A December Tradition Gains Force in New Mexico

IMG_7671Editor’s Note:  Frontera NorteSur continues our new series of articles by New Mexico State University student writers with a fascinating look at a December religious and cultural tradition that’s  long crossed borders and is getting stronger all the time.  Today’s piece is by contributor  Nicolás Cabrera, New Mexico State graduate student in Spanish and a high school instructor in Albuquerque.

NMSU Student Series

On the evening of December 11th, the pews quickly filled as parishioners and visitors alike patiently waited to hear singers, mariachis, and other musicians sing “Las Mañanitas” to the Virgin of Guadalupe at the stroke of midnight. They gather faithfully each year at her namesake parish in Albuquerque’s historic Los Griegos neighborhood to continue a vibrant cultural and religious tradition that supersedes the modern U.S.-Mexico border.

For 18 years now, the red brick parish has been standing room only on the eve of December 12, the Virgin of Guadalupe’s feast day, as traditional serenades and dances that have traveled up and down the Camino Real for centuries are performed in Spanish. The first Mañanitas at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Parish was held in 1996, under the leadership of retired Rev. Ramón Aragón, and has become a major event in the local Hispanic community. Over 800 people fill the church to capacity as musicians, singers, and dancers patiently wait their turn to honor the Virgin Mary.

“This event is important because it happens all over Mexico,” said Rev. Joe Vigil, the parish priest since 2004. “There are serenatas all over. The biggest is in Mexico City, which are televised, and it’s a major part of the culture for the people of Mexico wherever they  live.”

Vigil said that the members of the Mexican community in Albuquerque purposely seek out the local Mañanitas each year. They come from all over the city by word of mouth and are also drawn to the parish’s name. He said the Mañanitas are important because they bring the Hispanic community together through a shared devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Manuel Facio is a Guadalupano and the son of a Mexican immigrant. He was raised in Santa Rosa, N. M. and remembers when his father took him to the Mañanitas in Mexico City when he was 12 or 13 years old.

“The tradition to sing the Mañanitas is very strong and a lot of people come because of the faith they have,” said Facio in Spanish after he and his family sang. “And others come just to listen the music and to see what it’s all about.”

Facio is a former deacon who sang at the first local Mañanitas 18 years ago. He said this tradition began in Albuquerque after a group of parishioners went to Mexico City on a pilgrimage with Aragón and experienced them first-hand, like he did. From modest beginnings by a handful of parishioners and choir members, it has grown to become an entire night filled with music, mariachis, and Mañanitas. According to Facio, the Guadalupana, as the virgin is popularly called in Spanish, holds both a cultural and religious significance for Mexicans on both sides of the border. The Mañanitas is a way to keep this unique Mexican tradition alive in New Mexico.

Chuy Martínez, who is from the southern state of Guerrero, Mexico, has been the emcee at the event for 16 years. Sylvia Tapia and he coordinate the musicians for the Mañanitas year after year. A few years ago they also worked with the City of Albuquerque Cultural Events Department to make a documentary about the local event.

For Martínez, the importance of the Mañanitas lies in the mestizaje of the Guadalupana. He says the songs and dances reflect the ethnic and cultural diversity that is found in Mexico. For example, although the songs are sung in Spanish and the musical instruments are European in origin, the dances are a unique fusion of Native American and Spanish traditions.

“Not only was she the first Virgin who was mestiza, but she helped unite the fragmented peoples in early modern Mexico,” he said. “Every state in Mexico has their own way of honoring her. For example, the dances of the Matachines are like prayers and vary slightly from place to place. Each sound of the drum is a beat in the prayer, like the beads on a rosary.”

At this year’s Mañanitas, there were 22 sets of singers, mariachis, musicians, dancers, and choirs with members from the United States, Mexico, and other countries. The church was filled to the brim as people began to huddle outside in the cold so they could hear the music coming from inside the warm church. Others stayed near the grotto on the church grounds where they lit farolitos, a type of New Mexican bonfire, and could join in song and prayer.

Both the small grotto and the parish are dedicated to the apparition of Tonantzin, the Nahuatl name for the Virgin of Guadalupe, to San Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin in December 1531 in Mexico.

Alejandro Martínez (no relation to Chuy Martinez), who is originally from the north-central Mexican state of Zacatecas, is the leader of a group of 16 matachines who range in age from 8 to 18. Their group is called Danza Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe and they have been performing at the Mañanitas for over eight years.

“The Matachines are an deep-rooted tradition,” he said as he took a short break from playing the drum. “It’s a type of prayer through dance for the Guadalupana. It comes from the Aztecs and has been adapted through the centuries all across Mexico.”

MartĂ­nez said that a complete dance requires a full set of dancers who wear traditional clothing. He and his dancers wear traditional handmade outfits that include nagĂĽillas, which are the skirt-like garments adorned with hollow reeds; guajes which are the rattles; arcos which are the bows; huaraches which include the footwear; and the penachos, which is the name of the headdress of feathers.

The group Martínez leads begins practicing for the big night in November and on this evening  they dance for about two hours, both inside and outside of the church, as do thousands of other Matachines around the world.

On the same night at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, hundreds of thousands of Mexicans make a pilgrimage to the shrine where San Juan Diego witnessed the Marian apparitions. The hillside is called Tepeyac and is one of the most sacred sites in all of Mexico. Rev. Alberto AngĂłn, a priest in the Archdiocese of Mexico City, says between 80,000 and 100,000 pilgrims flock each year to Tepeyac on December 11th and 12th to sing, pray, and give thanks.

“She takes care of Mexicans in a very special way,” said Angón. “Especially those who are outside of the country. It’s a chance for Mexicans everywhere to give thanks for the favors received during the past year. And while maybe people don’t go to church year-round, on her feast day everyone celebrates with Mass, special meals, and dances. There are some who even offer her a toast.”

To highlight the cultural importance of the Mañanitas for Mexicans everywhere, they are broadcast live on television from the basilica throughout Mexico. In the United States, the Spanish-language television network Univisión carries them live. In more intimate settings, the song “Las Mañanitas” is sung on the same evening throughout Mexico in parishes big and small that bear her name or display her image. Expatriate Mexicans in the United States and elsewhere have taken the tradition with them as a way to stay connected to their homeland and culture.

Jenny Hernández attended the Mañanitas and said that she grew up with tradition of these December serenades in her home state of Tlaxcala, Mexico. That was where her own mother showed her the devotion that she is now passing along to her own daughter in New Mexico.

“When we were small our mom raised us asking the virgin to intercede on our behalf and to always give thanks to her,” said Hernández in Spanish as she was walking into church. “Everyone in my family has had this devotion to  Our Lady of Guadalupe since I can remember. And now I’m bringing my daughter to teach her the same traditions that we were taught and to believe in God and the Guadalupana.”

As the serenatas are being sung in in Mexico City and the rest of Mexico, at Guadalupe church in Albuquerque it is standing room only by 8:30 pm, a half-hour before the singing is set to begin. All the pews are filled as the giant image of the virgin is moved to the center of the altar. According to Vigil, this image is special because it has touched the original tilma that hangs in the basilica in Mexico City.

Throughout the evening singers, musicians, and choirs come to the altar to sing songs and perform music. The youngest performer was eight years old and the oldest was 83. Dancers use the beat of drums and footsteps as a form of prayer without words. And at the stroke of midnight on December 12th, the altar is filled with an ensemble of the evening’s performers as the congregation joins them in singing “Las Mañanitas.” In the evening of 12th, a Mass for the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe is also celebrated in the church.

Facio said that the church fills up because of the night’s cultural significance and Mexicans’ certain yearning for home.

“The tradition to sing the Mañanitas is very strong and comes from long, long ago,” he said. “It has been extended from Mexico to lots of countries, such as the United States, where it’s really starting to take hold and grows each year.”

Alejandro MartĂ­nez says that it is important for him to continue the dance traditions that have been passed down in his family for generations, such as each danzante making their own Matachines outfits.

“The Mañanitas is a very special celebration,” he said. “It’s important for us to honor the Guadalupana since we love her and cherish her so much. It’s important for our children to continue these traditions and to know how their ancestors have honored her for a long time. There are lots of times when young people turn their backs on their traditions and forget what all this means.”

“Las Mañanitas” is a traditional song sung in Spanish in Mexico, and abroad, at birthdays, baptisms, quinceañeras, and other important events. The song’s origins are debated and the lyrics can vary, but is widely accepted that the song is Mexican. It has deep cultural roots and significance to generations of Hispanics in Mexico, New Mexico, and the Southwestern U.S. This cultural patrimony is also sung to honor the Virgin of Guadalupe, the most popular Marian devotion in Mexico, thereby making “Mañanitas” another name for the December gathering of Mexicans to serenade the Guadalupana.

“Mañanitas Tapatías” (Tradicional)

Qué linda está la mañana

En que vengo a saludarte

Venimos todos con gusto

Y placer a felicitarte


El dĂ­a en que tĂş naciste

Nacieron todas las flores

En la pilar del bautismo

Cantaron los ruiseñores


Ya viene amaneciendo

Ya la luz del dĂ­a nos dio

Levántate de mañana

Mira que ya amaneciĂł


— Nicolás Cabrera


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