Patron-Saint Festival Unites a Weary Mexican Town

Patron-Saint Festival Unites a Weary Mexican Town

Story tools

A A AResize

Print

 
Editor's Note: Mexicans who are experiencing the toughest economic times in memory are turning to religious rituals to sooth their souls and bring them hope. José Luis Sierra visits a town plaza during a procession to celebrate the town's patron saint, and finds that in the midst of dark times, Mexicans still know how to party.

AHUACATLÁN, Nayarit, Mex. – At 3:00 in the afternoon, the streets of this little town in the west central part of Mexico are almost empty. Even dogs lie in the shade of trees to escape the heat, mindless of the flies swirling around anything that stands still.

At 4:00, when the first fireworks explode with a bang above the cathedral, things start moving.

Vendors of homemade sweets, artisans, chefs of improvised street kitchens, merchants of potions for the body or the soul and kids just out of school begin peddling their goods around the central plaza. The buzz is soon drowned out by the sounds of dozens of musical groups known as bandas, walking around following their clients.

For young people, this is the October festival; for older people, it’s the celebration in honor of San Francisco of Assisi, the patron saint of the town, which was founded in the XVII century.

“Times are harder this year. There was too much rain and all the lemon trees lost their flowers,’’ Ricardo Vigil said with a gesture of worry. Vigil, who is in his late 50s, is in the citrus business. He also produces Tequila, a venture he and hundreds of local small landowners got into several years ago and lost thousands of pesos on after the governor of Nayarit, Ney Gonzalez, reneged on a promise made by a previous governor to give farmers special credits for planting Agave.

Like hundreds of government projects across Mexico, it ended in a swindle in which government officials and their relatives made big profits, while small landowners were left holding the bag.

It’s a practice that has been going on for more than a century, since the legendary hero of the Mexican Revolution, Emiliano Zapata, took up arms demanding “tierra y libertad,” or “land and freedom.’’

Zapata was killed one year before the uprising ended in 1920, but his slogan survived. It is now used by “the new revolutionaries,” to placate the millions of small farmers who have nothing but their own toil to make a living.

From a country whose economy was based mainly on agriculture, during the beginning of the 20th century, Mexico has opened up its markets and developed its industry. According to its own official figures from the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI), only one-fifth of its population of more than 110 million people now makes a living off of agricultural work.

But “making a living’’ in Mexico has a different connotation, depending where one lives.

Most field workers in this area would consider themselves lucky if they got paid the equivalent of twice the minimum wage – about $10 for a 10-hour shift with a half-an-hour break for lunch. Ten dollars won’t go far in a country were a single can of Coke can cost as much as $1.50 and a cheap sandwich $2.50.

Divide this by a family of four that only has one breadwinner, and you begin to get a picture of how the majority of families scratch out a living in the fields.

“Ahuacatlan is one of many towns in Mexico where most of its residents are children, women and old men, because most of its active population, the young and able, have move to the United States in search of better income, jobs and standards of living,” says Jose Urciaga, a PhD in economics and a scholar from the University of South Baja California, Mexico, who happens to be a native of Ahuacatlán and is visiting for the fiestas.

But he is one of few Ahuacatlán natives who are visiting this year. The recession not only prevented many U.S. Mexicans from going back for the fiestas, but has drastically lowered the money they send to their families here.

Still, las fiestas de Octubre are rocking with a cascade of fireworks. Locals join in a procession, dressed up as holy figures of the Catholic Church. Residents from the town and nearby villages carry their children, who are dressed up in brown monks’ habits to represent Saint Francis of Assisi.

“It’s a celebration where the pagans and the faithful join together to say thanks for the good and the bad of the year that is coming to an end, while hoping next year will be better,’’ says Ruben Arroyo, the town’s official historian.

“It’s the best time of the year,’’ adds Albino Solis, leader of Banda Dinamica Musical, during a brief break after playing for almost an hour straight for one single customer. “We had to split our band in two to support the demand,’’ he says with a smile.

Solis says there are many celebrations like this in nearby towns. He isn’t worried about the economic situation, he says, because he and his band will just move on from one town to the next, following the festivities.

“You know, we Mexicans have to laugh and party from time to time -- we can’t always be crying when faced with misfortune -- and there are plenty of musicians like us do that,’’ he said, summing up the country’s situation.