Sunday, February 27, 2011

A Moment of Joy

It's Sunday. This morning, as I often do on Sundays, I went down to Mérida centro to enjoy a delicious traditional Yucatecan breakfast with a friend, followed by leisurely conversation in a cafe on the Plaza Grande.

On my way home I walked through the plaza, crowded with vendors, food stalls and hordes of tourists and families on a Sunday outing. Suddenly I became aware of loud, rhythmic drumming coming from the vicinity of the cathedral, located on the east side of the square.

A more staid event in front of the Cathedral, on a different day.

Curious, I walked over to see what the ruckus was about. The area in front of La Catedral de San Ildefonso, the oldest cathedral in the Americas, was jammed with families and youths carrying colorful balloons and cheering. A large, varnished wooden cross, supported by a handful of young men, rose in front of the main door of the building. Next to it a priest, sprinkling holy water, was blessing the crowd. There was lots of laughing and cheering amidst the smoke of incense.

The atmosphere was infused with a sense of fun, happiness and joy.

Having been raised in the much more somber atmosphere of Protestant churches up north, and never having seen anything like this before, I was curious and decided to hang around to see what would happen.

The blessing over, the drum corps began to beat a fierce rhythm and the cross was lowered onto the shoulders of a group of bearers. The happy roar increased. Amidst the noise of the drumming, laughter, chanting and the bobbing of hundreds of balloons, the cross was slowly borne into the church. I joined the throng.

This is an immense stone building full of echos. It magnifies sound and resonates like a monstrous speaker. The tattoo of the drums inside was deafening. Beneath blessed statues of the Saints, whistles blew. Passing in front of sacred, serene images of The Virgin, people cheered. Everyone was smiling. The church was full of young people and families all watching as the procession slowly worked up the aisle to the altar. The priest began to speak, but instead of calm, scripted responses or "amens" on the part of the congregation, they erupted in cheers and whistles. The priest smiled broadly at the noise. This began to sound more like the crowd at a hotly-contested football game than a group of faithful at the beginning of a church service:

"Viva Cristo Rey!" [Long live Christ the King!]

"Viva Cristo Rey!"

Despite the cacophony, the atmosphere somehow remained respectful and reverent.

Now, I am not Catholic and not the most devout Christian, but I can appreciate the enthusiasm demonstrated by this group. The overall feeling was one of intense joy and happiness. It was a very Mexican obsevance of faith, and quite different from a regular mass or the serious and quiet forms of worhsip I remember from my childhood days attending churches in the north.

The event seemed to exemplify for me some key aspects of Mexican culture, like the importance of family and children, the true heart of Mexican society. And in a country where several hundred years of oppressive and authoritarian government has not always been kind to the average person, emphasis on celebrating life and enjoying the moment whenever an opportunity presents itself. It was an interlude of intense joy. A moment purely Mexican.


  1. Oh Marc, this is marvelous. You've painted such a clear picture of what I love about Mexico. Gracias. Gorgeous, beautiful, love this!

  2. I can feel everything that is true about the Yucatan through you words. Thanks.

  3. Thanks Lynette and Benne'. It was a magic moment and emblematic of aspects of the culture that make this a wonderful place to live. I am glad I was able to share a little of the feeling with you.

  4. Marc,
    You've really seen and shared this event so clearly for us. Thanks!

    "Top down" religion can be oppressive. But you've captured it "bottom up."

    I've been fascinated with this form of human expression for a great long while. In art school I crucified and photographed a dozen friends, one for each month (including myself) and printed a folio of the images. And then went on to do some grad work in a divinity program before coming back to photography. (Grad school was like that moment in Wizard of Oz where the little dog pulls the curtain away to reveal a mere man behind all the fuss — which helped to focus my faith where it belongs, instead of on the fuss.)


  5. What a lovely experience. These manifestations of such basic, non-questioning faith are a solace to believers and help them overcome many of life's hardships.


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