San Francisco Tetlanohcan, Mexico — As their children worked and prayed far away in New Haven, families in this dusty Mexican village took to the streets to keep a local tradition alive.
A two-day celebration took place last week in San Francisco Tetlanohcan, a tiny agricultural village in Mexico’s smallest state, Tlaxcala. People who left the sun-scorched towns of Tlaxcala comprise a large portion of New Haven’s Mexican immigrant population. Their presence can be found in the pews of St. Rose of Lima Church in Fair Haven, and in businesses like Tlaxcala Grocery on State Street.
San Francisco Tetlanochan, a dusty pueblo of 10,000 people, lies in the shadow of a looming extinct volcano called La Malinche (pictured). In just two days here, we met a half-dozen families who have a close relative — a son, cousin, daughter, dad — living in New Haven, 2,000 miles away.
Many of them gathered Thursday to kick off an annual festival in honor of a Catholic saint, the Virgen de Dolores, the Virgin of Sorrows.
According to local tradition, families take turns each year hosting images of the saints in their homes, then cooking food for hundreds of parishioners who parade the images through the town before returning them to the church for Holy Week.
Mid-day Thursday, over 150 people converged at one family’s home to pick up baskets of gladiolas and statues of the Virgin, Jesus, and Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the town. Before heading out, they passed around baskets of tamales, cornmeal-based dough stuffed with chicken and salsa and wrapped in the husk of the area’s most abundant crop, corn. Thus fortified, young men hoisted canopies to protect the virgin’s white face from the sun.
The procession wound through the streets to the tune of drumbeats. It passed rows of block concrete buildings with corrugated metal roofs. It passed dusty farms bordered by wild mague cacti, from which is squeezed a popular statues milky liquor, pulque.
The procession stopped at a second home, where men and women escorted the statues inside for a break from the heat. The Virgin (pictured at the top of the story) didn’t fit through the doorway, so she stayed outside in the shade, where a crowd peeled open another round of tamales.
Everyone we meet here was eager to hear about life all√°. All√°, “over there,” is understood to mean the USA, which hovers on everyone’s mind so much that it doesn’t need to be named.
From all√° come phone calls from loved ones working at construction sites, laundry facilities and meat packing plants. From all√° comes money to lay tiles on bare cement floors, build roofs, install windows, and erect beautifully colored, two-story homes that rise above the rest of the block. Some of those homes sit empty, with a family member tending the flowers until the owner returns from the States.
A small group of people from this village had just returned from a trip to the U.S., which granted 10 women a six-month permit to enter the country and share their traditional folkloric dance. For some, that meant reconnecting with sons and fathers they hadn’t seen for years, and meeting grandchildren for the first time.
Others who weren’t lucky enough to make that trip are awaiting news from their faraway families through a New Haven ambassador, Father James Manship. Manship, pastor of New Haven’s St. Rose of Lima Church, is planning a third trip to Tlaxcala in mid-April. He said he plans to visit Puebla and several towns in Tlaxcala to better understand the roots, traditions, and culture of his parishioners. (Click here for one account of a similar trip to Ecuador last year.) Villagers, who credit him with helping their struggling family members in New Haven, were hoping to put together a big reception for his visit.
Meanwhile, they continued their local tradition with scattered rose petals, songs of prayer, and lots and lots of food. A team of appointed cooks spent all night stirring cauldrons of meat as the festival continued with a 7 a.m. breakfast serving 200 people Friday. After plates of nopal cacti, cuts of beef, dancing to a brass band and a few sips of tequila, they headed off to mass.
The festival continued at lunch, with vats of traditional mole sauce poured over beef and distributed to anyone who wanted to eat.
Back at St. Rose of Lima, Manship said New Haveners with roots in San Francisco Tetlanohcan are planning a festival in New Haven in May to coincide with Cinco de Mayo.