May 3 is known as “Día de la Santa Cruz”, “La Fiesta de las Cruces” and also “Cruz de Mayo”. In Mexico, the day is special for all those who work in construction, including builders, labourers, architects and engineers. Traditionally, a cross is placed on the high point of the construction site. The cross is then decorated with flowers or coloured paper as a mark of protection for all those who work below it.
In the town of Teotitlán, here in Oaxaca, May 3 is the day during which the community climbs to the highest point of Picacho, the mountain above the town, to sit below the cross erected there, ask favours of protection and look out over the valley and their homes below. This year, a group of En Vía staff and volunteers decided that we would also partake in the pilgrimage to the summit.
Before shot – Picacho in the background
We set off excited and determined. In some places the trail was extremely steep, a mere rock-fall possibly carved out by water over wetter seasons. In other places, the trail levelled out and was maintained and marked by carefully hand-placed stones. I used the excuse of frequently stopping to take photos and admire the view, which changed in light and prospect with every rise and turn. (Really, I admit, every time I stopped I was gulping for breath!)
As I walked, little bits of colour caught my eye in the dry landscape. Tiny cacti flowers flashed yellow and red. Pairs of great winged birds rode the hot air currents above us. More than once I wished I could have floated just as easily to the peak! Sam stopped us to point out a wonderfully spiky-skinned lizard that blended so cleverly into the rocks that it took me a good while to see it. The wind rattled brittle branches. I revelled in the feeling of being far away from everything and everyone.
I was beginning to think I wouldn’t make it to the summit when I started to notice little signs of human life ahead. A couple of donkeys were tied up and waiting next to some shady trees. A lost sombrero blew past me. Then I saw some clusters of people. There was even someone I recognised! Ofelia, a borrower in the programme, gave me an encouraging smile and a pat on the shoulder, recognising that I had entirely lost the power of speech.
Finally I stumbled into the small rocky clearing that was the summit. Jon, an En Vía volunteer, calmly placed a steaming hot tamal in my hand. I stared around in disbelief. Someone was serving hot food, here on the top of the mountain? Some thoughtful soul had brought several large metal canisters of fresh tamales up the slope on the back of a donkey. I was ecstatically grateful for the sustenance. I think the chili may literally have restarted my heart!
We made it! En Vía staff and volunteers look surprisingly lively post-climb
I started noticing what was going on around me. To my astonishment, there were several dozens of people on the mountain top. Some were sitting in small shady spots where the rocks overhung. Right by the edge, an actual tarpaulin was strung up, seemingly an official picnic site! Old men with straw hats gathered before the wide view and raised little plastic cups of mescal in quiet salute. (I stuck to cool, sweet agua de jamaica which I was generously served from a big drum).
The locals know how to throw a good picnic
At the centre of this activity was the altar, crowned with a wooden cross. The altar was comprised of a rocky niche or grotto with crucifixes, candles and sacred images. Draped over the cross, a string of flowers swung in the breeze. In Oaxaca, these particularly aromatic flowers are known by the náhuatl word, Cacalosúchil, or in Spanish, flor de mayo. In North America you might know them as may flowers. In Australia we call them frangipanis. They bloom in early May and consequently have become an important part of the Día de la Santa Cruz.
The altar and cross, overlooking a beautiful view of the valley
We had a chat with a woman called Lourdes as she handed out food. She casually and capably looked over the proceedings on that small outcrop. “Yes, it is beautiful here”, she said, “some people stay for just a little while, other families spend the whole morning or afternoon up here.”
“Of course”, she continued, “there were people up here last night also, for the Midnight Rosary. Many came down after, at around 1am.” After the effort of getting up, I could not fathom the idea of making my way down the slope in the dark of night!
We did make it eventually make it down. I was reluctant to lose the sense of wide skies and quiet, sweeping winds. However, following our descent, we were greeted by the familiar and delightful sights and sounds of the town: sun on the water of the dam, local basketball tournaments, church bells, produce being taken out for sale and families enjoying their weekends. How beautiful it had all looked from the height of the mountain. And how beautiful it really was, to feel something like belonging, as we walked (weary but happy), back through the streets of Teotitlán.
By Kim Groves