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EL D?A DE LOS REYES, 6 DE ENERO DE 1767
LET US BEGIN THE STORY of La Misi?n de Santa Dolores on the holy day of the three kings, in Italy, in Assisi. To commemorate his twentieth year among the Franciscan brothers, Fray Alejandro Tapia Valdez made a pilgrimage to his beloved San Francisco?s humble chapel, the Porziuncola. For more than a week the friar prayed before the chapel?s frescoes, rarely ceasing for food or sleep. But despite his lengthy praises and petitions, despite his passionate devotion to Almighty God, Fray Alejandro was a pragmatic man. He did not believe the rumor, common in his day, that the frescoes? perfection was beyond the ability of human hands. As we shall see, in time the friar would reconsider.
The Franciscan stood five feet four inches tall, an average Spaniard?s height in the eighteenth century. He was broad and unattractive. Heavy whiskers lurked beneath the surface of his jaw, darkly threatening to burst forth. Fray Alejandro?s brow was large and loomed above the recess of his eyes as if it were a cliff eroded by the pounding of the sea, ready to crash down at any moment. The black fullness of his hair had been shaved at the crown, leaving only a circular fringe around the edges of his head. His nose, once aquiline and proud, had become a perpetual reminder of the violence that had flattened it at some time in the past.
For all its ugliness, Fray Alejandro?s visage could not mask the gentleness within. His crooked smile shed warmth upon his fellow man. His hands were ever ready with a touch to reassure or steady, or to simply grant the gift of human presence. When someone spoke, be that person wise or not, he inclined his head and listened with his entire being, as if the speaker?s words had all the weight of holy writ. In his eyes was love.
Love does not defend against the sorrows of this world, of course. On the contrary, each day as Fray Alejandro knelt in prayer at the Porziuncola he became more deeply troubled. His imagination had recently been captured by strange stories of the heathen natives of the New World, isolated wretches with no knowledge of their Savior. This tragedy grew in Alejandro?s mind until he groaned aloud in sympathy for their unhappy souls. Other brothers kneeling on his left and right cast covert glances at him. Many thought his noisy prayers an uncouth intrusion, but caught up as he was in sacred agony, Alejandro did not notice.
Then came that holy day of the three kings, when in the midst of his entreaties for the pagans of New Spain, Fray Alejandro suddenly felt a painful heat as if his body were ablaze. In this, the first of his three burnings, Alejandro became faint. He heard a whisper saying, ?Go and save my children.? The bells began to peal, although it was later said the ropes had not been touched. As startled pigeons burst forth from the bell tower, Alejandro rose.
How like the Holy Father to command such a journey on that day of days! Without a backward glance Fray Alejandro strode away from San Francisco?s little chapel as if following a star, determined to return at once to Hornachuelos, in C?rdoba, there to seek permission from the abbot of the monastery of Santa Mar?a de los ?ngeles for a voyage to New Spain.
The abbot?s assent was quickly given, but Fray Alejandro spent many months waiting on the vast bureaucracy of King Carlos III to approve his passage. Still, while the wheels of government turn slowly, slowly they do turn.
Finally, in late May of the year 1767, the good friar stood at the bulwarks of a galleon in the West Indian Fleet, tossed by the Atlantic, quite ill, and protected from the frigid spray by nothing but his robe of coarse handmade cloth. In spite of the pitching deck, always Alejandro faced New Spain, far beyond the horizon. His short, broad body seemed to strain against the wind and ocean waves with eagerness to be about his Father?s business.
But let us be more patient than the friar, for this is just the first of many journeys we shall follow as our story leads us back and forth through space and time. Indeed, the events Fray Alejandro has set in motion have their culmination far into the future. Therefore, leaving the Franciscan and his solitary ship, we cross many miles to reach a village known as Rinc?n de Dolores, high among the Sierra Madre mountains of Jalisco, Mexico. And we fly further still, centuries ahead of Alejandro, to find ourselves in these, our modern times.
Accompanied by norte?o music blaring from loudspeakers and by much celebratory honking of automobile horns, we observe the burning of a makeshift structure of twigs and sticks and painted cardboard, which seemed a more substantial thing once it was engulfed, as if the busy flames were masons hard at work with red adobe. The people of the village of Rinc?n de Dolores were encouraged by the firmness of the fire. All the village cheered as the imitation barracks burned before them. They cheered, and with their jolly voices dared a pair of boys to stay in the inferno just a little longer.
There was much to enjoy on that Feast Day of Fray Alejandro?the floral garlands, the children in their antique costumes, the pinwheels spun by crackling fireworks, the somber procession of the saints along the avenida?but one citizen did not join the festivities.
Guadalupe Soledad Consuelo de la Garza trembled as she watched the flaming reenactment of the tragedy of La Misi?n de Santa Dolores. Who knew, but possibly this year the boys would stay too long within the flames? Who knew, but possibly this time the sticks would burn, the cardboard become ash and rise into the sky, and ?Alejandro? and ?the Indian? would not emerge? Spurred to foolishness by those who called for courage, might this be the year when merrymaking turned to mourning? The young woman with the long name?let us call her merely Lupe?feared it might be so, while the imitation barracks burned and the boys remained inside.
As was their ancient custom, after the fire was set by eager boys in Indian costumes, the village people chanted, ?Muerte! Muerte! Muerte! Death to Spaniards! Death to traitors!? Their refrain arose in tandem with the flames. Only when the fire ascended to the middle of the mock barracks? spindly walls did some within the crowd begin to yell, ?Salid! Salid! Salid!? Come out! they called, a few of them at first, mostly girls and women, then as the minutes slowly passed this call became predominant, until the entire village shouted it as one, Come out! and the boys inside could flee the fire with honor.
Yet they did not come.
?Agua!? someone shouted, probably the boys? parents, and nearby men with buckets hurried toward the crackling barracks walls. ?Agua, r?pido!? they shouted, and the first man swung his bucket back, prepared to douse a small part of the flames.
Such wild and forceful flames, and so little water, thought young Lupe. Holy Father, please protect them.
Even as she prayed, the first man thrust his bucket forward. Water sizzled in the burning sticks and rose as steam, and from the conflagration burst two little figures. One boy came out robed from head to foot in gray cloth, the cincture at his waist knotted in three places to bring poverty, obedience, and chastity to mind. He carried a bundle, the sacred retablo of Fray Alejandro concealed in crimson velvet, a small altarpiece which no one but Padre Hinojosa, the village priest, would ever see. The other boy came nearly naked with only a covering of sackcloth, his bare arms and legs agleam with aloe sap as protection from the heat. The fire around them roared.
Chased by swirling coals and sparks, the two brave boys went charging through the crowd, yet no one turned to watch. It was as if young Alejandro and the Indian were unseen, as if they were already spirits on their way to heaven. All the village chanted, ?Muerte! Muerte! Muerte!? again. All the village faced the burning barracks. All of Rinc?n de Dolores called for death to Spaniards, death to traitors, as the two small figures fled invisibly across the plaza to the chapel, where they entered and returned the treasure, the retablo handed down through centuries.
Alone among the village people, only Lupe seemed to see the boys escape. Watching from the shop door, she alone thanked God for yet another year without a tragedy; she alone refused to play the game, the foolish reenactment they all loved so well, pretending blindness as two boys cheated death. Lupe?s imagination would not let her join the celebration of their unofficial saint?s escape from murderous pagans. She had never felt the kiss of flames upon her flesh, but she had suffered from flames nonetheless.
Often Lupe recalled the winter?s night when her father had laid a bed of sticks within the corner fireplace. The flames took hold and a younger Lupe drew her blanket up above her head as other children did when told of ghosts. Even now the memory of resin snapping in the burning wood intruded on her dreams, conjuring a thousand nightmares drawn from Padre Hinojosa?s homilies about Spanish saints who perished in the flames, Agathoclia and Eulalia of M?rida, and the auto de fe, that fearsome ritual of early Mexico, the stake, and acts of faith imposing pain on saint and heretic alike. Her most grievous loss and many sermons, dreams, and sacrifices of the flesh had left her terrified of fire.
Watching from the doorway, Lupe heard a voice. ?Do you think this is how it was??
Although she had not heard him come, a stranger stood beside her, a man in fine dark clothing with full black hair that shimmered slightly in the midday light like the feathers of a crow. From his appearance this man might have been her brother. Like Lupe, he was not tall. Like Lupe, his features called to mind stone carvings of the ancient Mayans. Like Lupe, he had a smooth sloped forehead, pendulous earlobes, and cheekbones high and proud. His gol...