Reflections on Cotija 2018:
Once again I have come to this small town located in the foothills of the Sierras here in Central Mexico, to relax and unwind from the stress of everyday life in California. This is my wife’s hometown and we have been coming here almost every year since we were married in 1986. We built a house here about 15 years ago, so we have both our “hotel” and eventual semi-retirement home here.
The people of Cotija are some of the friendliest people one could find in Mexico, or anywhere else in the world. So many speak English because they have worked or are still working in the U.S. and especially in December, many return for vacation and the various feasts that happen at this time of year. I have known some of the people here for more than the 32 years that I have been visiting, since my college days in the late 70’s early 80’s when I worked at a dairy store that happened to deliver product to the many taco shops in the San Diego area, this is also how I met my wife, whose father owned one of the shops I delivered to.
The weather in Cotija in December is cool, but not cold. Evening temps can dip into the low 60’s and daytime temps into the mid 70’s. Like Mary Poppins would say, “It’s practically perfect.” Although the last week the temperatures at night have dipped into the mid 40’s, but daytime highs have remained in the mid to upper 60’s. We are in the highlands after all and we get a breeze coming into the valley that cools things down.
One of the perks I have at the present time is that, as a deacon in the Catholic Church, the Cure of the town parish invites me to celebrate Mass with them. One would usually need a letter of good standing from the diocese where they are serving, in my case San Bernardino, but the priest has known me and my wife for many years, and I have full faculties from my Bishop to serve in all capacities as a deacon. I was privileged to assist in the Sacrament of Baptism the last time I was here two years ago. The baptismal fount is hundreds of years old and has seen at least two saints baptized in it, one being St. Rafael Guizar y Valencia, the other, my wife (although she is not yet canonized…). Noted, I assisted, I did not do the actual baptism, but assisted with anointing and proclamation of the Word, etc. Saturday night I assisted with the last Mass of the day, 7:30 and before the dismissal, we had Eucharistic Adoration. Usually, the priest would raise the Monstrance to bless the people, but he motioned for me to do it, so with a great sense of pride and humbleness (I know they are contrary, but this is how I felt), I raised Jesus in the Monstrance and blessed the people. The feelings of inadequateness in the minister does nullify the effects of the blessing, or in the case of Mass, the Sacrament of the Eucharist.
Continuing on the spiritual life of the people in Cotija, many of the “hijos ausentes” (those who live in the United States, but come here for the Religious feasts in December including Christmas, so they are the “missing” sons and daughters of Cotija) many of them will also use this opportunity to get married in the Church, or to baptize their children, or to get Confirmation in the Faith, or even to celebrate a Quinceanera (15th birthday blessing and traditional introduction to society for a young lady). These are done all through the week at the parish church, Nuestra Senora del Popolo (Our Lady of the People). December truly is the busiest time for our priests, between all of the masses that are celebrated, the baptisms and the Quinceaneras, weddings and funerals, they are practically non stop in their service to the people of Cotija, and this parish has only three priests to do all the ministries and Sacraments that are needed to be done. We had a Quinceanera at the 7:30 pm Mass last night. It is quite a sight to see a weekday mass, especially at night, to be almost full of people as it was last night. It is also a blessing to see it. I was surprised that there was a Quinceanera scheduled at an evening Mass, and the Celebrant mentioned to me before Mass that he too, wondered why one was scheduled at this hour. God works in mysterious ways I suppose, because this girl was very moved by the priest’s words to her about her life and her responsibilities to both herself and her family and to God. I have to admit, that in my 6 years since my ordination, I have celebrated many of these celebrations and for the most part, it seems like the girls are almost just waiting for it to be over so they can get to the “party” part of their “quince”. It is sometimes disheartening to perceive that attitude in these young women, then just at the point where I feel like telling my pastor that I don’t want to celebrate these anymore, I get a young woman for whom the Eucharistic celebration is the highlight of her day and the party is just icing on the cake. I had one such girl who was very involved in her service, even to the point of singing the “Ave Maria” when it came time to place the flowers at the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe and to ask for her help in becoming the woman that God wants her to be. I was moved to tears. It was after that Quinceanera that I changed my attitude towards the ritual and saw that I was there for God and to do His will in giving the best homily to encourage and challenge the young women who are celebrating this transition in their lives. How they take it, or their attitude towards it, does not matter, at least to me.
We took a day trip to a National Park in a neighboring town about 2 hours away (about 50 miles, but through mountain roads and traffic…). This park is home to a natural source of pure water, in fact, you can drink water straight from the rock without fear of getting sick, it is that pure! The state of Michoacán is home to the world’s best hass avocados, and Uruapan (where the park is) is the Capital of the avocado empire. We depend so much on Mexican avocados (even though we have the largest avocado growers in our own backyard in San Diego County), that when the workers went on strike last month, there was a major disruption in production and distribution and avocado prices went through the roof, so much so that we had to stop selling guacamole except on the menu items that came with it. Don’t let anybody fool you into thinking that the avocado growers in California don’t want or are afraid of the Mexican avocados. Two major California distributors, West Pak and Calavo, are invested heavily in Michoacán. Both have packing and distribution centers here and make money hand over fist with their product.
We took another trip, this time only for the afternoon, to a mountain town in Jalisco, about 45 minutes from Cotija. Mazamitla is a town in the Sierras, just as Uruapan is, however the difference with Mazamitla is that it seems to be frozen in time. It is a tourist town, but it still looks like it did 50 years or 100 years ago. Clean streets, flagstone roads throughout the center of town and quaint shops selling just about anything you might want, from waffles and crepes to fine art. We usually just go for lunch at a nice restaurant/resort that overlooks the valley below, as we did today. I remember the first time I was at this particular restaurant and was surveying the surrounding landscape with the plethora of pine trees in these mountains, the scent surrounds you as you breathe in clean mountain air, and I remember thinking that I was going to see the Cartwright clan come riding over the hill and I heard the theme to ‘Bonanza’ playing in my head. I have been to many small mountain towns in many places, but none have the authentic charm as Mazamitla has. This is a town I need to return to and spend a number of days exploring it’s charm and beauty.
No vacation is complete without at least one minor emergency. We had ours with a flat tire on our rental car. Now, it was a minor emergency because we were returning from a neighboring town and it went flat at a most inconvenient time. A long downhill curving road with no place to pull over. Once we did, we changed it with the spare and drove back to Cotija where we had the tire patched and reinstalled. It now remains to see it the patch holds to take us back to the airport rental office. Other than that, the only other emergency is running out of bottled water at 6 in the morning so I can’t make another cup of coffee. The water from the tap is not clean enough to drink, but is good enough to wash dishes and clothes and for general cleaning, bathing and personal hygiene, but not for personal consumption. There is only one house here in Cotija that has water clean and pure enough to drink from the tap, and that is at the home of the previously mentioned Saint Rafael Guizar y Valencia which has a well as it’s source of water, not the city’s supply. This water has been laboratory tested and has been certified as some of the purest water in all of Mexico. Now, is it because it is a well? Or is it because it is at the house where a saint lived while he was growing up? I do not know, all I do know is that I have drank from that well also and did not get sick. Like I posted in a video from Uruapan, who says you can’t drink the water in Mexico? Heck, there are places in the US where you can’t drink the water from the tap because of some kind of environmental contamination that has come as the result of our failure to care for our world, and in some cases the pure greed of companies that build infrastructure from inferior material so that over time, it corrodes and poisons the water coming into the home, just so they can make a fast profit.
Last night was the “Midnight” Mass for Christmas (which started at 9 and finished around 10:30 pm), the Gospel reading from Luke of the Birth of the Savior in a humble stable. As our priest reminded us, the subtlety of God coming into our world as one of us, born in Bethlehem, which means ‘House of Bread’ and being laid in a manger, a place where animals would eat their food. Jesus, the Bread of Life, which we are to eat in the Eucharist for us to have life, and that we might have that life abundantly. Again, the priest sang most of the Eucharistic Prayer, with the people in their parts with a sung response. I think a Mass sung, is a Mass prayed twice, which St. Augustine would agree with me, “He who sings, prays twice”. I honestly don’t know what incense they use, but I need to get some for our parish because the priest would put inly a small amount and the smoke just kept coming and coming (like the Energizer Bunny), raising the prayers to Heaven with the smoke from the Thurible.
Today, Christmas Day, marks our last full day here in Cotija. It will be a day of washing clothes, cleaning house (why, I don’t know, we have a lady that takes care of the house throughout the year) and of packing our suitcases. Of course, we will go to the 12 noon Mass, my last one assisting and I will have to pack away my alb and stoles after Mass. It has always been an honor to serve the people of God in the Mass, regardless of where that Mass takes place. That is what makes us Catholic, Universal, that the Mass is the same readings everywhere in the world on the same liturgical calendar. The bread and wine offered on that altar, regardless of the geographical location of the parish, still is transubstantiated into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ by the prayers offered by the priest for himself and the people at that Mass. For this reason we affirm through the Creed that we are the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.
I wish everyone who reads this reflection a very Merry and Blessed Christmas season and a Joyous New Year. May God bless you and yours in the coming year as we continue on our journey back to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.