A pleasant day trip from San Miguel de Allende is the city of San Juan del Lagos, home of the most visited pilgrimage in the western hemisphere. For in this city lies the Barbie-sized image of Mary known as the Virgin of San Juan del Lagos. Back in the 1600’s this Mary statue was placed in an indigenous dress, a tradition that continues today as an act of respect making Mary more relatable to the indigenous.
Right after receiving her new, and triangular, frock a circus blew into town. Part of the circus acts were two sisters that did the trapeze while their parents lined the ground with sharp objects to make the act more visually exciting and guarantee them the receipt of the Bad Parent award. Of course, one little gal fell landing on a sharp object. A woman in the audience ran to the church, grabbed Barbie sized Mary in her new dress, and placed it on the little girl, who survived. That marked the first miracle associated with the image celebrated every February 2nd.
On January 24th, twenty percent of our town’s population starts the nine day walk to visit the Virgin of San Juan del Lagos. Town is quiet and laced with the worse weather of year, perhaps to test the pilgrims’ faith. My pal, Monica, walks it with her children and mother each year. Camping in fields each night she notices the torches descend the mountains to join the camp site but never quite reaching it. Monica believes those are the souls of past pilgrims that died in earlier pilgrimages and have returned to finish their walk.
The Virgin of San Juan del Lagos is important, as like Guadalupe, she’s a home-grown Virgin not imported from Europe like many others. Whereas Guadalupe appeared outside of Mexico City, the Virgin of San Juan del Lagos is a more northern Virgin. It was her feast day, February second, the Revolution from Spain was planned around.
As we all know, the Spanish got wind of the plan and the revolution was moved up to September. When Fr. Hidalgo grabbed the flag of Guadalupe in Atotonilco making her the rebels’ Virgin, the Virgin of San Juan del Lagos settled into second place for visual popularity around town.
Never having been a fan of camping, or blisters, I prefer shorter pilgrimages but jumped at the chance to visit San Juan del Lagos with my preferred danzon student, Lupita, in a Scooby Doo era van. Though even in the car we passed pilgrim bikers whose stamina and sinewy legs I could only admire!
The town depends on the nine million pilgrims coming to see the Virgin each year for survival. Pilgrims enter the church year round on their knees to show their appreciation. If the Virgin assisted and you don’t express gratitude the consequences are said to be dire. Most involve being turned to stone. Good manners matter.
After time with the Virgin we went shopping for Virgin clothes. Baby Mary, the image of Mary as an infant, is wildly popular in San Juan del Lagos featuring a wide variety of dresses and shoes for her that make both Barbie and American Girl dolls jealous. My favorite is the dress with white roses that make Mary appear to be a delicious red velvet cake. Also featured in the markets is a wide variety of caramel candies, handmade linens and a sea of rosaries.
Be sure to peek in the low cost museum with the Virgin’s dresses through time, her image in art and a detailed history of the area. Beware of the creepy clown in the image of first miracle, apparently clowns have always been six degrees away from Pennywise. Creepier still is the statue of Jesus being whipped exposing his rib bones that are actual human bones.
A short drive from town is Mezquitic de la Magelena, home to another pilgrimage site. The Barbie sized Virgin of San Juan del Lagos isn’t statuesque, but the Peanut Baby image of baby Jesus is teeny tiny at a mere five centimeters believed to fit into a locally grown peanut shells, hence the name Peanut Baby. Like the Virgin of San Juan del Lagos, the sacred Peanut Baby wears an elaborately decorated triangle dress.
Back in 1810 while digging a well (still active today on the site) workers discovered an image of Jesus as a baby carved in wood and mud, with one arm on his chest and the other on his belly. As with many other images of Jesus as a baby, the Peanut Baby’s specialty is childbirth and children with pilgrims often leaving toys in appreciation for his efforts.
Walking into the chapel dedicated to his miracles retablos (art depicting a miracle in words and image) cover every available inch with most featuring baby clothes once worn by the infirmed, now cured. Baby leg braces sit in the corners (no longer needed) and letters describe all the aid the image has provided. To be in a room filled with appreciation generates an energy I’ve only felt one other time, in Guatemala with a similar room filled with retablos to Saint Peter, the first saint from the Americas. To visit such a room is worth a pilgrimage in and of itself!
Joseph Toone is the Historical Society’s short-story award winning author of the SMA Secrets book series. All books in the series are Amazon bestsellers in Mexican Travel and Holidays. Toone is SMA’s expert and TripAdvisor’s top ranked historical tour guide telling the stories behind what we do in today’s SMA. Visit HistoryAndCultureWalkin