I am sitting on a rock hard bed at the Hotel Isabel, in a high-ceilinged room with pink and grey walls. I first came to the Isabel when I was only 23, and I still put up with the rock hard beds because the hotel is clean and has just the right mix of actual beauty (twenty-foot-high ceilings in this room), crazy Mexican aesthetics (a gorgeous Colonial lobby painted bright orange and bright blue; pastel furniture that’s straight out of an eighties soap opera), and memories, my own and the whispers of history.
Speaking of history, the hotel is located in the heart of Mexico City’s Centro Historico, a gritty, pulsing neighborhood that’s part walking tour of Mexico’s most dramatic monuments, and part bargain shopping district. Unlike many Colonial neighborhoods, the Centro Historico houses more than just upscale boutiques and fancy restaurants. You can find those for sure, but you’re more likely to find 400 year-old buildings housing torta shops, smoky taquerias, cut-rate electronics, or bargain shoe stores. The neighborhood is divided by districts: the quinciañera dress district, the chandelier district, the shoe district etc. I once found an entire district devoted entirely to men’s ankle boots.
Today we walked about six blocks south of the hotel and discovered a giant marketplace of niños de dios. I’ve spent a lot of time in the Centro Historico, but somehow I missed the ten blocks devoted to Christ child baby dolls and accessories. After passing through a warren of booths selling everything from tiny golden chairs to miniature Pope John Paul II outfits, we came to the classier part of the district, with niño de dios emporiums. Giant stone niño statues guarded a small outdoor mall.
Next we wandered over to the alameda and sat by a fountain, enjoying the shimmering green of the trees and the parade of passing citizens. I noticed a teenage girl carrying what looked like a Jesus statue half her size.
Must be on her way back from shopping in the grown-up Jesus district, I thought wisely. A few minutes later another girl passed carrying a smaller version of the same statue: green robe, outspread arms, brown beard and hair. This time the statue was adorned in rosaries and offerings of money and flowers, which made me doubt that it was recently purchased. I peered at the girl: spiky black bangs, plenty of eye make-up, ipod, bedazzled jeans. She carried the bulky figurine like it was just another accessory. Weird. A few seconds later we saw another statue being cradled by a goth couple, replete with matching eyeliner and tattoos. Rich and I speculated wildly.
“Here in Mexico, I wouldn’t blink an eye at a little old Catholic lady carrying a saint statue,” I said. “…Or even a battalion of little old Catholic ladies. The weird part is that most of these people carrying statues are young and kind of hip looking.”
“Maybe it’s the saint day for the patron saint of emo?” Rich joked.
As it turns out, he hit the nail on the head. It’s Jan 28, or San Judas de Tadeo day. San Judas de Tadeo, known as the “the patron saint of lost causes” or the “patron saint of the hopeless and despaired”, has become so popular in Mexico that one day of the year is no longer sufficient to pay homage: the 28th of every month is unofficial San Judas de Tadeo day; devotees in Mexico City carry statues of the saint to a temple on the corner of Avenida Hidalgo and Paseo de la Reforma. After that they apparently take the saint for a walk in the park. San Judas de Tadeo is particularly popular in Mexico City, and particularly popular with young people. Kids these days.