A squeaky wagon rolled down Burch Avenue carrying a carving of the Virgin Mary and a tape deck blaring instrumental music. A crowd of 200 recited the rosary in Spanish, while a Chevy truck that had been fashioned into a float ferried a young girl draped in deep green, only her face and folded hands visible, while three men kneeled before her, surrounded by roses.
“¡Viva la Virgen!” a woman cried.
“¡Qué viva!” the crowd responded.
Last Saturday about 200 people joined the annual procession through Durham’s Burch Avenue and northern Morehead Hill neighborhoods honoring La Virgen de Guadalupe, the Virgin Mary. Mexican Catholics believe she appeared Dec. 12, 1531, to an Indian peasant named Cuauhtlatohuac, who had been baptized by Spanish Catholic missionaries and given the name Juan Diego.
The procession marked an intersection of Catholicism and indigenous beliefs, of American and Mexican culture: Men and women cradled framed portraits of the Virgin Mary and her image was silkscreened on jackets, shirts and capes. Others wore headbands decorated with feathers or hats with colorful ribbons streaming from the brim. Dancers spun in the street, led by a man hoisting an American flag; down the line, a truck had shrouded its hood in a Mexican flag and embellished it with roses.
I had looked forward all week to the procession, as it reminded me of the five years I lived in San Antonio, Texas, where police routinely closed the streets to accommodate marches in honor of figures ranging from the Virgin Mary to César Chávez. (A 10-day festival known as Fiesta commemorates the United States’ victory over Mexico; culture and history are not tidy.)
In the early part of this decade, San Antonio, a city of 1.2 million people, was 58 percent Latino, although whites held a disproportionate amount of economic power. Nonetheless, I was reminded every day that whites made up the ethnic minority: Spanish was widely spoken in the street, and on my Sunday morning walks I would linger beneath the open window of a nearby storefront church to hear ministers preach and their congregations sing in Spanish.
That’s not to say race relations weren’t strained: Latinos who had abandoned their heritage were known as “vendidos” or “sellouts.” As historically marginalized groups, some African-Americans and Latinos argued over who was the more aggrieved minority. Yet hostility toward Latinos, at least in south-central Texas, was abated by the fact that deep down, we knew that the Mexicans were there first. The gringos are merely occupying the land.
So when I arrived in North Carolina three years ago, I felt mystified by the animosity toward Latinos. And last Saturday, in the midst of dancing, prayers and music, I encountered it again. A car and a truck were idling as the procession passed through the intersection of Buchanan Boulevard and Jackson Street. It was a brief inconvenience, no longer than the wait at a sluggish traffic light. As I walked by, a man in the truck blurted through his open window, “I’ve never seen so many Mexicans in all my life. They’re taking over.”
I explained the significance of the religious and cultural observance, and reassured him the procession wasn’t very long. He stopped himself, perhaps realizing that I was unsympathetic to his outburst, and added, albeit half-heartedly, “I mean, they’re people, too.”
The procession cleared the intersection. The man in the truck drove to his job at a construction site down the street. I lingered at the corner, watching the tail of the parade round the corner and listening as the sound of music and prayers and the squeaky wagon faded.