In the state of Oaxaca, about 4 hours Southeast of Oaxaca City, 16th century, about 30 cm natural wood with burn marks from a fire.
The Virgin of Juquila,
La Morenita (Dear Dark One),
originally: the Most Pure Virgin of the Conception of Amialtepec.
There are several versions of the legend of this Dear Dark One. The most common one claims that her first known owner was a Dominican priest called Frey Juan Jordán de Santa Catarina. He was the first to bring Christianity to the state of Oaxaca. Some say he brought this statue from the Philippines, which would explain the oriental hair do under her wig. He kept this little figure on his personal altar until he moved on to another area in 1558. The monk had an indigenous house servant who was from Amialtepec and who had a great love for this Morenita. Upon his departure the priest gave the Madonna to his faithful, young servant. The humble peasant kept her on an altar in his hut and that's where she first began to perform miracles. Once she was recognized as a miracle worker, her fame quickly spread.
75 years later, in 1633, the Church authorities took notice of this Virgin so well loved among the Indians. Seeing that her owner was well advanced in years, the clergy decided it was time to build a church for her. Only that way could they ensure that the image would be surrounded by a truly Christian cult and that the offerings people had been leaving to her would be used appropriately. The old Indian servant was at first opposed to this idea, but somehow he was persuaded to let the Dark Mother move out of his hut and into a Christian temple.
In those days, every winter the locals would burn their fields in preparation for spring sowing. One year a great wind suddenly whipped the fire out of control and it consumed the whole village, including the church. The villagers barely got away with their lives. When they returned to see if the fire had spared anything, they found the only surviving object in the church and the village was the Most Pure Virgin standing on her sculpted agave plant, on which she still abides today. The fire stained her face dark, owning her the title Morenita.
With her miraculous survival in the flames the Black Madonna's fame spread even more. Apparently this led the priest in the nearby town of Juquila to covet the famous statue. His name was Jacinto Escudero and he announced that the Virgin really should reside in a larger, more dignified, and more accessible church - i.e. his own. Again her owners did not want to let her go, but were somehow "persuaded". However, it seems that Our Lady also wanted to stay with the simple folk in the mountains and so, the night after she had been brought to Juquila, she stole back to Amialtepec. The Indians were punished for stealing her, she was brought back to Juquila and guarded day and night. Still, she escaped again and returned home. Now tension between the two towns rose to dangerous levels as she was ordered back to Juquila for a third time. Extra guards, chains, and locks were installed. But the Mother of God was not going to be chained down. In a flash of light she was back with the villagers. With that the priest finally saw the error of his ways, he relented, and the people's fervor for their Dark Mother doubled.
Because of the violent and stubborn way in which Jacinto Escudero had handled the whole situation he was transferred to Guadalajara. Unfortunately, after a while he forgot the powerful signs the Virgin had worked in order to make her will known. In his conceit he pitted the Church against the Queen of Heaven, asking the bishop of Oaxaca to move Our Lady back to Juquila. And so in 1719 the bishop talked to the people of Amialtepec until they finally gave into his insisting request. They expected their Mother to miraculously return to them a fourth time and as often as was needed, even if they allowed her to be brought to Juquila. In order to show their good will they even participated in a great, solemn procession escorting her with much pomp.
Unfortunately they were disappointed. The gentle Mother did not wish to fight her Church any longer. She tries to teach her children, but she can't force the clergy to learn. We're not sure what exactly happened next; the historical records burnt in a fire. But somehow many people died in the church during the Morenita's first days in Juquila. Some think there was fighting, others say many who entered were struck by a plague of sorts, caused either by natural or supernatural powers.
Nonetheless the image remained there and gradually people accepted the Mother's new home. She appeased them by continuing to work miracles in both her old and new domicile. Her children learned how to honor her in both places.
This is what they do to this day: For the thousands of pilgrims who come to Juquila every week their visit starts in Amialtepec, 9 kilometers before Juquila. There they go to the chapel of 'El Pedimento' (the request), a shrine high on a hill near the original site. The ground around El Pedimento is dense clay, which is considered sacred and is said to have healing properties. People use this clay in various ways. Some rub their faces with it, some eat it, but most use it to give shape to their requests. As God created the earthling (Adam) out of clay so the children of God co-create their dreams. They sculpt little clay houses, cars, farm animals, food, husbands, body parts that need healing, anything they want…. Then they attach a message addressed to the Virgin and lay their "request" at the feet of a large ceramic copy of the Black Madonna. On their return the following year they bring a cross with some type of sign on which they give thanks for the granting of last year's favor.
So popular is this shrine that each day a caretaker hauls all of the offerings, requests, and crosses out back, forming an enormous holy dump pile.
Having finished at El Pedimento, the pilgrims continue to Juquila. Many crawl the last two kilometers, from the entry area to the actual statue, on their knees. They make their way along a dirt road that leaves their knees bloody upon arrival. Once at the feet of their Mother, many pilgrims make a promise, vowing something like: "If you get me safely to the USA I will come back here to give you thanks when I return to Mexico." Or: "If you grant me a child I will make this pilgrimage three more times in my life."
Many stories testify to this Dark Mother's willingness to help her children. She is credited with curing the ill, raising dead babies back to life, granting sudden wealth, etc. But there is a price. You have to keep your promise and you have to observe chastity during the pilgrimage. One story tells of "a lusty, overeager couple who stopped by the roadside to engage in some hanky-panky and presto, were changed to stone. To this day, it is said, they are stuck there, somewhere off in the mountains, belly-to-belly."(1)
The feast day of the Morenita of Juquila is December 8th. On any given day "you'll pass hundreds of pilgrims on foot and bicycle, some camping out for days, even months. You'll wind among truckloads of the faithful packed under tarp-covered pickups, forming a kind of modern-day wagon train."(2) On her special day the roads become particularly jammed. The occasion is celebrated with a fair, fireworks, sporting events, indigenous and contemporary dances.
*1: Carlos Amantea, Our Lady of Juquila: Lovers Set in Stone, www.ralphmag.org
*2: Most of the information in this article is based on the story told on the back of a Mexican calendar depicting the Virgin of Juquila, but some information, including this passage, is taken from Carol Alice and Geri Anderson's internet article: A Day in Santa Catarina Juquila