Life in Atotonilco | Mexico | Living in Mexico

Life in Atotonilco

We look out the main door of the Santuario de Atotonilco, past a 250-year-old threshold worn down by generations of feet. The wooden plank is deeply scalloped between the harder knots, signalling great age.


Outside, an old woman leans against a pillar. She’s begging. She sits in the spot where she laid her claim long ago. Her spot. Squatter’s rights. No one challenges her right to it.

To the right of the Santuario door, a welcoming entrance leads to a gift shop and restaurant run by nuns from the local convent—a good place for a light lunch.


Paul (El Guapo) Latoures places our snack order with one of the sisters: carrot and potato taquitos and big glasses of fresh squeezed orange juice. Lunch for two: 80 pesos.


Paul addresses the nun as Madre, not Sister.

If 80 pesos is too expensive, a woman across the street will make you a gordita for ten. This morning, as every morning, she gathers fallen branches for her fire. She pats out gorditas by hand and cooks them on her simple comal—a circular piece of sheet metal.


The young man in a wheelchair is another Atotonilco fixture. His profound developmental disablement causes me to look away, unable to face a life so cruel. His mother wheels him out in front of the Santuario every day. She supports herself and her son on donations from passers-by.


The boy’s posture never changes. The abonizing arch in his back appears to be permanent. He lies in his chair, looking at the sky, making sudden inhuman cries.

Hundreds of thousands of perigrinos—pilgrims—visit Atotonilco every year. They arrive in smokey old chartered buses or in rusty pickup trucks. Some come on foot, walking for days to get here. They sleep in dormitories. They buy religious souvenirs from the vendors who have sprung up to serve them.


For sale here: icons, statuettes, printed prayers, sketches of Christ and Our Lady of Guadalupe. A vendor sits patiently behind hundreds of rosaries.


Among the rosaries hang flails. Pilgrims flagellate themselves. Some wear hair shirts. Others tie prickly pear pads to their chests so cactus spines will score their flesh. Still others crawl the last few miles to the Santurario on their knees.


These flails look too festive to be used for mortification of the flesh. Do pilgrims actually buy and use them? Or are they purchased by tourists in search of gruesome souvenirs?

Atotonilco is a center of great faith, and to my naïve Protestant outlook, a chilling morbidity. A decal on the door of an employee’s truck bears an image of Christ in agony; not the pleasant figure recalled from my childhood Sunday school. I’m unable to grasp the level of devotion that would motivate someone to display a face like this one on his car. I don’t understand a person submitting to real, bloody scourgings as does the man who plays Christ on Good Friday here. I can’t comprehend how parents can hold wailing, terrified toddlers aloft to witness the young man being whipped that day.


Yet I find the people who worship here to be kind, friendly, common people. Not a hint of fanaticism or psychosis on their faces. Gentle people. People generous with neighbors and strangers alike, comfortable with God.


They come here and make their devotions. Then they wander across the street to a stall to buy a naranjada. They sit in the sun, enjoying their drinks.

Life in Atotonilco is slow and peaceful. I don’t see hateful or angry people here: no impatient drivers, no pouting teenagers.

How can a place so focused on pain and suffering exude such tranquility? Does the one cause the other? Or is Atotonilco just another sleepy Mexican town, albeit one that somehow manages to absorb the torments of penitents?