The ancient and tiny building, with no identifiable religious symbols, sat alone atop a barren, cratered hill, looking like an abandoned space station waiting for someone to arrive.
“¡Hola E.T., mi casa es tu casa!”
Its weathered wooden door was shut tight with a large padlock. There were no holes or cracks that would let you peep inside. A faded graffiti scribble on one side was no help in identifying the purpose of the anonymous structure, which nevertheless towered over the town of Cruz del Palmar and the valleys on all sides, spray-painted bright green by the recent rains.
After losing track of the last few chapels on the Ruta de las Capillas because tourist signs disappeared beyond a certain point, we returned two weeks later but drove in from the tail end of trail, to try find out what we had missed. Shazzam: The state tourist board had come around and installed the rest of the signs.
Yet none pointed or explained what was the mysterious and forlorn chapel-like building on the hill. Instead the signs pointed to Cruz del Palmar, a typical off-the-road Mexican village except for the inordinately large church in the middle–and the four or five diminutive belfries attached to abandoned chapels, whose names no one seemed to remember.
Only two of the towers had any bells or apparent purpose today. One had been retrofitted as a place to hang a TV antenna. We christened that chapel “Our Lady of Television.” The other bell tower still in use was attached to the main church; indeed it looked like it was an huge expansion of one of the original mini-chapels.
The big church was very much a live operation, decked out with natural and artificial flowers, holy statues and even a base fiddle leaning gently on one corner, ready to turn around and join the next religious shindig at a moment’s notice.
Out in front by the left of altar was a statue of the infant Jesus, an odd touch on two counts.
It was a young, cherubic figure, with a hint of a smile on his lips. It contrasted with the rest of the statuary, which as in most Mexican churches, depicted saints bleeding, weeping or otherwise contorted in pain. Jews who think they hold the patent on guilt and suffering need to check out Roman Catholic churches in Mexico for some needed perspective.
At the foot of the baby Jesus parishioners had deposited not candles, flowers or “milagros” (mementos of answered prayers) but toys: a teddy bear, toy horse, a fire truck. Indeed, with both hands up in the air, the baby Jesus seemed ready to lead the congregation in some jaunty hymn.
“Hey, folks, don’t worry, be happy!”
The middle-aged, shy man who gave us a tour of the church also solved the mystery of the would-be space station on top of the hill. It was a large “calvario“, a usually small shrine next to a church were parishioners place wooden crosses or other relics belonging to their ancestors.
Before community events, such as religious fiestas or pilgrimages, the participants would check in at the calvario to seek permission to proceed from the souls of those who had passed away. The structure on the hill was the main calvario for all of Cruz del Palmar, according to the tour guide.
(I wondered if the ancestors ever denied their permission. Like a voice thundering from above: “Hey guys put those Coronas away. Enough partying already.”)
Our quickie tour was but an introduction to the history of all these chapels which looked somewhat similar but have unique narratives. Each commemorates a different saint, like San Isidro, who looks after farmers, and enshrines a community’s history and aspirations for the future. Each chapel and saint requires its own yearly fiesta, typically prayers and somber religious processions combined with drinking, dancing and fireworks.
I’m particularly interested in the fiestas at Cruz del Palmar, when they open the lonely calvario atop the hill. I need to see what’s inside. It’d be a hoot if it turns out to be a large black slab covered with hieroglyphs and with a strange energy field around it.
|The mysterious structure on the hill, which we found out was the main calvario for
the community of Cruz del Palmar.
|(Above and below) The main church at Cruz del Palmar, an otherwise nondescript town except for its collection of chapels and churches, functioning or abandoned.|
|The cheery baby Jesus, standing tippy-toes on a cloud.|
|Strike up the band.|
|An abandoned chapel, which we named “Temple of Clay Pots.”|
|Our Lady of Television sanctuary.|
|This chapel had lost its nave and become part of someone’s house. Let’s call it “The Shrine of the Unknown Saints.”|
|This ruin was not connected to any chapel or other structure. Judging by the elegant interior decorations and murals, it must have been a fancy place in its time, about 150 years ago.|
|The Chapel of the (Three) Kings, the last one on the tour and one of the best preserved. Above, the bell tower. Below, the decorative downspouts and buttresses on the side.|
|Above, carved dove on the door of the Chapel of the Kings. Below, decorative painting around a round window in the chapel. The tear-like discoloration was probably caused by rain seeping in. Or is it a sign from God?|
|A small calvario in the front yard of the Chapel of the Kings. The objects inside are probably new; most of the calvarios were looted over the years.