces. Bill says, “Each dance is a prayer, and the covered faces eliminates the personal identity since the dances are acts of the spirit.”
The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe is one of the oldest religious traditions in New Mexico and the Americas. Throughout trials of growth, economic upheavals, and other societal challenges, patrons of the celebration have persisted. In modern times, city lights diminish the brightness of the mountain bonfires, often preventing people across the Mesilla Valley from seeing them. Cell phones, TV, cars, and other modern distractions threaten this cultural treasure. Still, parents hold fast to these traditions, teaching and encouraging their children to follow in their footsteps.
Depending on the state of the COVID pandemic, the public is welcome to participate in the three-day celebration, whether for reasons of faith or expanding their cultural knowledge and understanding.
Written by Bud Russo
Originally published in Neighbors magazine.
Posted by LasCruces.com