THE MONTH of May summons many images. Mother’s Day. Cinco de Mayo. Graduation. But any Catholic will tell you the real significance of the month: May is the Virgin Mary’s month.
During May, Catholics gather – in their churches, at people’s homes – to recite the rosary in honor of Mary. It is an especially big deal among Latinos, who revere Mary almost as much as God Himself.
When I was growing up in Crystal City, my sisters and I would go to church every weekday evening for the rosary. It was supposed to be voluntary, and I guess it was, in the sense that paying taxes is voluntary. If we didn’t go, we had to answer to the nuns and to our parents.
When she was alive, my grandmother Manuela insisted we attend the rosary, sometimes at her house, but after she died, I don’t think my mother ever forced us to do so. We were all so caught up with the many mysterious rituals of the church that we would have gone without any pressure. And it was a beautiful ritual, involving many sounds, smells and sights. The burning candles and the flowers provided the smells. The sounds came from the chant-like recitations of the prayers that made up the rosary. “Dios te salve, Maria…,” the priest would begin the first part of the Hail Mary prayer.” “Santa Maria, madre de Dios…,” we responded with the second part. After 10 of these, we’d recite the Gloria followed by the Lord’s Prayer. We then begin another set of 10 Hail Marys, except that this time the people said their first part in the priest responded with the second.
The praying itself could get terribly monotonous and much of the time most of us kids paid little attention to what we were mumbling. Often what emerged from my mouth with mere gibberish. This was particularly true at the end of the Hail Mary when “now and at the hour of our death” – which in Spanish is, “ahora y en la hora,” often came out sounding like a never ending rumble: “orainalorainlaora…”
Because the building was not air conditioned, its doors had to be left open, allowing bats to fly in. They fluttered back and forth from one end of the church to the other period. We would watch them, much of the priest’s consternation, our heads swaying in unison as we followed their paths through the air.
As we recited our Hail Marys, we were supposed to keep track on the rosary beads we’d received when we made our First Communion, but I was never able to concentrate. No matter how hard I tried, I was always one or two off.
WHILE THE praying itself was monotonous, what came in between the misterios – the sets of 10 Hail Marys – made everything worthwhile. That was when we kids marched up the aisle with a handful of flowers and deposited them at the foot of the statue of the Virgin. As we did this, the congregation sang one of the various songs dedicated to Mary.
Ofreciéndole flores a la virgen, we called it – offering flowers to the virgin. Each of us was responsible for bringing flowers from home. We carried those precious flowers proudly as we walked toward the church, and we beamed when the neighborhood ladies, sitting on their front porches, oohed and aahed over their beauty, and marveled at our devotion to the Virgin. At first, we were allowed to carry those flowers to Mary. Later, however some do-gooder nun got the bright idea of pooling all the flowers into one big pile, from which we were each handed a handful as we begin our procession up the aisle.
The scheme was intended to ensure that all the children, even those whose mothers didn’t have gardens, would have flowers, but my sisters and I thought it was grossly unfair that the beautiful roses my mother had carefully cut from her precious bushes ended up in some other kids’ hands while we had to settle for oleander or other ordinary flowers.
IT WASN’T fair, of course, but by then we had learned never to question the actions of the nuns, or anybody in authority, and we had learned to accept that fairness and religion often don’t coexist. Besides, in our hearts we were certain the Virgin Mary knew who brought those beautiful roses, and that was what really mattered.
(This piece was published originally in The Houston Post May 13, 1993)