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Requiem for dying traditions

The Lake Chapala area is rife with cultural activities, many revolving around religious celebrations that give foreign settlers insights into essential human values that make the community tick.


It’s heart-breaking to see that some beautiful, age-old customs are falling by the wayside in modern times.

A case in point are the tributes to La Dolorosa — Our Lady of Sorrows — once commonly displayed hereabouts on the last Friday in Lent, standing out as a solemn prelude to Holy Week observances to come. They will be few and far between when Viernes de Dolores rolls around on April 12.

Not so long ago many local families customarily mounted doorstep shrines centered on a statue or image of the tearful Virgin Mary dressed in mourning garb. The practice has been a custom among Mexico’s devout Roman Catholics since the Colonial era as a manifestation of devotion to the mother of Jesus Christ, recognizing the afflictions she suffered in an artistically designed altar filled with symbolic objects.

The pained countenance of the Virgen de Dolores and the cross are the usual focal points of the altars. Lace or fine cloth drapes or strips of papel picado (tissue paper cutouts) are hung as a background for the display. The common color scheme is deep purple, the hue of mourning, and white, signifying purity.

Natural elements that may be featured include fresh flowers, especially red blossoms symbolizing the blood of Christ, and pine boughs or other types of greenery to represent the Mount of Olives. Newly sprouted plants grown from corn, barley, wheat, alfalfa or chia seeds that were blessed and planted on Candlemas (February 2) are often placed as symbols of rebirth. Bitter oranges or grapefruit stand for the sacrifice of the Savior. These may be adorned with tiny cut-out banners made from gold and silver foil.   

Copal incense and aromatic herbs such as chamomile and rosemary suggest the treatment of corpses in Biblical times. A cage containing a mourning dove or other songbird may be employed as a source of soothing sounds to help heal a mother’s broken heart.

Objects associated with the Passion of Christ are sometimes placed in the display: a crown of thorns, a lash, a ladder, a vinegar-soaked sponge and nails. A rooster represents the crowing that accompanied the denials of the Apostle Peter. A mirror may be added to reflect the human soul.

Some people refer to the altars as incendios, a term derived from the long-held practice of illuminating the shrines with many devotional candles, representing the light of hope for human redemption.

An integral part of the Viernes de Dolores tradition is making the rounds to different homes where the altars are put on display. Visitors announce their arrival by asking the householders, “¿Ya lloró la Virgen?” (Has the Virgin cried yet?). This is the prompt for the hosts to ladle out a glass of agua fresca, a refreshing beverage symbolizing the Virgin’s spilled tears. Lime with chia seeds, jamaica flowers or other bittersweet fruits are the most typical flavoring ingredients.

Some residents of San Antonio Tlayacapan remain faithful to Friday of Sorrows traditions. An after dark stroll through the town that day lends the best opportunity to experience this fading custom.