If you just want to say you've been to Mexico, feel free to cross into any of the border towns, buy a quick souvenir and hurry back. It'll take about fifteen minutes and you can be back in the States for dinner. If you want to get a tan, relax and drink yourself into a steady oblivion, I hear Cancun's nice. But if you want to truly understand Mexico, I know some Benedictine Sisters in Cuernavaca you need to meet.
I'm speaking of the Sisters of Las Misioneras Guadalupanas de Cristo Rey, the order of kindly but determined women who served as our hosts during a recent academic trip that took ten Lees-McRae students and staff to Mexico in January. These are, if I may stretch my vocabulary for a moment, some pretty cool nuns. They do all the things you would expect nuns to dopray rigorously (we met for chapel three times per day), take care of their guests (we ate like kings and slept in quarters more reminiscent of the Ritz-Carlton than a Spartan convent)and then a few that you might not: take their guests to participate in indigenous Nahuatl ceremonies involving corn sacrifices and conch shells, for example (I still get chills thinking about it).
The point is these Sisters have one overriding mission that guides their endeavors, and that is the pursuit of social justice in Mexico. They are driven by their faith in these efforts, and are not about to get hung up on dogma. Instead, they deliver an unfiltered look at the challenges faced by Mexico's poor in the purest way possible: by taking their guests out to meet the people themselvesexperiential education at its best. Over the course of ten days, our group sat through just three lectures from “experts”, university professors and government officials who stopped by to provide context on the economic, political and religious climate currently affecting Mexican society. The rest of the time was spent among the poor and marginalized peoples of Mexico. We met them in their homes in a cobbled together neighborhood known as the Station and listened to their stories. We visited an indigenous village outside of Tepoztlan to hear how community organizing has helped residents whose ancestors have been farming the surrounding hillsides for thousands of years stave off threats by developers. We attended a meeting with a Base Christian Community to learn how the poor themselves are using their faith and sense of community to reflect on the challenges they face, brainstorm courses of action, and then continually ask themselves: what did we do today to make our community better? And what will we do tomorrow?
The Sisters are geniuses when it comes to weaving these activities together for maximum impact. One day we shopped in the market in downtown Cuernavaca, marveling at the deals we got on trinkets and souvenirs. From there the Sisters took us down the block to Casa Tatic, a community center set up for the children of street vendors in the market to provide them with basic schooling and at least one hot meal per day. Suddenly thoughts of souvenirs had been re-routed to thoughts of opportunity and access to education, and how such things can make all the difference.
And still the experiences kept coming. We visited an orphanage and met with women who had formed a co-op to support one another with their faith and embroidery skills. We roamed the aisles of the Mercado de Plata, where men balanced boxes on their shoulders as they weaved through the crowd past stalls selling everything from produce to pirated DVDs to chainsaws. We toured Cuernavaca's cathedral, dominating the town center since the time of Cortez, anda personal favoriteclimbed over the pyramids and ruins of Xochicalco, a 1,300 hundred year old site marking the convergence of four ancient Mexican cultures at a single time and locale.
Oddly enough, one of the most poignant experiences proved to be one of the first we had during our brief stop over in Mexico City early in the trip—though I didn't really appreciate it at the time. The Sisters took us to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, located just down the block from their Mexico City convent. There are actually two Basilicas, the original, dating from the 16th century and slowly crumbling in the plaza today, and the new, post-modern 1970s version, built by an architect who apparently nurtures a strong affinity for circus tents. It was in this modern structure that we glided, Jetsons-style, on a conveyor belt beneath the displayed cloak of Juan Diego, the 16th century indigenous farmer who is the subject of the most famous "miracle" in Mexico's Christian history.
According to legend, the Virgin Mary, calling herself Guadalupe, appeared to Juan Diego in 1531, just ten years after Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, and asked for a church to be built in her honor on that particular site. Naturally, the Spanish bishop didn't believe that the Virgin would appear to anyone, let alone a lowly indigenous peasant, and so he demanded a sign from Juan Diego to prove his story true. Upon reporting the story to Guadalupe, Juan Diego was instructed by the Virgin to gather roses in his cloak and take them to the bishop. Juan Diego did so, and when he emptied the roses out of his cloak in the bishop's presence, an image of Guadalupe was now emblazoned on the cloak. It was deemed a miracle, the Spanish bishop ordered the church to be built, and today, nearly 500 years later, tourists and pilgrims alike can glide past the cloak on the conveyor belt, studying the image at the speed of two miles per hour.
On that first day, our group was accompanied on this conveyor belt by what appeared to be three-quarters of the population of Mexicothis being a sacred pilgrimage site for the overwhelming Catholic population of the country. Women beside me wept openly. Others snapped photos. Most just stared in awe. I looked at the cloak and thought: cute story, but what's the big deal?
At first glance, the image on the cloak is really just Mary, but talk to anyone in Mexico and they'll tell you that Guadalupe is much, much more. Specifically, she's a symbol of God's love and promise for the poor of the country, which today is about 70% of the population. The story of her appearance to Juan Diego helped bridge the divide between indigenous and Spanish in the early days after conquest, and served as an indicator that the church was here for the impoverished as much as the rich and powerful, more so even. Today, the image is ubiquitous in Mexico: popping up in artwork, on refrigerator magnets, keychains and other trinkets, even making special appearances in tattoo parlors and on graffiti-laden walls. Even our hosts took the name of their order from Guadalupe. As two separate speakers would tell us during our stay, there are more Guadalupanas in Mexico then there are Christians. I wasn't exactly sure what that meant, but I tucked it away in the back of my mind as I went about the week.
Finally, on our last day, the Sisters asked us to share a symbol during chapel suggesting what the trip had meant to us. We brought items like flowers from our rooms, notebooks, souvenirs we'd bought. Later that evening the Sisters finally gave us their symbol for the week: little lapel pins sporting the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe: champion of the poor, restorer of dignity. "How fitting", I thought, and I finally got it: Like so many things, it's not the story itself that matters most. It's how one incorporates the message of the story into one's everyday actions. And in this regard, the Sisters are absolute masters. Pretty cool nuns, indeed.