Conchero’s sanctuaries and pilgrimages

Concheros in the plaza

Concheros in the plaza

Yolotl González Torres
INAH, Mexico

Pilgrimages in Mexico are very common ritual practices which generally take place in Catholic sanctuaries with a strong pre-Hispanic syncretism as we shall explain later. According to written texts by the chroniclers there were many places of pilgrimages in pre-Hispanic times and several scholars think that many of the important pre-Hispanic archaeological ceremonial centers were also pilgrimage centers (Martínez Marín, Piña Chan) and that some of them developed into urban centers like Teotihuacan (Heyden) Besides, there is for instance the evidence of the Huicholes, an ethnic group very little affected by Spanish culture, for whom the pilgrimage to Wirikuta in search of the peyote plant plays a fundamental role in the religious life of the community; ” they pass along the roads where the cosmos is built as they move to the sacred places. They serve the gods, doing what they established, repeating their actions and the world they created” (Rajsbaum p.47). We must bear in mind also that one of the most important mythico-historical accounts of a journey of the Mexica people from Aztlan- their land of origin somewhere in the Northwest of Mexico- to the island in the lake in the Valley of Mexico where they founded their city Tenochtitlan, was called a “pilgrimage.” Even if it lasted about two hundred years, we may consider that they were actually in a pilgrimage, in a liminal state as they had to perform through out a series of common ritual activities to prove to the god who was guiding them that they were worthy of his protection. When they reached the promised place, which was marked by a sign – an eagle standing on a cactus and eating a snake – they came to the end of their pilgrimage, they returned to their usual and former activities and left their wandering life.

El Arenal

Conchero en el Arenal

The sanctuaries which attract pilgrims differ from common temples in that they go beyond the ordinary meeting places of the devotees. It is usually believed that in these places a saint or the image of one appeared miraculously, or that the image behaves in a supernatural way like crying or moving and that it grants favors and performs miracles, which becomes the main attraction for the pilgrims.

It is said that if mysticism is an interior pilgrimage, pilgrimage is exteriorized mysticism (Turner and Turner p 7) and also that the pilgrim enters into a state of communitas, or commmoness of feeling shared with the rest of the people. (ibid p. 13).

We shall talk on this occasion about the sanctuaries which the concheros, or dancers of tradition have as obligation to go on a pilgrimage to dance every year. The concheros are groups of people organized in brotherhoods or mayordomias, whose ritual activities include a diurnal and public one, which is dancing in honor of the saints, and a nocturnal and private one which is a wake in honor of the souls of the departed spirits, mainly, of the chiefs or leaders of the brotherhood. Because of this activity they received formerly the name of “brotherhood of the holy count.”



The name concheros is derived from their musical instruments similar to mandolines, which have a box of resonance made of conchas, armadillo conchs or shells which are considered their mystical arms full of power.

The concheros according to González Anahuac (p.214) are grouped in “dance lineages” who are descendants of a common “dance forefather,” who is made explicit in the standard. Each group is called a mesa “table,” following a Spanish army’s hierarchy pattern: captains, alferez, sargeants and soldiers plus a special post held by women called Malinches. The captain, who may be a man or a woman, is the leader of the mesa and his charge is usually hereditary. In his house there is an altar with the image of the patron saint of the mesa as well as the flag or standard which has a sacred character and is considered a relic are kept In his house the “wakes” also take place and may also be the meeting place for the dancers when they go to their ritual “obligations” like pilgrimages. The captain has to coordinate the organization of these pilgrimages as well as everything related to the ritual obligations, He has to provide all the food needed for these pilgrimages, for instance when they go to Chalma for one whole week, and he has to carry food for all the members of his mesa, as well as the utensils to cook it with,. Sometimes he has also to pay for the bus fare and even for the costumes of the dancers.. He is the possessor of the knowledge of the tradition, of the music and of the dance steps and very often he is also a healer, who knows the herbs and other elements for healing.

The sergeant is in charge of keeping order during the ritual activities and the malinches are in charge of the censers as wafting incense is a very important purifying activity, which is performed continually.

Head dress of a conchero

Head dress of a conchero

For their dances they wear fancy costumes, which formerly were a tunic, called the “naguilla,” “little skirt,” and a head dress made of ostrich’s feathers. Now only few groups wear this type of costume and most of them wear costumes copied from the pre-Hispanic codices with headdresses made of pheasant feathers, and sometimes dresses made copying the North American Indian costumes.

As mentioned before, one of the most important activities of the concheros is to dance ritually in the five sanctuaries (besides others which every mesa has as their own obligation) which are located in the form of a cross. The center of the cross is located the church of Santiago Tlatelolco and from which the four sanctuaries or winds radiate: to the north Our Lady of Guadalupe, to the West, our Lady of Remedies, to the South, the Christ of Chalma and to the East, the Christ of Sacromonte.

There is a devotional song or “praise” in which they mention the four winds linking them to the four evangelists, who are also linked to the four quadrants of the universe (after Zúñiga and Rodr’guez).

This is the first wind This is the third wind
We have to conquer We have to conquer
It is St Lucas soul it is St Marc’s soul
Who in the Gospel is who in the Gospel is
This is the second wind This is the fourth wind
We have to conquer We have to conquer
It is St John’s soul It is St Mathew’ soul
Who in the Gospel is Who in the Gospel is.

These sanctuaries are very popular not only with the concheros, but with other dancers and with all sorts of people. According to the range of their attraction they fall in the categories of international, Guadalupe’s; national, Chalma’s and Los Remedios and regional Sacromonte. (Turner and Turner)

We shall now give a description and a brief historical view of each one of them, starting with the church of Santiago Tlatelolco, which is located in what was the ceremonial center of the twin city of the Mexica. In this place, the archaeologists have found what they have called a “calendrical temple,” with a mural of the god and goddess Cipactonal and Oxomoco, who “created time.” “It is possible that the calendar temple was a cosmographic monument where specialist who dealt with the worship through the abstraction of the flux of time…could know about man’s destiny” (Guillame Arroyo p. 53). In this place there was also a temple of Huitzilopochtl -, their patron god of war and it was the last stronghold of the Mexica after the fall of their capital Tenochtitlan, and on the same place the Christian Friars built one of the first churches in honor of Santiago, the patron of the real and spiritual conquest, not only of the Indians of America, but also of the Muslims in Spain. This saint is also said to be the mythic patron saint of the concheros forefathers, after he appeared, along with a bright cross in the sky in July 1531, on a hill of Queretaro deciding a battle between Christianized and pagan Indians, converting the latter who promised to celebrate this event by dancing to the cross.

Santiago is called the courier of the four winds, and lord of dances. He is celebrated July 25, which coincides with the last passage of the sun through the zenith of Mexico city. He is the axis of the “march” (pilgrimage) the concheros have the obligation to make around the year to the four winds’ sanctuaries which as mentioned before are located in the four quadrants of the cosmos and whose celebration also coincides with important solar moments.

Concheros at the Cathedral

Concheros at the Cathedral

The Basilica of our lady of Guadalupe is possibly the most famous Marian sanctuary, not only in Mexico, but in Latin America and perhaps in the world. Actually an average of about a million pilgrims come to the modern Basilica which was built in 1974 and which is an “architectural whole which was projected to receive 10,000 people under the huge roof which covers the nave, but besides, its semicircular form was designed to receive with ease the great masses of pilgrimages which constantly enter the precinct from the immensity of the atrium, which functions as a great enclosure which antecedes the interior, that is to say, it is an architecture of pilgrimage” ( Valero p, 71).

The Basilica is located to the north of Mexico city and the place has now merged into the megalopolis. It is said that on the same site there was a temple dedicated to the goddess Tonantzin “Our mother” the story goes that on the 12 December of 1531 the Virgin Mary appeared to a humble Indian peasant called Juan Diego in a hill called Tepeyac. She told him that she wanted a shrine to be built for her in that same place. Juan Diego went to the bishop to tell him about the apparition, but the bishop wanted a proof. When Juan Diego asked the lady for such a proof; she told him to gather some roses which had grown in the wilderness and to place them in his cloak and take them to the bishop. He did as commanded and when he opened the cloak the roses fell and there appeared the very image of the Virgin Mary which is worshipped in the Basilica of Guadalupe. This image represents a young girl of brownish skin with a pink dress and a blue cloak with her hands held together as praying, she is standing on a crescent moon and surrounded by a solar halo. The whole figure is sustained by a querubin. It is said that in her mantle are painted the constellations and that in her pupils the figure of Juan Diego receiving the roses is reflected.

There is plenty of literature about the Virgin of Guadalupe and about the origin of the image. There are two currents pertaining to the latter topic: the apparitionists, who believe that the image has a supernatural origin, and the non apparitionists who believe that it was painted by human hands. These two currents which started in the XVI c. have had followers which include Catholic priests.

As far as we know the image was painted by an Indian called Marcos and the Viceroy Montufar in 1555 ordered it to be placed in a hermitage which had been built by the conquerors on the place where the image of the goddess Toci had been. In 1570 a church was built which displaced the old hermitage

In 1629 a great flood afflicted the city of Mexico and the Virgin of Guadalupe was offered many prayers to intercede to stop the rains. In 1648 the Catholic priest Miguel Sánchez published an essay “Image of the Virgin, Mother of God of Guadalupe” which was sustained by St. John’s Apocalipse. In it he argued that the image which appeared to the apostle was the “prophetic original of the Virgin of Guadalupe,” the prototype of the Mexican copy deposited in Juan Diego’s cloak (Gruzinsky p.128). He argued that Mexico had been conquered so that the image of Guadalupe appeared there as a symbol, “Mexico became then the providential receptacle in the theater won after a great battle, so that the apparition could be reproduced in the country.” All this gave a definitive impulse to her worship, from the Indian as well as from the Spanish side, which was later reinforced by several authors, turning among other things, the Virgin of Guadalupe into a national symbol.

In 1620, Pope Urbano VII, consecrated the cult of the Virgin of Tepeyac and in 1666 an apostolic trial was conducted by the Church so that the traditional date of the miraculous appearance of the painting should be kept as a day of precept with a proper mass and Office.

In the following century the Virgin’s cult acquired a diffusion which had no limits and she became the official patroness of the City of Mexico in 1737.

In 1810, Hidalgo, the priest who started the Independence movement of Mexico took the standard from a church with the image of the Virgin and shouting “Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe” went into battle. From then on Guadalupe became a symbol of the Insurgents.

It is curious that the very same president who secularized the State in 1857 and issued the Reform laws in Mexico which curtailed the power of the church was the one who made the 12 of December a National Holiday.

Juan Diego has been beatified few years back, in a way closing the argument as far as the church is concerned about his the historicity.

Chalmas’ sanctuary where the image of a crucified Christ is venerated is about 20 miles south of Mexico City, at the mouth of a broad canyon. . In older times the god Oztoteotl (god of the cave) was venerated there andfor some scholars it was a form of Tlaloc, the god of water,. It was an important pre-Hispanic place of pilgrimage. His celebration is in Pentecost or “little Easter.”

According to Agustinian records, on the day of Easter of the Holy Spirit of 1539 two Agustinian monks found in the larger cave of the canyon the idol Oztoteotl, who was worshipped by the inhabitants of the area. When they returned to the cave having made up their minds to preach there the word of Jesus Christ and to place a wooden cross inside, they found the idol shattered to pieces, and the cave full of flowers of beautiful aroma and in the place where the idol was they found an image of Christ crucified

This image of Christ remained in the cave for 143 years, but in 1683 it was brought down to a specially consecrated church for his worship, which became the first sanctuary of Chalma.

In 1830 the sanctuary was renovated. The present building has neoclassic style and only one nave. Its main facade faces the south.

From the middle of the XVI c. hostels to accommodate the pilgrims were built. These hostels are leaning against the wall of the canyon and have three superimposed bodies.

The original image of Chalma was destroyed by a fire in the XVIII century, and the image which is the venerated today was modeled with its remains. It is a little more than natural size and described thus:

“The lord is really impressive, his sight shatters the mind, he is displayed lifeless, the body heavily fallen over the cross, completely defeated. His legs are flexed, with the knees opened as flowers showing the bones. The head is sunken on his chest, with the face hidden on it, all of it tumescent, the nose sharp, the eyes closed, the eyelids swollen, the mouth hidden by the thick beard, the blood running in thick streams down the face, arms, legs and in the fingers and toes. It is an authentic corpse, wounded, battered and bleeding who scares the soul with fright and yet awakens the most tender compassion and the deepest spotless love”(Ayala cit. Gimenez p.74).

Chalma’s town is located at one side of the sanctuary and has grown at its shadow. It is surrounded by cliffs crowned by crosses which were placed there to scare the evil spirits. Each cross belongs to a group of devotees. Every year they are brought down to the atrium, painted and ornamented and then taken up again.

Some of the crosses are over seven meters high, which makes it a hard task to bring them up and down on such a steep hill. This task is made easier because of the great number of people who participate in the job.

When the cross is placed on the top of the hill, their dancers dance around it, and spend the night guarding it, singing and lighting artificial lights.

The pilgrimages to Chalma take some time for preparation. One month before the journey, pilgrims meet at the house of the captain to discuss and arrange all the preparations. The night before the departure they may gather in the house of the captain or meet at a certain point to go all together. Before, the pilgrimage was done on foot, and sometimes it is still done this way, or walking is combined with cars and buses. On the way there are houses for pilgrims, or private houses, where they are ginen lodging. On the way they sing and pray and the Malinches waft incense Near Chalma there is an ancient tree, on which they hang little bags with newborn baby’s umbilical cords, and sometimes woman’s hair. The women put their hands in a whole of the tree where water is coming out and they anoint the water into their bodies in order to become fertile.

In this place the pilgrims who come to Chalma for the first time, chose a godfather or a godmother who put on their heads a crown of flowers and then they all dance. And after when they reach the atrium of the church, the flowers are given to a mayordomo who places them in a stick.

A little further down there is a place called Chalmita, which is next to a cemetery and which is marked by three crosses. This is the starting point of the trail of penitence which leads to the sanctuary and which is trodden on a particular day by the penitents. It is also the place where the different groups gather and go on a procession, carrying their standards, wafting incensing on the way, playing their musical instruments and singing their praises.

Many quadrillas of pilgrimages have carried all the way from their village, or barrio, the image of their patron saint which has been covered by a blanket all the while. Here it is uncovered and is received by a conchero captain who incenses it and sings some praises.

After this they head to the church where they set their standards in the atrium.

Most members of the mesas of the dancers arrive on Saturday., if the groups have a long tradition of pilgrimage to Chalma, then they may obtain a place in the hostel, otherwise they will camp wherever they find a place, Some groups used to carry their petates (mats) and blankets- now they carry tents and sleeping bags. As mentioned before the captain has to supply all the food for the members of his mesa. One captain has even bought some land for his people to camp.

Chalma is a very important meeting place for the concheros. Different groups get together to exchange opinions and decide all matters regarding their organizations, and tradition. The captains get together in the night and very early next morning the concheros go along with people of the surrounding villages to bring down the crosses from the top of the hill. These crosses are decorated with a cloth called the zendal which hangs from the arms. and which has remained there for a year. It is taken down and cut into pieces which are kept as relics. The crosses are brought down and placed in the atrium where they are cleaned, polished and painted and ornamented with a new zendal . Then the dancers dance each day around their cross. As the atrium is not very large, the groups of dancers are allotted a certain place and time during the day and the night, in such a manner that all day and almost all night there is the sound of the conchas or the drums accompanying the dancers, who most of the time are wearing their beautiful bright costumes, with feathered headdresses and anklets made of special seeds which sound along with the different steps.

Thursday is the day of penitence, the penitents gather in Chalmita where they chose a penitent godfather or godmother who is to lay before them on the road, the cloth where the penitent walks on his/her knees to the sanctuary, the penitents also may go blindfolded or wear a crown of thorns. The concheros accompany them along the cobbled road singing praises.

After this procession they go to the sanctuary to thank the Lord for having received them and after this they consider that their obligation as pilgrims is over and that they are free to go back to their homes..

Is located to the East and here can be found the sanctuary of Sacromonte (sacred hill), at the feet of the volcanoes Popocatepetl and Iztacihuatl. Here is also a cave where a supine, dead Christ is worshipped. His celebration is on Ash Wednesday, according to the movable calendar of Holy Week, between February and March 10th.

Before the arrival of the Spanish an image of Tlaloc, god of water, was worshipped in this cave. On the path to the cave, there is also an old tree where the bags with the umbilical cords of newborn babies are hung.

Fray Martin de Valencia, one of the three first Franciscan friars who came to the New Spain to evangelize and who was considered a saint, established himself in Tlalmanaco at the foot of the volcanoes. He used to go to pray, make penance and to meditate to in a cave which was on a hill near by and which later received the name of Sacromonte “Sacred mountain.” When he died the Indians kept as relics: his cassock, sackcloth and chasuble to give masses, and later when a Dominican priest built an altar in the cave, he placed the relics next to the Christ image.

There are different versions about the mysterious finding of the image of Christ, whether it was found outside the cave or whether two mules carried it, and late mysteriously disappeared.

It is also said that some Indians tried to take Christ’s image out of the cave to place back their idol but it became so heavy that they could not move it. Since then they have asked the Christ’s image for permission to move it every year during the Holy Week to the chapel below in the town of Amecameca and only then he becomes light and allows the devotees to move him.

Los Remedios
It is said that the image of the Virgin of Remedies is the oldest which was brought by the Spanish conquerors, and that an image of hers was placed by Cortes in the first temple he found in Yucatan.

The Virgin of Remedies is celebrated on September 10th. The sanctuary we are referring to is located in the hill of San Juan Totoltepec in Naucalpan in the State of Mexico, Northwest of Mexico city, now also merged into the great city of Mexico. This place was also called the hill of Victory referring to the episode when after the battle of the “sad night” when the Spanish were defeated by the Mexicas, the surviving soldiers got together in that spot, out of gratitude to the Virgin of Remedies because she had saved them. Later some Spanish soldiers built a shrine in her honor.

It is believed that on that place, one of the soldiers lost a small wooden image of the Virgin which he was carrying and later it was found by an Otom’ Indian chief called Juan Ce Cuautli ( One eagle) under a maguey (cactus) plant.

The story goes that when Juan Ce cuautli (was going to the town of Tacuba he saw a lady who came towards him and recognized her as the one who fought along the Spanish on the Sad Night. She asked him insistently to look for her the following day in the same place, but he did not pay attention and just told the Franciscans. Friars about his encounter but soon after that, he fell from a pillar and was near dead and again he saw the lady coming towards him and gave him a belt of St Augustin an then he decided to pay attention to his protectress and went to the place she asked. Under the maguey plant he found the lost image, in which he at the moment recognized the lady of the apparitions. Immediately he covered her with his cloak “so that they wouldn’t see her or envy him” and took her to his altar in his house. Never the less the Lady went back again and again under the maguey in spite of Juan’s offerings, praying and supplications. He came to the extreme of locking her up in a box with a key and putting her under his bed. But everything was useless; the image went back to her refuge in the wilderness. Our chief finished giving up and one day when he was very ill, he went to Tepeyac to beg to the Guadalupe and asked her for health. She started laughing and said” Why do you come to my house .when having me in yours you threw me out of it”? After that, the dark virgin gave him precise order of how to build the hermit dedicated to Mary of the Remedies, who seeing her wishes properly fulfilled, came to set herself by her own will on the altar.” Alberro 1991, p.323).

The image of the Virgin of Remedies is small, about eleven inches high, as it was one of the so called saddle virgins which the Spanish soldiers carried along with them in the saddles of their horses. She is made of painted wood and carries on one of her arms Jesus child and in the other a staff. She is standing on a crescent moon which is on a maguey plant. She is elegantly dressed and. has a large wardrobe.

In 1550 a hermitage was built for her on the top of the hill and in 1574 the town hall of the city of Mexico took charge of her sanctuary and promoted her, in such a way that in the XVII c. her image was brought to the City of Mexico in procession many times more often that the one of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Around 1595 Alonso the Villasana painted the frescoes which decorate the hermitage of the Virgin telling her story.

The history of the Virgin of Remedies is somewhat parallel to the one of the Virgin of Guadalupe but, in spite of the words the last one said to the chief Juan Ce Cuautli, the followers of each virgin started a fight between themselves in such a way that during the war of Independence the Virgin of Guadalupe became the patroness of the Insurgents and the Virgen of Remedies of the Spanish. Although for some time the last one was more respected, Guadalupe won by far in popularity.

Why did the concheros of the city of Mexico chose these particular sites as their main obligations?

First of all we have to take into consideration that the concheros are quite heterogeneous, even if their general characteristic is that their main ritual activities are their dance obligations, their wakes in honor of the death, their organization in dance lineages, and that they are urban dwellers. But it seems that they are divided in geographic regions. It is commonly said that they originated in the area of Baj’o (Northwest of Mexico), which at the time of the Spanish conquest was a border area between “civilized” and semi nomadic Indians. Unfortunately there are very few records about the dance fraternities during the following centuries.

We have our doubts about this origin of the concheros precisely because of the locations of the sanctuaries we have mentioned, as we think that they are linked to a very old sacred geography of the people of the Valley of Mexico. Also that the concheros of the city of Mexico – many of whom are masons by professions are the descendants of the Indian fraternities or brotherhoods which were created very early after the conquest by the catholic priests who came to evangelize, in such a way that by 1585 there were more than 200 of these fraternities just in the city of Mexico (Gruzinsky p.160).

We know from the people who have studied the archives that the friars promoted the Indian dances as a devotional expression (Alberro, p.1998, p120) and that they preserved their dances, some of their costumes and many forms of their organization on which the friars superimposed their own. There are descriptions of the early days of the Colony of Christian festivals in which the Indians displayed their costumes which included their feathered headgear, and their arms: shields, and native swords. Many of these objects had a ritual character like the shields and the musical instruments we have mentioned. ( Gruzinsky p. 66).

Therefore we think that the four winds to which they say they have an obligation to go on pilgrimage and to dance are linked to the sacred geography of the Valley of Mexico, and although the sanctuaries do not coincide exactly with cosmological points, ideologically they do: they mark the limits of their most sacred realm with Tlatelolco as the axis mundi, with Santiago, saint of conquest- god of war- sun god, surrounded by saints-gods who represent the time of the year and their sacred space which may extend without limits to the four quadrants of the universe. Santiago conquered the New Spain so that the cult of Christ and the Virgin Mary would spread on the four quadrants of the universe, which are symbolized by the four sanctuaries, but under these the old cosmovision of the mesoamerican Indians permeates: we have mentioned that the four sanctuaries correspond to pre-Hispanic sanctuaries, and that all of them are located on hills, which must have been important landmarks. It is not by sheer chance that the two Marian sanctuaries are located in the North and West and that their festivals held during the “dark” side of the year, coincide also with pre-Hispanic festivals to goddesses nor is it by chance that the two crucified Christs are located in the East and South. Coinciding with the “bright” side of the year, with the time of growth and fertility. In their sanctuaries we find caves and the trees of life with the babies umbilical chords, and as Rodr’guez Carrasco (personal communication) points out the festivities of these two places are on movable dates of the Catholic Santoral related to the new and crescent moon, which is linked to fertility. On the other hand we have male / female images in the North-South as well as in the East-West axis, which is also a Mesoamerican trait.

We may conclude that the four pilgrimage sites, the four winds of the concheros cover space and time following the annual route of the sun: Santiago is at the center in Tlatelolco where a calendrical temple was found, and his feast day is on 25th July, the day of the second pass of the sun over the zenith in Mexico city In this way the pilgrims, through their dance rituals on their pilgrimage sites cover in space and time their whole sacred universe which has strong roots in the pre-Hispanic cosmovision in spite of all the history of conquest and of modernity of the country.

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