Fiesta of San Francisco at Magdalena, Sonora

from the Personal Narrative of Explorations and Incidents in Texas, New Mexico, California, Sonora and Chihuahua by J. R. Bartlett

October, 1851
Although "San Franciscos" are as common in Mexico, as Washingtons, Jeffersons, and Franklins are with us, and churches dedicated to the saint are to be found all over the country; yet this of La Magdalena is the most celebrated and potent of all, inasmuch as it contains a celebrated figure of San Francisco, which, among other miracles, performed that of selecting the place of its abode. A party of San Franciscans, as the legend goes, were travelling in search of a proper spot to found an establishment, and had among their other effects this sainted figure packed upon a mule. On arriving at this place, the animal carrying the precious burden became obstinate, and refused to budge. This the worthy fathers interpreted as indicating the Saint's pleasure to stop here. So here they built the church. The original building, with the exception of the tower, is in ruins; but a new one has been erected within a few years, which is quite an imposing edifice, with two fine towers and a large dome, beneath which the Saint reposes.

Magdalena, Sonora, from Bartlett's Explorations and Incidents...

For several days previous to the 4th of October, which is the Saint's day, preparations for its celebration begin; so that the devotions and offerings, with their accompanying festivities, are in full blast a day or two in advance. La Magdalena and the Church of San Francisco are the Mecca of devout Mexican Catholics. From the borders of Sinaloa on the south to the furthest outpost near the Gila, and from the Gulf of California to the Sierra Madre, they flock in by thousands, to offer their devotions at this shrine. It is not unusual for very great sinners to bring their burden of guilt a distance of four or five hundred miles; a journey in this country of greater difficulty, and requiring more time, than one from New Orleans to Quebec. The poorer classes often come a hundred miles on foot, begging by the way. The more penitent, like the idolaters before the temple of Juggernaut, or the devout Mohammedan at the shrine of his prophet, prostrate themselves, and, with their hands crossed on their breasts, advance on their knees a hundred feet or more to the church. Both men and women are thus seen toiling over the dusty street and brick pavement of the church to the presence of the Saint, who is laid out beneath the dome and in front of the altar. When the votaries reach the bier, they cross themselves, and with outstretched arms repeat their prayers. They then rise to their feet, and, drawing nearer, present their offerings.

The body of San Francisco, or rather its image, lies upon a platform or bier clothed in rich vestments, and covered with a piece of satin damask of the most gorgeous colors. The head, hands, and feet are alone exposed. These are made of wood, colored to represent flesh; and I was informed by a Mexican gentleman, that these constituted the whole statue. The body, he told me, was merely a framework, stuffed with rags and cloths to give it a form, over which the drapery was disposed. The offerings consist of money and candles; and as wax is quite expensive here, the poorer class present candles of tallow. There was a continual jingling of money; in fact, so constant was the dropping of silver dollars into the receptacle placed for them, that no other sound was heard. What was singular in all this mummery was, that no priest was present. The men who took the money were ordinarily dressed, having on nothing to distinguish them from the crowd around. There may have been a priest behind the altar or somewhere not visible to the devotees; but while I stood by the side of the image and witnessed the proceedings on two occasions, I could perceive none. An estimate may be formed of the crowds here present, when I state that the receipts this year, although the attendance was less than usual, were about twelve thousand dollars; while on some former occasions, the amount of money voluntarily given had reached the sum of eighteen thousand. To the question what became of all this money, I received the usual replay of "Quien sabe?" [Who knows?] A gentleman, however, told me that it went to the city of Mexico, and that neither the poor of Magdalena nor the church there derived any benefit from it.

In the evening I visited the church again, when I witnessed the ceremony of consecrating ribbons. The space around the image was crowded as in the morning with devotees, each provided with a piece of ribbon. The mode of consecrating it depended upon the ailment of the applicant. If he or she had a pain in the head, the ribbon was passed several times across the forehead of the figure by the officiating Franciscans. If blind, the ribbon was passed across the eyes; if lame, or afflicted with rheumatism, it was passed over the arms or legs; and in many instances I saw it drawn between the toes of the Saint. Had some of our turtle-fed aldermen been the applicants for the latter process, one might have believed it to be for the gout; but I fancy that a diet of frijoles and tortillas does not often engender that disease in Mexico. Some of the worshippers were provided with long pieces of ribbon, which they applied in turn to every part, a knot being tied after each application, making, probably, as one of the gentlemen observed, "a sort of family medicine chest." The faith of the people in this thing of wood and paint is astonishing. An old man told us with the utmost seriousness, that last May, when the cholera visited the place, and was cutting off twenty a day, they had only to bring the image into the street, and the disease at once disappeared. He was asked what he would have thought if the disease continued. He replied, "That it was the will of the Saint, and we must submit."

In our rambles, we dropped into an attractive-looking shop to make inquiries about such provisions as we required. The proprietor, Senor Gonzales, was a native Castilian, which we soon perceived by the purity of his language. He at once recognized us as Americans; and after answering our inquiries, invited us into an inner apartment, furnished very handsomely, and in good taste. One of the first things I noticed here was an American rocking chair -- an article of luxury better adapted, one would suppose, to the quiet habits of the Mexicans, with their fondness for a siesta during the heat of the day, than to those of restless Yankees. Wine and other refreshments were offered us; and an hour was agreeably spent in conversation with our new acquaintance. He gave us much information about the country, and the ceremonies we had just witnessed. While there, several strangers, also gentlemen of education and respectability, came in; and finding who we were, and of what we were in pursuit, they gave us such information as we required, and tendered us their services. I regretted to learn that we could not procure the provisions we needed; but it was expected that the fair would bring many mules into market, so that in a few days we could obtain all that we wanted.

In the evening we walked about the town, and among the booths, which were arranged on every side of the plaza, and along the principal streets. They seemed much like those which it was customary to erect in New York on the Fourth of July. Cakes of various kinds, tortillas, fruits, and aguardiente, were the staple articles; but while there were booths entirely appropriated to the sale of this intoxicating liquor, I do not remember to have seen a single drunken man. In the midst of these booths was a large inclosure, covered with the boughs of trees, beneath which some hundreds were assembled, and engaged in dancing. An enormous bass drum, which was heard above all other sounds, a couple of violins, and a clarionet, ground out waltzes and polkas, which the beaux were swinging around the senoritas in a manner that would astonish our dancing community. Notwithstanding the crowd here assembled, most of whom were strangers to each other, the most perfect order was kept. The Mexican people are ardently devoted to dancing; and when they once enter into it, they do not cease until the sun appears the following day. Some of our party who were given to this amusement thought they would like to take a few turns. So, casting a glance along the line of dark-eyed damsels who occupied the benches, and selecting the most attractive, they advanced without any introduction, led them into the arena, and at once joined in the merry whirl. A perpetual fandango was thus kept up day and night; where people of all sorts, sizes, and conditions might be seen twirling to the slow measure of the Spanish reel, or the more active waltz and polka. But gambling, after all, seemed to predominate. Whole ranges of booths were devoted to this exciting amusement; and crowds of every age, sex, and class were assembled about them. Boys and girls of six and eight years of age laid down their coppers, and men their reals and dollars; while at other tables the more wealthy and aristocratic ventured their ounces. Some of the tables were attended by women, selected, not on account of their personal beauty, but for their expertness in shuffling the cards.

October 3d
Mexican vignette
Accompanied Mr. Pratt to the hills opposite our camp, to take some sketches. The hills were separated from the camp by the river, on the banks of which were some hundreds of men and women bathing or washing. A few cottonwood trees grew along the valley; and the margin of the stream was lined with willow bushes. The hills here are about five hundred feet high; and from them we had a fine view of the town and adjacent plain, which was inclosed towards the south by a high range of mountains. The hill where we stood was literally covered with cacti of every variety that we had seen, from tiny plants not longer than one's thumb, just projecting from some crevice, to the giant cereus, that shot up to the height of fifty feet. The agave, yucca, fouquiera [ocotillo], Spanish bayonet, mesquit, and other plants, alike grew in profusion around us.

In the evening we again visited the church, where the same scenes were going on as before described. It was now brilliantly illuminated, and a procession was marching through the crowd, each individual in it holding a lighted candle in his hand. The music was performed by a circus band, from Hermosillo, which played the same pieces for the interludes of the service as it did for the performances of evening. Some of our popular Ethiopian melodies occasionally greeted the ear.

October 4th
Finding it impossible to obtain provisions here, I determined to go to Ures, the Capital of the State of Sonora, about ninety miles distant, for the purpose of procuring what we needed, and of negotiating my drafts on the government, which I could not do here. Senor Gonzales agreed to furnish the mules I wanted, but could not do so under a week or ten days. I accordingly gave him an order to procure for me ten pack and four riding mules, sundry packsaddles, etc., which were to be delivered to me on my return from Ures.

In the afternoon, services were performed over the figure of San Francisco, preparatory to its being carried through the streets in grand procession. As soon as the sun had set, the eight bells commenced a merry peal, the church was illuminated, and the procession formed. The figure was brought forth on a platform, or bier, over which was a canopy of crimson satin; and two lines were formed extending across the plaza, each individual bearing a lighted wax-candle in his hand. I estimated the number in the procession carrying these candles at twelve hundred. A band of music led the way, followed by boys and men swinging censers of incense. Next came the Saint immediately preceded by a priest; and a crowd of women carrying lighted candles followed, constituting the main body of the procession. Innumerable small rockets were thrown up by the populace, which flew about in all directions, and fell among the crowd. Muskets too were fired by such as had them from the streets and the house-tops, as the procession passed along. On the whole, the noise and confusion reminded us of the Fourth of July, and seemed to exhibit quite as little devotional feeling as that day brings forth among us. It was one continual scene of amusement and hilarity from the beginning to the end. After marching across the plaza and through one of the streets, the whole distance not exceeding a quarter of a mile, the image was carried back to the church and laid on the shelf until the next year; and so the grand fiesta ended.

We dined today with our Castilian friend, Senor Gonzales; and at his house we met several Mexican gentlemen, among them Don Ilarion Garcia, whom we saw at our camp on the San Pedro.

La Magdalena is the best built town we had yet seen; the houses are chiefly of adobe, though some are of brick, and nearly all are stuccoed and white-washed. Many are colored yellow and otherwise ornamented, in a manner exhibiting considerable taste. The permanent population does not exceed fifteen hundred souls, which number, during the days of the festival of San Francisco, is swelled to ten or twelve thousand.

Recommended reading:

Bannon, John Francis, S.J. The Spanish Borderlands Frontier. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997.

Kessell, John L. Friars, Soldiers and Reformers: Hispanic Arizona and the Sonora Mission Frontier, 1767-1856. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1976.

Woodward, Arthur et al. The Missions of Northern Sonora: A 1935 Field Documentation. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1993.