Mov­ing faith: Mex­i­can town’s saint feast lives in Min­nesota

Times-Herald (Vallejo) - - RELIGION - By Gio­vanna Dell’orto

MINNEAPOLI­S >> In Mid­west­ern boots or bare feet in sandals, the faith­ful walked in pro­ces­sion down a snow­cov­ered street here, keep­ing the rhythm of fes­tive mu­sic and car­ry­ing paint­ings of St. Paul, the pa­tron saint of their home­town of Ax­ochipan, Mex­ico.

For the thou­sands of mi­grants from the south Mex­ico town 2,200 miles away who have built new lives in Min­nesota over the last two decades, throw­ing a wild, two-day bash for St. Paul’s Catholic feast day in Jan­uary is a cru­cial way to cel­e­brate their roots and feel a bit more at home, closer to the fam­i­lies they left be­hind.

“It’s even more im­por­tant be­cause we brought it here,” says Apoli­nar Mo­rales, this year’s stew­ard of the cel­e­bra­tion, who left Ax­ochi­a­pan in 1989. “The mean­ing is not to lose our tra­di­tions, so that they can be kept alive, even though we’re far. And we want our kids and grand­kids to re­mem­ber this.”

He es­ti­mates that more than a third of Ax­ochi­a­pan’s

res­i­dents mi­grated to the United States, most of them about 20 years ago, when the cel­e­bra­tion started here. The fes­ti­val here is es­pe­cially im­por­tant for those par­tic­i­pants who can’t go home for the month-long cel­e­bra­tion in Ax­ochi­a­pan be­cause of their im­mi­gra­tion sta­tus.

Most are rais­ing U.S. chil­dren for whom this feast is the big­gest chance to be im­mersed in the Mex­i­can part of their iden­ti­ties. It helps them learn to live the faith of their an­ces­tors, in­stead of just stick­ing the ven­er­ated paint­ing of St. Paul in a cor­ner, as Mo­rales, 50, fears the younger gen­er­a­tions would do.

“Our fam­i­lies (in Ax­ochi­a­pan) are happy be­cause we’re en­joy­ing the same cel­e­bra­tion in the same way as they are — well, ex­cept it’s hot there,” said, grin­ning, Sil­ve­rio Camilo. On the feast’s vigil, he stirred with a yard-long wooden spat­ula some 120 lbs. of corn dough slowly cook­ing in Mo­rales’ sub­ur­ban garage as flur­ries fell steadily out­side.

Vol­un­teers like him didn’t sleep for a few days

to pre­pare the chicken tamale and mole din­ners they would serve to the 1,200 peo­ple who par­tic­i­pate in Masses, pro­ces­sions and dances at the Church of the In­car­na­tion/Sa­grado Co­razón in south Minneapoli­s. To sac­ri­fice time and money as an of­fer­ing of faith is just as cen­tral to hon­or­ing St. Paul as the ex­u­ber­ant danc­ing, many said.

“Faith is to be­lieve that you make an effort and in re­turn get joy and maybe a bless­ing” such as work, said Camilo, who was a teen when he came from Ax­ochi­a­pan 22 years ago.

Among the most time­con­sum­ing ef­forts is cre­at­ing the pro­ces­sional three­foot can­dles, each stud­ded with a dozen wax pink and yel­low flow­ers. The faith­ful be­gan pour­ing, paint­ing and dec­o­rat­ing the wax in Septem­ber, and this sum­mer they’ll start over in what­ever col­ors the next stew­ard picks.

The can­dle tra­di­tion dates back at least sixty years, but the cel­e­bra­tion it­self has far longer roots across con­ti­nents and even be­liefs. In 1542, the Span­ish con­quis­ta­dors took over an Aztec set­tle­ment and re­named it in honor of St. Paul — who per­se­cuted the first Chris­tians un­til a rev­e­la­tion on the road to Da­m­as­cus turned him into the “apos­tle to the na­tions,” tak­ing the new faith be­yond the Mid­dle East. It’s his con­ver­sion that’s cel­e­brated on Jan­uary 25 and rep­re­sented in the paint­ings ven­er­ated in Ax­ochi­a­pan and Minneapoli­s.

Leg­end has it that the paint­ing mirac­u­lously re­fused to go to Ax­ochi­a­pan un­less car­ried in a pro­ces­sion of dancers, ac­cord­ing to Mo­rales. So now, even in 27-de­gree weather, barech­ested Aztec dancers pre­ceded a replica of the im­age down a quiet Minneapoli­s street, their leg bracelets made with dozens of large ay­oy­ote seeds rat­tling at the beat of tam­bourines ac­com­pa­nied by a conch shell horn.

The rat­tle was a bit muted when dancers, hav­ing left their or­nate six-foot feather head­dresses on the pews, made their way to re­ceive Com­mu­nion at Mass in­side the 101-year-old church. Or per­haps it was just drowned out by the trum­pets and strings of the mari­achi band that was play­ing “Pescador de Hom­bres,” one of the best-loved mod­ern Catholic hymns in the Span­ish-speak­ing world.

For sev­eral mem­bers of the Aztec troupes, in­dige­nous danc­ing was yet an­other form of devo­tion to St. Paul — and a way to find peace in inevitably mixed iden­ti­ties.

“It means a lot to see the sac­ri­fice, the level of re­spect to­ward the re­galia, the prayers, the dance it­self that iden­tify us as Mex­i­cans,” said dancer Karla Cortez-Ocampo, 29, who grew up in Min­nesota. “Many kids don’t speak Span­ish well, but they re­spect what it takes to stay in the dance cir­cle.”

In fact, the sense of be­long­ing found in faith and its rit­u­als is cru­cial to many mi­grant com­mu­ni­ties.

“Re­li­gion pro­vides one of the few cul­tur­ally fa­mil­iar and deeply rooted places avail­able to them,” said the Rev. Kevin McDonough, the priest of this di­verse parish. He started his homily by telling the sev­eral hun­dred faith­ful his coun­ter­part in Ax­ochi­a­pan had phoned to wish them a happy hol­i­day.

On the last night, in­cense smoke from smol­der­ing em­bers of co­pal, a trop­i­cal tree, wafted among the giant can­dles as the pro­ces­sion re­turned in the dark­ness to the church, where more hours of danc­ing fol­lowed in front of a mas­sive al­tar fes­tooned with ban­ners cel­e­brat­ing “San Pablo Após­tol” and “Minneapoli­s pa­tronal feast.” The ban­ners, the co­pal, even most of the dancers’ hand­made re­galia came from Mex­ico for the oc­ca­sion, but one man solemnly car­ry­ing a can­dle wore a Vik­ings cap.

“Peo­ple feel com­fort­able, at home,” said Mo­rales of this cel­e­bra­tion that mi­grants like him took with them. “We’re proud that we brought it here to Minneapoli­s. I brought the best that I could.”

PHOTOS BY JIM MONE — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Peo­ple in Aztec cloth­ing take part in a dance at the Sa­grado Co­ra­zon de Je­sus church in Minneapoli­s for a two-day cel­e­bra­tion of St. Paul, the pa­tron saint of their Mex­i­can home­town of Ax­ochi­a­pan and nearby vil­lages in the state of More­los. The cel­e­bra­tion is a way to rec­og­nize their roots and feel closer to the fam­i­lies and home they left be­hind.

Stew­ard Apoli­nar Mo­rales leads a pro­ces­sion with a shrine rep­re­sent­ing the church of St. Paul in­side the Sa­grado Co­ra­zon de Je­sus church in Minneapoli­s.

JIM MONE — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Peo­ple in Aztec cloth­ing take part in a dance at the Sa­grado Co­ra­zon de Je­sus church in Minneapoli­s, for a two-day cel­e­bra­tion for the pa­tron saint of the Mex­i­can town of Ax­ochi­a­pan and nearby vil­lages in the state of More­los.

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