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The Mexican-Spanish Catholic tradition

All week we have ben bombarded with nasty full-page ads about the HP-Compaq merger, involving arguments about millions of dollars among people who already have plenty. It was a joy to take refuge in the loving atmosphere of Sunday mass at San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio, Texas, even those I view take much of the content metaphorically, not literally. The feature today was the presence of the "Rey Feo", the Ugly King, in fact an impressive gentleman who came with his court, all dressed in handsome white uniforms. Father David Garcia explained that this old custom came to Mexico from Spain, where I believe it disappeared a long time ago. Since ordinary people could not get to see the real king, they elected an "ugly" one so that people could act just as though they were talking with the king himself. The "Ugly King" of San Antonio and his court collect money to send poor young people to college.

Pope John Paul II is preparing to visit Mexico and Guatemala. and the Mexican masses are tensely awaiting the canonization of Juan Diego. This week I had a conversation with a Mexican WAISer, a practicing Catholic who was visiting Stanford. We discussed the Virgen de Guadalupe, and he confirmed that the cult is largely confined to the poor masses. As for educated Mexicans, there are several Catholic orders involved in higher education, each one having one or more universities: the Legionnaires of Christ, who are very powerful, the Jesuits, and the Opus Dei. On the other hand, the Masons, who until recently had a strong presence in the government, are losing ground.

A disturbing thing about popular cults is that they are nationalistic. The Virgen de Guadalupe is really imperialistic, since she is named the Patroness of the Americas, but outside of Mexico Latin Americans pay little attention to her. Next door to Mexico is Guatemala, where the people are excited not about the canonization of Juan Diego but about that of Pedro de Betancourt, which the Pope is due to announce when he visits Guatemala. This brother, known for his good works, is buried in a church at la Antigua, the old capital of Guatemala destroyed in large part by an earthquake. It is hoped that his tomb will become a well-known shrine. Ask Mexicans about him and they will look blank. However, he has a great advantage. There is no doubt about his historical existence.

Ronald Hilton - 3/3/02