When you reach Mexico City, you are immediately struck by its great size; the plane is above the city for 15 minutes before you arrive at the airport, that is located in the very heart of the city, and it seems to take for ever, as you look down on houses, whole neighbourhoods, until at last you land. The first impression on arrival is of a very modern country, but you slowly realize that there are considerable difficulties.
The evening I arrived, there was a prayer in a church in the city centre; all round the church there was a lot of noise from sidewalk vendors, people walking about selling things of all kinds. I asked how that was allowed, and learned that the mayor is very popular. He allows a lot of things to go on that are not very clear. The hawkers ought not to be there, it is not legal, but he leaves them alone, saying that they are poor and have a right to earn a living on the streets. A lot of people oppose the mayor and criticize him, but the ordinary people support him. He gives 700 pesos a month to the old people, the first time the city government has ever given the very poor something and since most of the population are poor, they support him, so he is at the same time highly popular and highly criticized. The national government once tried to oust him from his position but there was a demonstration supporting him by over a million people, so he stayed put. He has recently resigned, for he is hoping to be elected the next President of Mexico.
Mexico City is a huge city, always on the go. One thing that unites all Mexicans is their devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe. It is amazing to see her image everywhere; in the bars, there is a little altar in a corner with her picture, or if you take a taxi, there she is too... Her role is deeply rooted in Mexican tradition; for many Mexicans are in part Indians, who believe that the Earth-Mother reigns and gives life. In the great sanctuary of Guadalupe, the Virgin has replaced that belief so continues to unite all the Mexican people. Mexicans may be divided politically or for other reasons, but in their devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe, they are one.
The most beautiful moment came when I met the people who had spent three months at Taizé; that was the main purpose for the visit, to spend a week-end with them. We met in a large city, Léon, with over 1 million inhabitants, in Guanajuato State. Those who had been in Taizé had decided to hold the meeting in a very poor neighbourhood; it was wonderful to see them all again. It was also beautiful to see the very poor families coming to meet the young visitors they had agreed to welcome for two days. The young people were very touched by the way the very poor offered all they had to make their guests feel welcome.
On the Saturday afternoon, the young people had decided to make gestures of solidarity and one involved visiting some very poor Indians living close to but outside the city. There are four tribes, and this was an important matter, for here we touched an aspect of the still un-reconciled history of Mexico. Everyone has heard of Chiapas, but many of the “Indians,” the indigenous peoples, have received no recognition and they are often among the poorest inhabitants, living in misery. So it was important for us to be with them, to show again that we do not forget the poorest. That went together with the biblical introductions based on this year’s Letter.
The other group we visited was made up of extremely violent youths, members of gangs, aged between 17 and 25 or so. They have no link with ordinary society, live apart, are unemployed and organize gangs to fight for control of territories, power. They are a big problem in Mexico. Some of them have been in the United States, then been expelled as illegal immigrants; on their return they group together to protect themselves, be recognized, gain the impression of belonging to something, since they have nothing. They set about stealing, doing drugs, using violence. There are two religious sisters working with them and we tried to reach out to those young people, hoping to simply be with them and listen to them.
The last stop was the city of Colima, on the Pacific coast of Mexico. That was a quite different reality, a city beside two volcanoes, one of which was belching fire and ashes, so that the city was full ash; everyone was afraid but we decided to stay. That too was a very beautiful experience. The two-day visit had been organized by a former volunteer who had spent a year at Taizé. His brother is a priest and also plans to visit. He plays the guitar, there is a small choir, and every Friday they have a prayer around the Cross, as at Taizé. He had organized the visit, the program was very full. We visited the bishop and the seminarians, the team in charge of youth work, young victims of drugs – a big problem there. We had a prayer around the Cross, then another centred on the Resurrection in another parish; each prayer was full of young people but there were also old people, adults, and whole families with children.
Mexico is vast, with a population of 110 million, and very young since over half are under twenty. There are young people everywhere. The Church is very present in people’s lives, faith is alive everywhere, and that is a mystery in a country that has been through great persecutions, very difficult times. How is it possible? The people say it is because the Virgin of Guadalupe was there and ensured that the country remained united and that its people keep the faith.