January 8, 2002
We got a call from our friend Jonathan. He’s planning to marry Ana María in January, and of course we’re invited to the wedding in Colonia Reforma at the Church of Our Lady of the Poor.
Well, not so fast, Buckaroo. First, Jonathan wanted to know, would George and I be so kind as to be his character witnesses? Before the officiating priest will perform the religious wedding, two witnesses each for bride and groom must swear and sign that the prometidos are not already married, nor have undeclared children, nor sell drugs.
Our first task was to find the restaurant where Jonathan and Ana María would breakfast with us, before we headed for the parish office.
No point in a Bostonian complaining about a lack of street signs. We asked eight or nine people, and after circling the area for fifteen minutes, located the restaurant. Jon sat alone off to one side under an umbrella. He looks nice for a guy in his forties – thinning but not bald, dashingly dressed in a Mexican white embroidered cotton shirt. I was glad I goosed George to shed his tee-shirt (torn at the shoulder) and don a respectable front-button shirt. But where was Ana María? Late. She has la gripa, which could mean anything from a cold to flu. She’ll come.
The main floor of the restaurant was arranged for a big private affair, with decorated tables set for sixty-five. This is where Jon and Ana will host their wedding dinner, so we enjoyed a preview. A kids’ play area sat on one side of the patio. The place looked small for one hundred fifty, but Jon doesn’t seem concerned.
We settled down to listen to Jonathan’s account of the hours of inevitable coming and going he invested to obtain the trámites necessary for the civil wedding, a supplement to the religious one. After forty-five minutes Ana showed up, looking feverish but attractive, in matching lime green sweater set and filmy skirt, bare unshaved legs and high heels.
While we drank our coffee, the restaurant brothers dismantled the place settings for sixty-five and re-arranged the tables, due to a small error ‒ the private party was the next day, not today. We enjoyed a nice breakfast with the restaurant to ourselves; the waiter bent the sun umbrella to place George in the shade. That’s not a trivial chore.
Finally we strolled around to the church, where we met Ana’s parents, both teachers. They call Jonathan “Yony.” I asked Jon what his mother-in-law–to-be’s name is, but he said he actually didn’t know, since he never addresses her as anything but Maestra. I learned her name is Queen Mary, and the Maestro is Wille. Queen Mary and I chatted as older women will, discussing clothing and customs, and finally Queen Mary asked if George and I, as a couple, would participate in a traditional dinámica, at her house two days before the wedding. Unlike a shower, the dinámica explicitly requires twelve couples bearing symbolic gifts. Ours was to be a clock or watch of some kind, to remind the bride to be timely in performing her household chores.
Finally it was our turn for the interview with the priest, a pleasant fellow in a blue plaid flannel shirt, seated behind his glass-topped desk.
First, we swore with right hands raised that we would tell the truth. How long had we known Jon? How long have George and I been married? Immediately George blurted we’ve been living for ten years in Unión Libre, information the priest politely ignored.
You should understand that George and I dwell at opposite ends of the liars’ spectrum. George will never, I will always. And we already promised Queen Mary to stand in as one of the twelve married couples. The priest asked, Que religión tiene? George thought the priest was asking for George’s religion, and I could sense wheels grinding while he figured out how to declare he’s an atheist. The priest looked alarmed too; he sensed it coming and really didn’t want to know. He shouted the question several times, el jóven, el jóven, el jóven, finally pointing to a picture of Jonathan; finally we understood. Unfortunately, we didn’t know the answer, since among American friends, unless they’re Born Again or Jewish, the question hardly ever arises.
I thought he was Catholic, I asserted, and the priest pointed to Jon’s testimony, He says he’s Episcopalian!
If he says so, it must be true, he’s a very honorable man! I shot back, hoping that would save the day. I think the priest simply gave up, and we signed our names and were released.
Ana needed to go home to bed, and Queen Mary invited us to walk along to her house on Palmeras, a block away, to see where it’s located, so we’d absolutely know, for the dinámica. Wille had instructed us to arrive en punto, a time virtually unknown in Mexico.
Ana María disappeared promptly once we went inside, and since we declined a coke Queen Mary escorted us to the other side of a patio fence where her son and grandchildren live. She invited us to the Christmas fiesta her son would host for the children to break a piñata. Jonathan will notify us of the day and hour. I could hear George’s brain working again, this time on how he could get some piñata candy.
This is your house, Queen Mary told us, in the traditional way. She wrote on a piece of paper for me, Reyna María Arreola Rodriguez, the address, the telephone number, the hour and day of the dinámica – no way to get lost. Wille, along with Ana, vanished, and I was feeling the fatigue that results from chatting and laughing in a foreign language. We thanked her as best we could, said goodbye to Jon, and took off.
The walk back to our apartment was much shorter because we knew the way. I felt enormously better when I awoke from my nap.
Only three more events to get through, to see Jonathan safely married.
On Saturday, not knowing the wedding fairy had us in thrall, we went off to Huayapán. We went innocently, just to travel like the idle rich – to any place by bus, for three pesos. The tiny town of Huayapán was recommended by a friend who loves the traditional ways of Oaxaca. We disembarked behind the church, and came round to the empty zócalo.
The tiny square enclosed on one side the local jail, a cage, inside which a man was howling, “Señ-o-o-o-r! Aye, Señ-o-o-o-o-r!” Neither the Lord nor anyone else responded to his wail. The other side of the zócalo is a roofed and concrete mercado, entirely empty; the third side, the municipal buildings, were all shut. With no other option, we strolled down two or three dirt streets lined with houses of adobe and sleeping dogs. A woman passing stopped us and invited us to go to a wedding, taking place in just a few minutes, in the church. She asked where we were from, accepted us as foreigners, and said the wedding was the place to be – indeed, the only show in town.
George and I circled the dogs and unpaved streets, admiring a few arches, very nicely constructed of the same adobe brick. By now steeple bells were clanging, so we ascended the sloping street and made our way into the church.
These churches! Virtually every one bears a sign proclaiming a Cultural Patrimony restoration. They are so old. This one of Huayapán lost not only its paint on the interior domed ceilings and side murals, but also suffered structural damage in the last earthquake. The many saints appeared in good shape, though, well-clothed and surrounded by flowers and candles. We entered a pew, and sat trying to avoid kicking the kneeling rail.
At the front stood the bride and groom. The congregation numbered perhaps forty, in day clothes, so jeans were not out of place. Four guys who also sang played wedding music on guitars. Little children scampered through the aisle while the priest told us the bride was a Huayapán girl but the fellow a stranger from San Pablo Etla, at least fifteen miles away. Nevertheless they found love.
To show what love can accomplish, the priest baptized two toddlers during the wedding ceremony – he doesn’t come often to this tiny parish. Then vows were exchanged. Next to us an old woman wearing the usual cotton checkered delantal tied over her dress, kneeled and stood and kneeled and stood, nimble in a way which astonished me. If she had arthritis it didn’t show, but goiter did, climbing her throat in front of her thin gray braided hair. If she was poor – and I believe they’re all poor – that didn’t show either, because when the collection plate came around she called out to the man holding it, who might have passed her by; she took her peso from her delantal pocket and tossed it in.
I wondered what age was. Often it’s better not to know.
As the ceremony seemed interminable, we stepped out to the courtyard where fireworks were exploding. The usual gaggle of small boys gazed upward enchanted as rockets banged and gray flakes rained down. The band sat ready on the stone walls, holding their cornets and tubas. Finally the priest appeared and sped away in a green Dodge. The four-man guitar band tumbled out of the back door into a waiting truck. A boy neatly dressed in a green sweater came round and offered rice from a basket, for us to throw at the hapless couple who now moved into the waiting sunshine. They flinched; the bride turned her back to protect her face, the groom shielded his eyes with his hand. Rice pelted them like hail. The band played.
An ordinary-appearing couple.
They set off on foot, the bride lifting her traditional ivory satin dress above the dust. The groom wore a gray suit jacket over unmatched gabardine pants. Behind them trailed family and friends. The band was cheerful, and so were we, following along uninvited. Nobody minded us, and after three blocks the wedding party turned a corner toward their waiting festivities, and we continued along the main road. We met the bus returning to Oaxaca, and waved it to a stop. That’s also traditional, since bus stops in the country are wherever the traveler stands. Through the bus window I could make out in the rolling distance the blue eye of one Huayapán dam.
We’ve been to a 2001 wedding, and the 2002 wedding is approaching. I suppose Jon’s and Ana’s will be a classier affair. But the basics are the same. They seem to want to be married.
Part Two: Well, first, the word dinámica was completely unknown to other Mexican friends. After I described it as best I could, they nodded thoughtfully andreplied, yes, a family blessing on the couple. A bendición.
On the evening of the event we arrived at five punctually, but others of course were late, including the brother of the groom, who is not even Mexican. Eventually, the master of ceremonies began, with a speech on the importance of love and marriage, and then a recorded song in praise of eternal love, and then another speech and finally he signaled for bringing of gifts. Each gift was also accompanied by a “lesson” printed in Spanish, with a place at the bottom to sign our names.
The gifts one by one were carried forward to the waiting couple seated at the front of the room. I felt a sudden urge there to say “doomed couple”, but they really seemed okay. Ana wore a white beribboned shift with a lace underskirt, very Mexican. Unfortunately, she looked a tiny bit pregnant. Naturally, we wouldn’t inquire. As the evening wore on, she looked more than a tiny bit tired.
We all sat in chairs along the walls, facing the couple. George and I stood while he read out our gift’s lesson. After the gifts came the blessing. More words from the master of ceremonies, and now they were translated into English by the padrino, Jon’s good friend and sponsor, down from the US for the wedding. Audience members made speeches on the importance of marriage, and those were translated. I believe I counted ten or so before I quit. Wisely, the padrino said that in the interest of finishing at a reasonable hour, he would skip some, to translate later on for those who needed to know.
Then Queen Mary made a speech, and gave her blessings. All the women shed tears, and Jon was handed a kleenex, and so was Jon’s brother, who apparently thought bachelor Jon would never marry. The brother assured us his wife (sitting beside his empty chair as he stood to speak) was beautiful and they were extremely happy.
It was clear this business of bendición is actually a family and community ceremony to impress on Jonathan that the marriage is for real – no skipping off to the USA and leaving behind a ravished bride.
The method of blessing is as follows: one makes the sign of the cross individually upon bride and groom, then using two hands, brings together their heads, until they touch.
Two hours later I was desperate to stand up, my back killing me on the little wooden chair. George and I got to our feet, and blessed the couple without making the sign of the cross. I hope it took anyway.
The bendición was followed by a buffet supper, with a disk jockey to make sure the bride, groom parents, brothers and in-laws, god-parents, etcetera, etcetera, danced a waltz with bride, groom, and one another. Beer, champagne for toasting, good food – and then the genuine Mexican dancing erupted.
Around ten o’clock George and I left the party. There was no doubt it would go on without us.
Although I thought the bendición was a real fun ordeal, it hardly compared to the actual wedding. The service at Our Lady of the Poor mercifully began only fifteen minutes late, and was brief, only an hour and a half, and I felt cheered by the time we arrived at the restaurant for the party. Silly me.
Add one hundred fifty people, loud speakers, and repeat all the above.
We chatted with whomever we could over the noise. I admired the clothing of several people, men, women and children, who wore outfits made of manta, as the bride’s dress was, only hers was scalloped and embroidered and carried a long train. Manta is cotton, but of a kind not seen in the US – heavy as cream.
Now a live band appeared, and mezcal, champagne, beer, and food which clearly was not the important part of the event. The blessing of the couple was repeated in another form: the bride placed wreaths on the heads of those who brought her into the world or helped her grow and learn – in fact, quite a lot of people. Again, the community clearly joined those two, never to be put asunder.
Ana’s godfather twirled me around, George joined the line of men dancing around the groom who was tossed into the air by his friends; everybody danced together and separately. The bride’s train was held up as she stood on a chair, to form an arch under which the dancing could snake. Some of the traditional antics struck me as verging on cruelty, but the bride held up well. The groom made a great show of taking off her garter, the bride threw the bouquet, all went according to plan. Once those miserable waltzes terminate, Mexican dancing is all-out.
At our table sat one other English-speaking person, and the “sister-cousin” of Queen Mary, and her family, one of whom is named Xicotencatl. Not that the family is Nawal, they’re not, their mestizo mix is Zapoteco. Mercedes, the mother, just liked the name. I got on with Mercedes who shares a birth year with me, and we spoke of getting together for dancing lessons so I could better hold up my end of future Mexican festivities. I asked Mercedes if she knew if Jon and Ana Maria would have a honeymoon, but she was extremely happy and just shrugged. On my other side, the Canadian woman, who lives in Guatemala, confided in George’s ear some of her tragic life. Meanwhile, George got on wonderfully with Xico until Xico was too drunk to speak. By then many others were no better off. The exhausted couple cut the cake.
Since nobody remained sober enough to talk to, and the loudspeaker blared near our table, once again we departed before the festivities ended.
If you’re keeping tally, we spent (including meals) four hours getting Jonathan licensed, five hours getting him blessed, and eight hours getting him married.
Demonios, as we say in Oaxaca. The marriage must last to amortize our investment over the next fifty years.
On Sunday, the following morning, George and I went out with our camera, to goof around. In front of a small hotel hidden away on the side of the Oaxaca hillside George saw a set of stones protruding from the side of a wall. On top of the wall was the sidewalk, these were stairs. I took his picture as he climbed. We also noticed a car parked on the street in front of the wall. Written on it: Ana y Jonathan, reciente casado. George took out a piece of paper and wrote a note to put under the windshield wiper. “We were going to drop in to see you but thought you might be busy. Love, George and Nancy.”