Friday, 19 October 2012

The image, housed behind bullet-proof glass on the high wall behind the altar, has survived myriad vicissitudes of Mexican history over the last 500 years, and notably a bomb intended to destroy it in November 1921, that not only left it unscathed but wonderfully caused no serious injury to the priests and people celebrating Mass when it went off. I knelt down and prayed for 20 minutes or so before learning, to my delight, that there would be a Mass at 8pm; memorable not least for the presence of a giant butterfly, flitting to and fro above the mostly empty pews. Afterwards i set off in search of a pilgrims’ hostel i’d been told about, to find it closed, so i checked into an inexpensive hotel; clean and comfortable, but laid out exactly like the prisons you see in American films – a rectangular atrium on two floors, with a gangway running around the rooms on the upper level. My patchy sleep seemed to be down to a combination of cheesy popcorn for supper and jet-lag, but i later twigged, when the pattern was repeated, that the city’s altitude must have had something to do with it.[1]

Mass in the Basilica, with Our Lady's image visible at centre.
   Next day, Thursday 28th July, after a lie-in i made my way to the Basilica in time for a much better attended noon Mass, at which apparently a Bishop was being installed – around thirty Bishops and Archbishops concelebrated. That all was not sweetness and light in Mexico at that time, however, was illustrated by the discordant motif on a black ‘hoodie’ worn by a teenager standing in front of me in the line for Communion. It showed a playing card, with the words Alcatraz and San Francisco running up and down the sides, framing a likeness of Al Capone in trademark shades and smoking a cigar, baseball bat in one hand and machine gun in the other. Miniature pigeons were among the novel fowl of Mexico City’s streets as i then made my way through thundery showers (it was the rainy season) to the relatively sleepy plaza on which stands the 18th century baroque Church of San Domingo, built on the site of the 16th century headquarters of the Inquisition. On the street nearby i struck up a conversation with two Russian tourists, telling them a bit about my passage through their homeland, though i learnt that they were both emigres to the United States. The guest house where i spent the night, named after a renowned Brazilian metropolis, was decidedly insalubrious, feeling as if it might have enjoyed its best days when that country’s footballers were competing in the 1986 World Cup, or even in the tournament which Mexico hosted in 1970.

   On Friday 29th July, after Mass in the Church of San Domingo i came back to the neighbourhood of the Basilica, and passed an hour or two in an internet café. A part of the evening was then spent in prayer before the image of Our Lady, after which i emerged onto the esplanade at a place with an exceptionally good modern statue of Blessed John Paul II.

   On Saturday 30th July, dedicated to St Peter Chrysologus, after another night ‘in the cells’, as it were, at the same hotel where i’d spent the first night, my primary objective as usual was to attend Mass, celebrated in Italian for a group of pellegrini in the charming old 16th century Basilica, in which the image was housed until the 1970s. But my secondary aim was to track down the Estadio Azteca (designed incidentally by the same fellow responsible for the new Basilica), scene of England’s legendary clash with Argentina at the quarter final stage of the 1986 World Cup. Calling into a busy diner for lunch, when an itinerant troubadour finished singing and came to my table for his tip, he indicated the whereabouts of this fabled venue on my map, and was amused that an Englishman should want to be reminded of ‘La Mano de Dios’[2]. Famously, Diego Maradona’s sleight of hand foxed both the referee and the linesman when he punched the ball over Peter Shilton for Argentina’s first goal. He also scored a dazzling second before claiming, in perhaps the most hotly disputed remark ever uttered in a post-match press conference, that the first was:

"A little bit the head of Maradona and a little bit the hand of God."

Emmanuel dexterity: The Hand of God
It was early evening when i reached the arena, and learnt that i could either come back on Monday and stump up rather a lot for an organised guided tour, or else pay the equivalent of $10 for an unofficial peak there and then. Opting for the latter, a groundsman led me through a tunnel to the tiered seats of the interior. It was completely empty of course, but somehow one could conjure up the carnival atmosphere of the 1986 Copa del Mundo, when the world was first introduced to the ‘Mexican Wave’. Especially though i tried to imagine the atmosphere for the England-Argentina game, all the more cauldron-like, since the Falklands conflict of 1982 was relatively fresh in the memory. Maradona and his team-mates knew that anything less than victory would be intolerable to their countrymen. My guide pointed out the penalty box where the enterprising young Argentine demonstrated so memorably his ability to handle the situation.  

[1] At 2240 metres, Mexico City’s altitude dwarfs Ben Nevis, the highest peak in the British Isles, at just 1344 metres. The thinness of the air resulting from this elevation is often cited as a factor that enabled Bob Beamon to set a world record in the long jump at the 1968 Olympic Games which stood for 22 years.
[2] ‘The hand of God’

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