After an incredible meal of sopa de verduras (vegetable soup) seasoned with hierba santa (a green leaf with a faint scent of licorice), mole negro (black spicy chocolate sauce) with chicken, traditional tamales stuffed with chicken and mole amarillo (red-orange spicy sauce made with chiles, corn paste [masa], and chicken stock), we piled into two cars for the trip to the caves. We followed the tuk-tuks and pick-up trucks filled with villagers and arrived just in time for the 4:30 p.m. mass.
As the mass ended, people in line turned to each other, shook hands and welcomed in the new year with the blessing of “paz” — peace. The band began to play and we formed a procession down to the grotto where each of us made an offering of a few pesos at each of the three altars set into the sacred rock hillside. Children waited patiently at their parents feet or in their arms.
After making a prayer in the chapel, we picked our way up the hillside, over the rock escarpment and stone debris, past the playing band, to a spot where we build our symbolic homes, construct our dreams, make our wishes for the coming year. To do this conjures up truth and certainty. It will happen. We pile loose stones one atop of the other to form casita walls, then gather dried grasses and lay them atop rusty coat hangers bent to hold the roof. A flat rock becomes a ramp for an abuela. The sun begins to set.
The shadows of people are cut-out dolls against the pure blue sky. Children play and dance under feet. The firecrackers sizzle, explode, shoot skyward like rockets. Prospero ano nuevo.
As dusk approaches, the chill of night descends. Families sit by their miniature houses and dream of the future. Women unwrap snacks and sandwiches for a picnic. Young people hold hands. School will begin in a few days. A curl of smoke rises from the valley below.
Men and boys haul in bundles of twigs and small branches for bonfires. Many will camp here overnight in this sacred space. The story goes that a virgin appeared here and then returned again. A story overlaid upon an ancient Zapotec tradition, perhaps.
Now, Sr. Secundino Bazan Mendoza holds his handmade drum, stands by his compadres in the band. This weaver-musician has served his church for over 53 years. His granddaughter Estercita sits by the campfire above.
In silhouette, families sit cross-legged on the side of the hill facing south, watching, waiting, feeling the soft glow of the sun sink into the western sky. Warmth turns to chill. I put on my wool rebozo.
Now, it is almost dark. More people are streaming in from the village to make their wishes as we leave. The vendors line the dusty path between the parked cars and the steep steps to the chapel, selling sticky, hot fresh sugar buns, cookie wafers, sandwiches, pizza and beer. Children fall asleep in their mother’s arms or on their father’s shoulders. Teens help their aging grandparents down the steep, slippery, rocky slope. Cuidado, they call out. Careful. The rocks are loose underfoot. Now, there is hope that this year’s prayers will be answered: a son without papers in the U.S. will return home to be embraced after a 15 year absence, a house under construction for four years will be completed, a debt will be repaid, there will be enough food for the winter, enough visitors to improve the economy, a turn for the better.
Feliz y prospero ano neuvo. Good dreams and wishes for the year to come.