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Dec 13, 2005 11:50 PM

Aztec warriors, spicy hot chocolate & bunuelos – Guadalupe Day, the beat goes on

  • r

The call of the bird god Quetzalcoatl echoed in St. Paul’s Catholic Church, above the thunderous, throbbing beat of primitive drums (carved from the trunks of large trees).

In a Mayan mask representing the devil, one dancer was pursued by dancers wearing huge peacock-feathered headdresses. The eerie wail of a conch resounded.

The church shook with the stomping of the dancers whose rhythmic movements were highlighted by the shells they wore on their ankles and wrists, the shells making a clattering noise like maracas. They danced fiercely and triumphantly around the altar where Mass would soon be celebrated.

After Mass there was a free dinner, the highlight of which was bunuelos, large tortilla shaped discs of fried dough sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon. These were enjoyed with spicy Mexican hot chocolate.

Dinner was chicken stewed in salsa verde, Spanish rice, whole beans and tortillas hot from the griddle. There were also plates of excellent tacos topped with spicy stewed beef with lots of cilantro, onion and nicely finished with lime. There were also lots of breads from a panadria. There were Jamaica and tamarindo aqua frescas, ladled out of plastic buckets with the words “Aviso – Danger” on them.

Green, red and white flags hung from the ceiling of the dining room. Mariachis played during dinner, people danced and shouted and whistled their appreciation of the music. Little girls in traditional Mexican dress, their hair braided with ribbons, twirled about, amused with their long flowing skirts. Like in Mexico, some of the little boys had curly, bandito mustaches painted on.

The older lady next to me could really whistle … better than the men. She was a seriously cool woman who heartily sang with the music and included me in the Spanish conversation every now and then, looking my way and asking “verdad”? I’d nod and respond “verdad” (true … I was agreeable to whatever she may have been saying).

This had to be one of the best events I’ve ever attended in the Bay Area … and it was totally free. I’ve spent big bucks in the past to the ballet Folklorio in a theatre. This was real, the actual passing down of centuries old tradition. It wasn’t performance, but primal worship.

The Mass started with the dancers following the priest down the aisle. These were the young dancers, from children to young adults. The littlest ones were so cute, really like little peacocks with those headdresses, but they danced seriously and professionally. Over black shirts and pants to protect them from the cold, they wore elaborate gold and turquoise Mayan dress.

It was a wild tableau, the air thick and hazy with incense, the church shaking from the stomping feet, drums beating, conch shells blowing.

Candles in the church flickered. The priests and the portrait of the Virgin looked on as an ageless story was told through dance.

Mid-mass, another group of adult dancers in full Aztec headdress and little clothing danced and drummed again. Two handsome men and a woman, brought the offertory collection to the altar, the large straw basket held up high, an offering to the gods … uh, God.

One headdress had a raven face on it. They danced intensely, the young men’s long black hair whirling about. The drums got louder and louder, the conches more plaintive. Strip off a few centuries of civilization and I would have ripped someone’s heart at this point or jumped on the altar and donated. Periodically I closed my mouth because my jaw kept dropping.

Then … get this … one of the priests slowly walks down the aisle, carrying a cross held high and the dancers end by dropping to the floor and bowing in front of the cross. Heck, it was drama and almost operatic in scope.

I say lose the hymns and organ. Bring back the beating drum, feathers and piercing cries. It was primal, hypnotizing and perhaps one of the holiest events I’ve ever participated in. It was up there with a Buddhist ceremony I attended in Taiwan (I’m an equal opportunity worshipper).

Mariachis ended the mass, strolling down the aisle and stopping in front of the picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe (with a hill of roses in front of it). Hundreds of people sang enthusiastically and clapped, occasional shouting “Viva” … Someone would shout “Viva Mexico” or “Viva … a lot of stuff” and the crowd would cheer “VIVA”.

The mariachis then strolled to the dining room with people following. In front of the church there was a continuation of the Aztec dancing. One dance was very impressive where the dancers danced IN live fire. They danced around the fire and would then put a foot or hand in the fire … a long time. Sometimes the entire leg or arm was held in the fire. There must be some protective oil or something they wear.

The dancer’s bodies were painted and headdresses included a raven, jaguar and eagle, all representations of Quetzalcoatl, I believe. I’m not up on my Aztec/Mayan mythology.

The pictures of Aztec fire dancers in the link below are EXACTLY what the dancers were wearing. In fact, they even did that little move shown in top picture of the link where one dancer steps on the other’s heart. I believe it was the jaguar that was stepped on. The dancer with the white eagle feathers down the length of his arms triumphed. It was cold out there too. They not only wore very little clothes but danced bare-footed. The middle pictures show the shells on the legs that make all the noise.

Anyway, recommend the event … always on Dec 12th. Recommend the food, the ladies of the parish did a nice job (and it is free).

If anyone should ever decide to attend next year, the Mass takes two hours. So, if interested in the food only, it was served around 9:30 pm. Also, as mentioned, the dancing and music continues outside the church for those not wanting to participate in the Mass. If you do go to the Mass, go early. Not only was every seat packed … PACKED (there are boyfriends I haven’t been that close to physically) … but every last inch of aisle and church space is filled.

All of this in San Pablo … who would guess?



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  1. Rworange, thanks so much for this post. I definitely know where I'll be heading next December 12th! This is what Chowhound is all about: brave souls who, armed with their discerning palates, venture into the un-reported world of chow, returning with a hoard of booty like this fab article. Thanks!

    1 Reply
    1. re: gus

      Ditto...wonderful post, thanks!

    2. Does this event happen every year? If you know, could you please tell me what date and/or time it is, because I can't seem to find any info on the web.These kinds of events intrigue me.

      9 Replies
      1. re: kirinraj

        Yep. Every year on Dec 12 th. In San Fracisco, Mission Dolores has an early morning service ... early ... early, early, early ... 4am

        Don't know how many festivities there are at other churches, but on the Sunday prior to 12/12 if you check local Catholic Church bulletins of parishes with large Mexican congregations, they should note if anything is special is going on for Guadalupe day. .

        Guadalupe Day
        1825 Church Ln, San Pablo, CA

        1. re: rworange

          Thanks for the info. I'll be sure to check that, but I know that in Pleasanton, where I live, there isn't a large mexican presence.

          1. re: kirinraj

            Hmmm ... I've been meaning to check out the church in Martinez which seems to have a large Mexican population. If I see anything, I'll post back.

            1. re: kirinraj

              Hi ... just an update. There isn't a special mass in San Pablo tommorrow. Just your run of the mill mass. There is a parade the Sunday before on 23rd street about 11 am. Not much in the way of food unless you sit on the porch of Portumex and watch the parade go by. I only remembered this when I got caught waiting for the parade to pass buy last Sunday.

              The only special mass I know of tommorrow is at Mission Dolores in SF at 4:45 am. I may give that a try if I can get up early enough (or stay up all night), but given my track record for the past few years, highly unlikely.

              1. re: rworange

                St. Elizabeth's in Oakland's Fruitvale district is having extra masses tomorrow, but I don't know if anything special is planned. Their site isn't clear: in the English calendar it says Mass at 5 p.m., but on the Spanish calendar it says:
                Dic 12 Virgen de Guadalupe
                Mañanitas 5am
                Misas a las 6am, 8am, 10am, 12pm y 7pm

                So maybe 5 pm is a typo for the 5 am service (is Mananitas "matins" in English?).


                1. re: Ruth Lafler

                  Yeah, it must be 5 am.

                  Thanks for the link. I notice they have posadas coming up. Will have to check that out one night.

                  1. re: Ruth Lafler

                    I didn't scroll down far enough -- if you go down to page five there's a more complete description of the festivities:

                    5:00 a. m. Mañanitas con Mariachi
                    6:00 a. m. Misa con Mariachi
                    8:00 a. m. Misa con Mariachi
                    10:00 a. m. Misa con Mariachi
                    12:00 Mediodía Misa con Mariachi
                    “Misa de los Niños”
                    5:00 p. m. Misa con Mariachi (English)
                    6:00 p.m. Procesión (39th Ave)( Misioneros E.S.)
                    Carro alegórico Antorcha Guadalupana
                    7:00 p. m. Misa con Mariachi
                    Predicador Invitado: Padre Ramiro de la Provincia Franciscana “Beato Junipero Serra.”

                    Note that there is a 5 p.m. Mass -- it's in English (with Mariachis!), which is why it was listed separately on the calendar.

                    What are posadas?

                    1. re: Ruth Lafler

                      I went to the posada tonight at Santa Isabel (aka St. Elizabeth's) on 34th Street in Oakland.

                      Food-wise there was nothing to speak of. It was held in the gym across the street from the church. There was a window inside selling 7-11 type nachos, soft drinks and pan dulce for $1. Outside there was one lone tamale lady.

                      Having had my fill of tamales lately, I finally had the tripas taco at El Novillo. They are $2 now ... did the price go up? It was pretty good, very crispy with a little liver flavor.

                      Anyway, in Mexico on the nine days before Christmas, a different family hosts a posada where the Christmas story is acted out with people dressed as shepherds, Mary, Joseph, etc. More here on Wiki

                      At St. Elizabeth's each night a separate group performs.

                      I went the first night and screwed up. I followed the crowd and didn't realize the posada was in the gym and not the church. Turns out St Elizabeth's Elementary school was having its Christmas pageant. You have not lived until you hear kindergarten kids singing Silent Night (in English and Spanish) and try to hit those high notes. It was charming, hilarious and they got a standing ovation.

                      What was cool was the altar was still decorated for Guadalupe Day. I'm telling you, my jaw dropped. Using burlap, ladders (I'm guessing) and potted roses they recreated a pretty close replica of what the actual hill looks like in Mexico.

                      At tonight's posada the Grupo Misoneros Del Espiritu Santo Obra de San Francisco performed the Christmas story ... sort of.

                      This was like Jesus Christ Superstar ... the prequel ... with a Latin beat.

                      Rather than shepherds and lambs ... there were little kids dressed as rabbits and flowers and adults in these Aztec-y bird costumes.

                      I have no clue what the women dressed as red riding hood were supposed to be. Catholics don’t really read the Bible, but somehow I don’t think I would have missed that.

                      So they touch on the story throughout. There's this earth mother type narrator who had an excellent voice. Finally Mary has the baby which Joseph displays like the cub in The Lion King while strobe lights flash. People applaud and someone yelled bravo.

                      After that ... I'm not sure what was going on.

                      There was this one number where the devil (I assume, he was dressed in red, had a tail and floppy horns) does a dance with the shepherds and angels (I assume, they had white nun habits and in other numbers danced around Mary).

                      Anyway, I kid you not ... they are doing moves like the hustle, swim and bugaloo. They end this number, a la Chorus Line or Rockettes, doing kicks.

                      But wait ... there's more ... The finale has the whole cast singing "hallelujah” to a beat tempo and out comes someone dressed as the pope (maybe God the father?) He looked like the pope. On one side is an angel and the other the devil. Strobe lights are flashing. The fog machine is going. People are dancing up a storm.

                      I don't know what else to say.

                      I'm guessing the other nights might be more traditional

                      1. re: rworange

                        LOL. The tripas tacos at El Novillo (and other places, I've noticed) command a premium. I don't know if they've always been $2, but they have been for quite a while.

                        Speaking of tripe (although in this case "tripas" is correctly translated as "chitterlings"/pig intestines), I noticed the Mi Pueblo Food Center had three different kinds of tripe (three of the four cow stomachs, the fourth not commonly eaten): regular, book/leaf tripe and honeycomb tripe.