The novena that ushers in the Lord of the Conquest Festival got underway this weekend. On Thursday and Friday of this week, locals will congregate in the Parroquia of San Miguel to celebrate one of the Catholic parish’s most important festivals—second to the Feast Day of Saint Michael the Archangel—attracting thousands of devotees from various regions of the Mexican republic.
The festival’s icon is a 16th-century statue of Christ, which is kept in the Parroquia and was hand sculpted by indigenous artisans from Michoacán, using the traditional material consisting of a paste made from the pith of corn stalks. As history dictates, national hero of Mexican independence Ignacio Allende y Unzaga and his family were earnest devotees of this tradition and would stand in as the sacristans: members of the brotherhood who looked after the statue and organized the religious celebration. It was the city’s founder, Friar Juan de San Miguel, who initiated the veneration of this particular image: a statue of Christ with indigenous features, which helped to evangelize the native peoples because they could identify with him.
The natives who inhabited the region at that time were the Chichimecas, a barbaric tribe that was not easy for the Franciscans to convert. This local festival is thus a clear example of the blending of cultures that has historically defined the nation. The celebration is also a symbol of the city’s foundation, which according to historical records occurred on March 3, 1542.
Commemorated on the first Friday of March, the Lord of the Conquest has been venerated since 1575, according to Franciscan chronicles. This pagan religious celebration convokes hundreds of followers, who get down on their knees—collectively or individually—to recite the 33 creeds that allude to the life of Jesus Christ, keeping this age-old tradition alive. On the eve of the festival, locals conduct vigils in their homes and in public community ceremonies, staying up all night feasting on the traditional dishes prepared for the dancers and pilgrims who have traveled many miles to participate in the celebrations. Typical chants and music animate the evening, in which women and children weave flower offerings used to decorate the Parroquia’s central altar, along with wax figures, candles, paraffin lamps and flowers. Let us not forget the purifications that head dancers and leaders of the pilgrimage offer to Christ.
As is tradition—passed down through the generations—dancers from various parts of the country unite in the heart of the city to perform in front of the Parroquia and along the perimeter of the city’s central square. The event is filled with multicolored feathers from a plethora of exotic birds—the peacock, the pheasant, the macaw—and spectacular costumes resembling those worn by the great Aztec, Mayan and Toltec emperors and warriors, with hand-made embroidery that symbolize the conquest, sewn with precious stones, chaquira beads and sequins. Drums made of natural leather, rattles, armadillo shell instruments and copal incense accompany the feather dances performed in a demonstration of their gratitude to the four winds. Dancers, who come from the state of Mexico, Querétaro, San Luis Potosí, Puebla and Tlaxcala and from various towns within the state of Guanajuato, form crosses and sing their praises on this special occasion, and thus preserve this valued tradition.
In preparation for the celebration, families unite on the previous Thursday afternoon, with teams of oxen adorned with paper flowers and collars made from seeds, fruit and vegetables, along with the traditional banners, fashioned from long reeds and sheets of cloth attached by hemp twine and covered with enormous and highly ornate designs, serving as offerings in a petition for bountiful harvests at the end of the season—a season that is only starting and the fruits of which will be distributed to ensure prosperity for all.