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Special Mexican Churches, From Ornate to Bare

June 08, 1986|CECIL SMITH | Smith is retired TV critic of The Times.

CIUDAD OBREGON, Mexico — It was incongruous, finding this cathedral here. Like finding a diamond in a coal scuttle. Or I suppose, more accurately, a lump of coal in a box of diamonds.

Mexico, of course, is full of churches. Every village, every hamlet has its towering edifice to the glory of God. Chapels and shrines dot the highways and roads.

In the great cities are cathedrals of such magnificence that they boggle the mind, like the stately silver-studded Santa Prisca at Taxco or La Valenciana near Guanajuato where, legend says, the mortar was laced with silver dust and mixed with vintage wines.

But one thing is true of a Mexican church wherever you find it. Whether looming over a scraggly crossroads village or glittering in a bizarre rainbow of colors and onion-shaped domes in Acapulco, it's never simple. It's as ornate as a wedding cake.

Mostly, the churches are of the baroque churrigueresque style brought over from southern Spain with decided Moorish overtones. What gives them individuality is when the Moorish collides with the Aztec and the Mayan, as it often does. It lends the building, sometimes resplendent in scarlets and lavenders and sickly greens, a pagan posture in a Christian setting, the reverse of that great mosque at Cordova in Spain that contains a Catholic cathedral within it.

Like No Other

But here in this prosperous, bustling city of Obregon, in the center of the lush and bountiful Yaqui Valley, stands this cathedral that is like no other church I've seen in Mexico. Its simplicity is awesome.

Covering much of a square block in the center of the city, it is a round building of rough reinforced concrete with the ends of steel bars jutting from the walls. On these walls on the outside of the church are painted, or etched, the stations of the cross.

The roof is a towering conical cap with a spire soaring above it with a cross at the top. It looks like a Vietnamese hat.

There are broad stairways to doors on three sides of this circular building--on the fourth, there's a chapel where I saw a wedding in progress. Each of the wide doors opens onto a broad aisle sweeping down between the pews to a platform that serves as a simple altar.

Above the altar, suspended from the towering conical ceiling, is a huge golden crucifix. The feeling is of theater-in-the-round.

What was fascinating to me was that this starkly modern church sat opposite a business block of offices, a supermarket, a residential street and, on one side, a park with stone benches and slabs of statuary. Life in Obregon literally swarms around it.

And through it--that was the charm. Here was a cathedral through which the life blood of the city flowed. Businessmen cut through its aisles and paused a moment to breathe a prayer before scurrying on with their work; secretaries with brown paper lunch bags stopped a moment to kneel before cutting on through the church to the park. Housewives heading home from the supermarket paused to bow their heads, school kids with their skateboards dropped in for a pious moment.

Integral Part

It seemed to an irreligious bloke like me the way religion ought to be, an integral part of daily life rather than an isolated rite. Not that formal services do not happen here, but this daily life flow is to me unusual.

Beyond the cathedral stands the old churrigueresque church it replaced, now in ruins but being rebuilt, a proper wedding cake the mice had gotten at.

Obregon, once the capital of the powerful Yaqui nation (and then called Cajeme after a Yaqui chief whose statue guards the city from the north), is hardly a tourist town. It's too busy. Alvaro Obregon Dam was built on the Yaqui River to irrigate this valley, so it is at the center of great agricultural production, including miles of new vineyards to the north; it has all the charm of Bakersfield. (Hunters, however, do flock here for duck and quail and wild turkey, deer, bear, antelope and wild boar.)

To those of us who like to drive the Mexican highways (we have driven more than 25,000 miles in Mexico in the last couple of years), Obregon on the west coast arterial Highway 15 is about midway between Nogales and Mazatlan, a natural stopping place. It has a couple of adequate motels, two excellent restaurants (Mr. Steak and Don Quixote).

Midnight Dinner

Be warned, however, that Obregon, unlike tourist-oriented cities, follows the Spanish-Mexican custom of midnight dinner, and restaurants are not only vacant at 8 p.m. but the waiters are astonished that anyone would want to dine that early.

We stumbled onto Obregon's cathedral while searching, fruitlessly, for a restaurant that did not believe it obscene to dine at 7 p.m.)

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