As the man from the countryside drove his pack mules down the dusty street in Oaxaca in the year 1620, one dropped to its knees. There, in front of the church of Saint Sebastian.
But, wait, this was not one of his burros. It was a volunteer laden with a heavy chest. The burro refused to budge, rolling over dead, knocking open the chest to reveal its contents. The hands and beautifully carved face of the Virgin Mary appeared. Surely a miracle.
A church would have to be built here. And it was. A grand church now known as the Basilica de La Virgen de la Soledad.
And the Virgin was cloaked in splendor, her garment designed to conceal her lack of corporal substance.
Many who have prayed to the Virgen de la Soledad through the centuries since credit her with miraculous cures. In the belief that she, the patron saint of Oaxaca, protects them, mariners would trek from the coast on foot to bring her tributes of pearls and gold.
When the Constitution of 1857 authorized confiscation of the church’s assets, her bejeweled garments and tributes were spirited away by some of her faithful. The tattered remnants of her gown, gems intact, were rediscovered by a merchant remodeling his shop in 1888. He ordered the finest velvet from France to present to the nuns who stitched the jewels back into the luxurious garment that is her hallmark.
The Feast Day of La Virgen de las Soledad on December 18 is one of Oaxaca’s most important celebrations. We never were able to determine at what hour she arrived by float paraded through the streets, perhaps midnight? A few spent fireworks littered the stones the next day. We found her enthroned in a corner of the Basilica’s plaza on her day, the faithful filing by to lay floral tributes before her.
In addition to the behemoth Basilica built in her honor, a smaller plaza in front of the church always beckons – the ice cream plaza, properly known as Plaza Socrates. Stalls of vendors of imaginative flavors of ice cream – such as rosa or aguacate – competitively beckon families to sit at their tables for some of the best people-watching in the city. Marimba minstrels generally set up in the middle of the neverias.
A plaza full of ice cream makes Socrates seem a wise man indeed.