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Holy Tree: Dancing Mexican pilgrims pray at sacred ahuehuete

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Holy Tree

Dancing Mexican pilgrims pray at sacred ahuehuete

By Elizabeth Fullerton

c. Fox News

September 18, 2000

CHALMA, Mexico — Just outside the hillside town of Chalma, 75 miles from

Mexico City, umbilical cords, hand-knit booties and crucifixes hang from the

boughs of a gigantic tree that many Mexicans believe to be sacred.

Thousands of Catholic pilgrims flock to the site throughout the year to give

thanks for prayers answered or make wishes at what is widely considered

Mexico's second holiest shrine after the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe

in the capital.

While some other Mexican pilgrimages involve self-flagellation and suffering,

with penitents hobbling on bleeding knees, pilgrims to Chalma pray through


"We come here every year," said Antonio Marillo Reyes from central Hidalgo

state as he and 30 relatives enjoyed a picnic beside a spring gushing from

the tree's roots. "All the babies in our family have been thrown in the

spring water but it doesn't harm them. We are praying for work and good


In a sign of the ritual's joyful spirit, pilgrims buy a crown of flowers and

dance as they offer up prayers. Then grannies join babies and couples to

bathe in the icy waters.

Some pin notes or items reflecting their petitions and prayers to the tree,

known locally as an "ahuehuete," which resembles a cypress. Women hang

umbilical cords in small bags on the tree to give thanks for a successful

birth. The pilgrimage ends in the church at Chalma a short distance up the


Prehispanic Indians Worshiped at Chalma

Chalma was a place of worship long before the 1521 Spanish conquest imposed

Catholicism on Mexico. Indians in the region venerated a "god of the cave" in

the surrounding mountains whose identity is disputed by anthropologists,

according to Gabriel Moedano Navarro, ethnology professor at the traditional

music and literature archives of the National Institute of Anthropology and


The god was variously identified with a deity of human destiny or of the

night, sometimes taking the form of a jaguar, or with the god of war,

depending on different Indian oral traditions. Few of the pilgrims who pray

at Chalma today actually know the origin of the legend.

"It's a tradition our ancestors left us many many years ago," said Raphael

Olivo Moya, who brought his young daughter from the working class district of

Nezahualcoyotl in Mexico state. He has made the pilgrimage three times.

According to some versions, two friars arriving at the cave soon after the

Spanish invasion destroyed the Indians' idol.

"They returned with a wooden cross to put in its place but miraculously, so

the saying goes, there was already a crucifix with a black Christ and the

entrance was full of exquisite flowers," Moedano said. "They say that from

that point, people started to worship the Senor de Chalma (a version of


Olivo Moya is a fervent believer in God's powers. "Whatever I've asked him

for, he's granted," he said, crossing himself three times. "Three years ago I

came and prayed that I should never be without work and now I have my own


Throughout Latin America, local lore is full of similar legends that some

scholars say were propagated by the Spanish conquerors to win over the

indigenous population by melding their religious symbols with Catholic ones.

The Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's most cherished icon, is said to have

appeared to an Indian peasant called Juan Diego in the form of a dark-skinned

Mary in 1531.

Chalma Musicians From One Family

Outside a small church by the road across from the sacred tree, Arnulfo

Linares, in Stetson hat, jeans and cowboy boots, prepared to scratch out a

tune on his violin. "All those who still have to dance step this way," he

said, his gold tooth flashing as he spoke.

Wearing colorful flower crowns, pilgrims of all ages shuffled around the

patio outside the church. Women in shawls jiggled newborn babies up and down

on the spot.

People used to dance around the tree but it began to suffer damage and a

dance area was created outside the nearby church.

After five minutes, Linares passes around, collecting five pesos (50 cents)

from each person. Generations of the Linares family have provided music for

Chalma's dancing pilgrims.

"We've played here during the wars in Mexico. My grandfather braved guns and

everything. We never stopped," he said.

The shrine has spawned an industry, with stalls selling religious trinkets

and plastic bottles for the spring water. Rich aromas of Mexican fare waft

from makeshift restaurants where hungry pilgrims, many of whom travel two or

three days across the mountains from Mexico City, stop for a bite to eat.

Women laden with crowns of flowers line the side of the road, selling three

for just 10 pesos. Two shy elderly women with long gray plaits tied together

at the ends sit on buckets near one restaurant, weaving roses, bougainvillea

and carnations together to make the crowns.

"I've been doing this as long as I can remember," one said. "I used to come

here with my mother. We grow the flowers ourselves."

The Chalma tradition has even seeped into local language. A popular Mexican

saying goes that if a cause is hopeless, it cannot be redeemed, "not even by

going to dance at Chalma."


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