Night of the Altars, San Miguel de Allende
April 1, 2002

It is Viernes de Dolores (Friday, March 22 this year) and anticipation of this special evening is palpable throughout the streets and markets of San Miguel's historic district. This is the evening when home altars honoring the suffering Virgin Mary are sweetly displayed in the courtyards, windowsills, doorways, and gardens of the oldest homes for all to enjoy. Our Lady of Sorrows, hands clasped over heart and tear-stained face lifted upward towards her crucified Son, is the centerpiece of this evening's incendios, as the altars are called. In addition to the home altar displays, neighborhoods are also busy decorating many of the 45 fountains found in San Miguel de Allende's Centro Historico.

Viernes de Dolores, celebrated annually on the Friday preceding Holy Week, is a Spanish colonial tradition dating from the early 1600s and only practiced in the state of Guanajuato, and in areas of the central Bajío plateau.

We first visit the market which has been transformed with vendors selling all things necessary for traditional incendios; the newly sprouted wheat grass, the fragrant chamomile, fennel and mint representative of the arrival of spring and no doubt native symbols melded into the altars hundreds of years ago…oranges representing the bitter tears of Our Lady of Sorrows…mounds of fresh purple and white flowers, the flowers of funerals…and always, candles. We were at first disappointed to find the wheat grass, trigo, so yellow until it was explained that the new grass turns vibrant green throughout this day of altar building…yet another symbol of the miracle of spring.

Overcome with curiosity and anticipation, Rick and I tour the city looking for hints of this evening's displays asking everyone which streets are considered best.

"Barranca, yes Calle Barranca is the best!"
"There is a wonderful house of an old lady who displays hundreds of old saints and figures, but I can't remember which street."
"The Privada de Animas is strange and original."
"You must go to Jésus Numero Cinco!"
"Have you visited the private chapel on Calle Aldama?"

Everyone has an opinion, and each one different! We will have to walk the entirety of central San Miguel in order to draw our own conclusions.

Our early scouting proves disappointing but for the all-day efforts to decorate the famous fountain in Parque Juarez. Just as children are kept waiting until the appointed hour to open Christmas presents, every house has been shuttered and the doors pulled tight so as not to allow even a peek.

For this special altar on Calle Loreto, even the sidewalks are decorated with intricate patterns of dyed sawdust. By late afternoon, the adornment of neighborhood fountains is well underway.

Dusk envelopes San Miguel and the town folk excitedly pour into the streets knowing that homes may only be viewed between 7pm to 9:30pm. We quickly discover that Viernes de Dolores is a wonderful combination of the Christmas posada tradition and Halloween treat giving, mixed with a touch of solemnity of the Holy Week to come. Entire families travel the narrow streets patiently waiting to see the constructed altars of their amigos and neighbors, afterwards accepting a complimentary ice cream or frozen fruit ice from the host household, with the most popular homes serving ice cream to thousands on this night. The popularity of Calle Barranca becomes evident as hundreds line up for free tacos and enchiladas served in addition to the traditional ice cream, and many decorated fountains and wonderful altars are found here.

The altars are as varied as each household, from quaint to magnificent, but in every instance altars are ephemeral folk art incorporating worn saints, old paintings, tissue paper, hand-carved figures, bits of foil, candles, and electric lights. And there is music-something haunting and religious coming from a hidden boom box or old record player at every stop. One favorite altar features hundreds of figures in a homemade diorama with motorized moving parts…the horses rear and the Roman soldiers "march" across the landscape like a biblical arcade game to the delight of both children and adults.

In a series of altars discovered on Privada de Animas depicting Christ's final days, small figures illustrating Palm Sunday have been lovingly carved, painted and dressed. The triumphant last scene of Jesus rising to the heavens on a metal rod towards the bright rays of a bare light bulb was one of the sweetest images of the entire evening.
We were surprised that not every home displayed an altar as we walked sometimes two and three blocks up San Miguel's steepest streets. This Friday is the first evening of a two-week national holiday and many families have already departed for the beach or other destinations. Another factor is the number of homes now owned by foreigners who might not partake in this tradition. But there are hundreds of altars to be enjoyed, and all one need do is look up the street for the line of admirers extending from an open doorway or huddled around a light-filled window, happily enjoying ice creams.

As the doors and shutters of homes were drawn shut signaling the evening's end, we willed ourselves home on tired, aching feet to reflect upon the sheer number and variety of altars, the colonial splendor of mansions rarely open to visitors, and the loving efforts of the people of San Miguel to build, adorn, and share this expression of faith with each other. How sweet the traditions of San Miguel de Allende!

By Debra Hall
ZOCALO Fine Folk Art
San Miguel de Allende, MEXICO
Pátzcuaro, MEXICO