Mesilla, N.M. | She was there in an alcove of the La Posta restaurant — quiet, unimposing, emerging from exposed brick surrounded by adobe. Perhaps what caught my attention was the contrast of her peaceful corner to the maze of rooms full of squawking parrots, flashing tropical fish, lively music, blinking lights, and busy staff bearing platters of food through the mayhem that is today’s La Posta de Mesilla.

The image was of a woman in a blue-green cloak, head bowed. It appeared to be a ceramic fragment, overlain on chipped brick, bordered by new adobe plaster. It took three visits to Mesilla, a community on the southern edge of Las Cruces, N.M., to gain an appreciation of the importance of The Lady of Guadalupe to this community and the neighboring Tortugas Pueblo. And still that appreciation is in fragments and layers, like the image, like the American Southwest. Layers of one culture over another, corners of societies chipped away, small glimpses of what lies beneath, but not a full reveal.

My husband and I went to Tortugas Pueblo to experience the Festival of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and we appreciated the opportunity, as strangers and outsiders, to get a glimpse.

The Festival of the Virgin of Guadalupe is celebrated throughout the Americas on Dec. 10, 11, and 12, in observance of the three times that the apparition appeared in 1531 to Juan Diego, an Aztec man, on a hill in what is now Mexico City. On the last day, as proof, she left an image of herself on the man’s tilma, or cloak. That relic is enshrined in a basilica in Mexico City and equated with the Shroud of Turin in the power of its mystery and inspiration.

Descendants of the Guadalupe Mission Indians, including Piro, Manso, and Tiwa people, settled the Mesilla Valley in the mid-1800s. Tortugas Pueblo is a village within Las Cruces, which takes its name from Tortugas Mountain, a 5,000-foot hill that rises above the East Mesa of Las Cruces, resembling a tortoise crossing the desert. A nonprofit organization, Los Indigenes de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, maintains the customs and traditions of the founders of the village, including the observance of the festival. The Fiesta of Our Lady of Guadalupe combines Native American spiritual traditions and customs with the worldwide Catholic observance of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Members of four Native American dance groups — the Pueblo Dancers, Los Danzantes (members of Los Indigenes), Azteca del Chichimeca, and Danza Guadalupana Azteca — celebrate the annual cultural and religious festival with processions, prayers, services, and an elaborate ceremony that passes responsibility for the festival from one group of families to the next. Candlelight processions, prayers, and a vigil precede the dawn pilgrimage up Tortugas Mountain on the second day.

The entire pueblo pitches in for the celebration, which centers around three blocks in the center of the village, anchored by the Shrine and Parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe. On the day before the festival, we spoke to a community member who was overseeing a cadre of volunteers busy raking leaves, repairing sidewalks, painting the chapel, trimming hedges and scurrying to make everything ready. He told us that in more than 40 years, the only time he had ever missed returning home for the fiesta was during his deployment in Afghanistan. “It just doesn’t feel like the holiday season until we come down the mountain,” he said.

He encouraged us to participate in all the festivities, noting that the four organizing families, led by the Mayordomos, would open their homes to celebrants, pilgrims, dancers, and even visitors like ourselves.

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We scouted Tortugas Mountain ahead of time, to see the path the pilgrims would take, and then returned to the pueblo to see if anything had begun. That evening, glowing in the warm light from hundreds of luminaria, the chapel looked like an exquisite confection. Everything was pristine: not a dust mote, a dry leaf, a pine needle dared mar the picture. Even the streets around the chapel had been freshly paved, the community center (La Casa del Pueblo) and dining hall were freshly painted, the playgrounds and parking lots were smoothed and ready for the dancers.

A candlelight procession began what would be three days of prayer, reflection, dancing, eating, and ceremony.

Though we were told we would be welcome, we declined to intrude on what was clearly a gathering of families who have lived together for generations. We watched the abuelas (grandmas) carry pots and bowls of food into La Casa de la Comida, and the children in their regalia skip and hop up the steps for dance practice.

The community kept vigil the entire night, fueled by posole (hominy soup) and drums. We got a good night’s sleep and headed for the mountain before sunrise, but many of the pilgrims were well up the mountain by the time we got there. Carrying wood for fires, water, and food, they climbed up what looked to us more like a rockslide than a trail. A family with a baby in a wagon took the long way around, and we were told that meandering, less steep trail, was the path the bishop would take when he climbed the mountain to hear confession and conduct mass on the top. While there, the pilgrims make walking staffs of yucca stock and rosettes of yucca leaves.

We returned to Our Lady of Guadalupe Church at dusk, after watching the last pilgrims come down the hill with their staffs. The dancing began with drums beating, shells clinking, gourds rattling, bows clacking. Lines of brilliantly clad dancers threaded complex steps and patterns back and forth, weaving in and out, ending each dance by kneeling before an altar covered in roses — to commemorate Juan Diego’s apron full of miraculous roses gathered in the desert in winter — and shining with the image of Nuestra Senora. Every dancer’s regalia had some representation of the image: a scarf, apron, embroidered shirt, sequined cloth.

On grounds across from the chapel, another dance group punctuated its steps not only with drums, but lively fiddles. Tiny children in their own regalia tried to keep pace with the adult dancers, sometimes appearing lost in the swirl of feathers, lace, rattles and stomping feet.

The celebration resumed the following day with a morning mass and investiture of the new Mayordomos, who pass the responsibility for the festival on to a new set of families. In front of the church girls in frothy white Confirmation or First Holy Communion dresses take turns dancing with beribboned Mayordomos and Danzantes. Dancing on three separate grounds goes on until lunch time, when the entire community lines up for a traditional meal that is prepared and served out of the Casa de Comida. As we wound our way out of the pueblo, we saw folks carrying plates of food through the streets, perhaps for those who could not attend in person?

The festival would go on for the rest of the day, with a final procession carrying the image of The Virgin of Guadalupe back to the church. As we headed out to catch our flight home, it was clear from smiles and nods of parishioners that this community lives the admonition of Matthew 25: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

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