Walking to the Black Christ

February 26, 2022

The town of Chalma is around 60 miles from here. Every year, groups of pilgrims pass through our village en route to the shrine, which is Mexico’s second most popular religious destination after the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The legends surrounding it vary, but the central image of Christ in the Sanctuary is a reputed miracle-worker.

The main entrance of the shrine of the Black Christ in Chalma.

Pilgrims began arriving here two days ago. Often, they crash at night in the civic plaza, having brought mats, old eiderdowns or maybe just a blanket to sleep on under the stars. In the morning, they set off again for Tepoztlan, then head onto a route that again winds through the mountains of central Mexico.

Their mood is usually cheerful, though it’s clear some of the older pilgrims are suffering pain from the long walk. I know I couldn’t do it. Frequently, people carry a rock with them that represents accumulated sins, or some petition they wish to make to the Christ of Chalma. The one time I walked a short part of the route, with hiking buddy Ixchel Tucker, there was a young man whose rock must have weighed 15 lb, and maybe more. I can only hope he got what he wanted from all that effort. Ixchel and I were wiped out after our four or five miles (more if you count the steep ups and downs and ups), having started from near the town of Tlayacapan.

Pilgrims on the march. The man in front is carrying a religious banner.

The pilgrimage is accompanied by buses or trucks. These can’t go on the rougher tracks, like the one we hiked, but they can come round and meet people as they complete a stretch of the hike. They might bring tents, bedding or spare clothes, so people don’t have to carry as much as they travel. It’s also possible some people might need to drop out, at least for part of the journey, so the trucks provide transportation for them, too.

I welcomed the sight of the pilgrims this week, after the deaths I reported in the last blog. It felt as if their passage through the village was a breeze blowing the ill mood away.

A truck with supplies and gear for pilgrims passing through our village.

It’s always difficult to convey to non-Mexicans what death means here. Dying isn’t nearly as prohibited or distasteful a topic as it is in the US or Canada, as shown by the festival of the Days of the Dead. There’s a fatalism around its inevitability, and no-one assumes they’ll necessarily live into their dotage. Death is more of a companion than a forbidden subject for discussion, and not everyone was grief-stricken over the two deaths. Students of a friend of mine, who teaches English to Mexicans, thought it was funny: too typically Mexican to be considered a particular tragedy. However, the initial reaction here was by no means ironic. The anger was tangible.

In the past few days, the atmosphere here has become more like a kind of embarrassment, except for the families directly affected. The pilgrims seem to dispel that, and have redirected the mood and distracted the community.

I imagine, though, that next year, some of the people most directly involved with the deaths will themselves be making their own pilgrimages to the Black Christ of Chalma.

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