Exploring the Back Roads
Cuyucuenda, Veracruz
A Unique Village Saint

Photos and Text by John Todd, Jr.

It Started with an Unnoticed Portrait on a Building
In Veracruz, you never know what you are going to find, and this trip out into the countryside started unexpectedly at an old tire shop on the back streets of old Veracruz when I met an old man who told me an interesting story about his childhood.

Later I had some time to follow up on his story and found the small village of Cuyucuenda which is only about an hour from Veracruz. I also heard about some unexpected miracles.

Getting a Front End Alignment on Avenida Díaz Mirón
One day, I had to get a front end alignment on my car, and one of the well known tire service company is located on a corner on Avenida Salvador Díaz Mirón, a very old street in Veracruz that´s surrounded by old homes many of which have been converted into small businesses that are fascinated to look at up close.

Since, I had the time, I took a walk around the block behind Díaz Mirón to do a little urban exploring.

Callejón Holtzinger
Secrets Hiding in the Streets of Veracruz
The streets of Veracruz are very old, and if you look close enough, you will see many of its secrets revealed.

Sometimes they are in the forms of legends, and most of the time there is a certain amount of truth behind some of the legends, as well as some interesting stories.

In others, the truth has simply been carelessly forgotten because other things have become more important.

The Salvador Díaz Mirón Avenue is a well travelled artery that goes back to the 19th Century. In those days it was called the Avenida de la Libertad, perhaps named at the time when the wall that protected Veracruz from the pirates was demolished on Bastille Day, July 14, 1880.

Later, I learned that the Avenida de la Libertad was changed to Díaz Mirón in 1931, and often I wondered why at that late date?

Sometimes, these reasons appear in the ornate facades of the old houses in the backstreets of old Veracruz.
Avenida Salvador Díaz Mirón
Looking for Possible Explanations
In May of 1911, when Don Porfirio Díaz left the Presidency to go into exile in Paris, his system of controls broke down, and the Mexican Revolution continued until around 1920.

In those days living in the countryside was dangerous in spite of the Agrarian Reform Movement that started in the 1920´s.

Later the Cristero War began in 1925, and there was more bloodshed.

One can see that many people in Mexico must have longed for the peaceful days and the firm hand of the regime of Porfirio Díaz.

1. How It Started

A Corner Shop
A Mysterious Portrait
Parallel to Avenida Díaz Mirón is Gonzales Pagés Street which also goes back for several hundred years.

Along this street, there are many businesses that are also very old and still have preserved the old ornate marquees from the 19th Century.

One of the old homes now houses a small tire repair business.

Most people don´t notice it, but on the corner, in the upper part of the facade, is a portrait of a man in a military uniform festooned with medals perhaps from a forgotten era.

Each time I passed this house over the years, I wondered if the portrait was really of the former President Don Porfirio Díaz?
Perhaps a Personal Monument
A Former President on a Side Street?
Don Porfirio was President of Mexico from 1876 until 1910, with a short break around 1880 when a family member took over for two years.

It is extremely rare to see such a public expression of an image of Don Porfirio Díaz on a public street. Officially he was considered a ruthless dictator.

Could the original owner of the house have had a special friendship with the former president of Mexico who is now out of favor?
To a Forgotten President
An Ornate Facade
There are many curiosities like this in Veracruz, and one day I was having some work done on my car at another shop nearby, and had some free time to walk around.

I wasn´t far from where the portrait was and walked around the block and stood there for a moment admiring the old house with the ornate 19th century look about it with portrait of the former President on the corner.

It looked almost like a demonstration of admiration for the President who is now officially considered a dictator.
On the Gonzalez Pagés Side
Built in 1929
Upon closer observation, I noticed the date "1929" on the building which was customary in those days, and wondered how this beautiful home had survived for so long.

Historically, the year 1929 meant that the former President had died some 14 years before, the Mexican Revolution was over, and the Cristero Wars had begun.
A.S.: The Mysterious Initials
"A.S.": The Mysterious Initials
Off to one side of the facade I noticed the initials "A.S." and wondered if they referred to the original owner of the building.

Inside the Tire Shop
The door to the business was open, and I thought maybe someone could help me clear up this personal mystery I had carried for several years.

The interior of the shop was pleasantly disorganized and there was an "office" in the back part of the shop.
Inside the Tire Shop
Once inside the old business, you could tell it had been there for a long time, and it looked like the owner had never thrown anything away.

The owner was an old man, with very blue eyes, and a friendly smile to go along with it.

He got up from his desk in his "office" and greeted me warmly.

Maybe he could shed some light on my questions about the little personal monument and the mysterious initials in the facade above his business.

The Answers to the Mysteries
I started with my questions and first was the portrait.

"Yes, it is the portrait of Presidente Porfirio Díaz Mori."

"I bought this building from the original owner back in the 1950´s, and he was an admirer of Don Porfirio."

"I think he may have been one of his generals."
Don Miguel Angel Lagunes
"A.S.": The Mysterious Initials
"What about the initials?" I asked.

"They are the initials of the original owner: don Alejandro Sánchez Ahumada."

"Originally the, initials were A.S.A, but I think that several years ago the final "A" fell off during a norte."

The old man went on to tell me more about himself.

Born in Cuyucuenda, Veracruz
"My name is Miguel Angel Lagunes, and I was born in 1931, a few years after this building was built.

I was born in a little town near Piedras Negras called Cuyucuenda and was adopted by the kind señora at the hacienda there."
The Office
"Those were difficult times in the little town and because of the Agraristas."

"All the men wore guns in those days, but what I remember most was the kind señora at the hacienda who sent me to catechism classes at the church of the Virgen de Cuyucuenda almost every day."

Legends about the Virgen of Cuyucuenda
"Have you ever heard of the Virgen de la O of Cuyucuenda?"

Sr. Lagunes told me that the church is very old and goes back to 1570.

He said that several years ago, the town celebrated its 400th anniversary on December 18, the Day of the Virgen de la O.

I hope that one day, you´ll get a chance to visit Cuyucuenda. I think you´ll like it.

I had never heard of this local saint, and it sounded interesting. It also sounded like Sr. Lagunes was pointing the way for me to go.
Not Far from Veracruz
Cuyucuenda isn´t far from Veracruz. It´s near the little town of Piedras Negras.

There are many interesting stories about the Virgen de la O.

The Stolen Statue
One day back in the times of the Mexican Revolution, he told me that bandits stole the statue of the Virgen and cut off her fingers to get at the gold rings she wore.

But when they were crossing the river with the statue, the bandits all drowned and the statue was recovered and returned to the old church.

Miracles, too
The Virgen de la O is miraculous and has healed many people as well as solved many of their problems.

I had heard about miracles before, like the Virgen of Guadalupe in Mexico City, and the Virgen of Juquila in Oaxaca, so I wasn´t surprised.
Enshrined in a Wreath
At the same time, I am not very religious, but enjoy visiting the old churches in Mexico and looking at the architecture that´s left over from a long time ago.

Don Miguel is the kind of guy you can listen to for hours.

It´s because he had lived the experiences he was talking about and you know his stories were true.

My Time was Up
I looked at my watch and realized that my car was almost ready on the next block, and apologized to Sr. Lagunes, but it was time to go.

He smiled and shook my hand.

"Come back again anytime," he said.
Built in 1929
Little did I know what would lie ahead.

As I left, I took one more look at the rare personal monument to a former president from 1929 and decided to come back another day to the peaceful used tire shop and listen to some more legends.

Maybe one day I could make it to Cuyucuenda. It sounded like an interesting place to visit.

2. Searching the Old Maps

On a Map Dated 1831
Cuyucuenda in 1831
Somehow I couldn´t get Cuyucuenda off my mind and in my spare time, I began to research some old maps looking for the old hacienda.

It had such a strange name.

On one map dated 1831, I surprised to find Cuyucuenda!

Although it wasn´t on the main road from Alvarado towards Mexico City, you could tell that the village had been there for a long time.

Cuyucuenda in the 1770´s
Over the weeks, I asked all my historian friends if they´d ever heard of Cuyucuenda, but was unsuccessful.
Cuyucuenda around 1770
Nobody had heard of the little town.

Then one day, my friend Carmen Boone, who is an independent historian, sent me a photo of a very old map that her brother Bill had found in a book called Cartografía Novohispana printed in Madrid.

The map was undated, and at first we thought it was from the 1650s, but later we deduced that it must have been from the 1770´s.

This was because the fort at Perote listed on the map. Perote was built in the 1770´s as a reaction to the English occupation of Havana, Cuba for two years.
A Closer Look at the Old Blurred Writing
Hard to Read
What was interesting is that in spite of the blurry writing, Cuyucuenda clearly stood out as one of the few places on the map.

In those days, it must have been an important way stop in the area.

Now I knew I had to find the lost hacienda of Cuyucuenda and see it for myself.

Now a Small Spot in the Road
Then I looked at a modern road map, and barely found Cuyucuenda.

A Small Spot in the Road
It´s just a small spot on the road between Mata Espino and Piedras Negras which is only about an hour from here.

After Boca del Rio, you take a right at Paso del Toro, then a left at Mata Espino. It looked like it wasn´t more than an hour from here.

Now I was prepared to head out and explore a new mystery.

It was new territory, and you never know what you´ll find along the way.

3. Unexpected Ruins Along the Way

"X" Marks the Spot
Out in the Dry Countryside
With map in hand, I drove through the urban sprawl of Boca del Rio.I knew that soon I would be out in the peaceful countryside.

It was in early April in the middle of the dry season.

The countryside was parched, but all the undergrowth was dry and gone, and you could see a lot more of the old ruins in the area without the fear of things like snakes lurking in the undergrowth

The old federal highway was the way to go. The road had recently been resurfaced and was in good condition. There also wasn´t much traffic.

As I drove through some of the quiet little villages, I got into the rhythm of the road.
Some Ruins beside the Road
Exploring Some Old Ruins
But, off to the right, just past the little town of Mecayucan, I noticed some ruins, and decided to stop and take a look.

They looked very old and had probably been abandoned for many years.

I pulled off the highway, and walked into the dry weeds to take a closer look.
The Altar
The Altar
The Altar
A Mystery
The ruins were old, and this was probably along the original route from the map of 1650.

These ruins were beautiful but were probably only about 100 years old.

I decided to put these ruins on my list of mysteries to be investigated the next time I am in the archives.
The Little Blue Church
Across the Highway
At the same time, I realized that I was almost across the street from the Rancho La Covadonga, and there was a newer simple little church there.

More than likely the explanation was as simple as when they widened the highway, the decided to move the church across the street.

4. Arrival at Cuyucuenda

The Cuyucuenda Bus Station
Cuyucuenda at Last!
I got back in the car and drove another 10 minutes or so to Mata Espino where I took a left towards Piedras Negras.

After about 10 minutes of rolling hills and sparse traffic, I came to a very small village and the bus stop.

I had finally made it to Cuyucuenda.
Driving up the Hill
Driving up the Hill
Next I took a left into the little village and drove up a long slow hill.

Because we were in the middle of the hot dry season, the hill was stark and barren, and the little town seemed to be gasping for air, and any drop of water must be precious here.

But that´s the way it is all over Mexico during the early days of April.
The Church of the Virgen de la O
An Old Church on a Barren Hill
Gradually you could see the old church off in the distance.

The clean white color of the structure stood out against the blue horizon without a cloud in sight.

One or two cars were parked under some trees in the shade.

Otherwise, it was a calm peaceful day.

The Simple Structure with a Traditional Atrium Cross

The Church of the Virgen de la O
A Woman´s Voice Singing a Hymn
From inside the church you could hear a woman singing a hymn and it sounded like a church service was in progress.

I don´t like to disturb situations like this, so I quietly entered the church and sat in one of the pews on the back row.

The 8 or 10 people in the church didn´t pay any attention to me and the lady continued singing a slow beautiful hymn of praise that echoed off the old walls of the church.
A Closer Look
In Mexico, many of these old hymns sound like they come from the Middle Ages and the times of the Spanish Conquest.

My mind began to wander back to the map dated in the 1650´s and I imagined this scene must have been similar to the way it was back then.

On the altar in the distance, you could see the statue of the Virgen de la O, and I realized I had arrived.
A Few People Inside
A Few People Inside
After awhile I noticed there was no priest conducting the service and wondered what was going on.

Then I realized that these must be several families who have come here to request a miracle or to give thanks for a miracle that had been granted.

The people seemed grateful, perhaps just for the opportunity to be here in this peaceful place.

Then I realized it didn´t feel stiflingly hot any more and it actually felt refreshing to be here with these people.

The little details in the classic style architecture looked like the last remodeling job on the church was probably done in the 1890´s, but there were other details that indicated the church had been here for a long time.
The Altar with Flowers
For example, the walls must have been 3 feet thick, and the low wall outside was similar to the wall of the church in Antigua, which is said to be the oldest church on the American continent.

This church indeed had been here for a long time.

Beautiful Flowers
Besides the historical appreciation of the church, the abundance of fresh flowers gave the old church an air of freshness and life.

The lady singing the hymn paused for a moment, and the people began to say prayers that sounded like something from an old convent and I felt I was living a truly special moment that was timeless.

I knelt in my pew in the back and said my own little prayer of thanksgiving for having found this beautiful place.
The Virgen de la O
The Bandit Legend: True or False?
Still I was curious about the legend of the bandits who had stolen the Virgen de la O back in the days of the Mexican Revolution and cut off the fingers of the statue to take the gold rings.

In their attempt to escape, all the bandits drowned while trying to cross the nearby river.

Perhaps morbid curiosity had gotten the best of me and I wanted to get closer to take a look at the fingers of the statue.

I wanted to see if the legend about the bandits was true.
The Virgen de la O
Soon, the impromptu service ended and the people began to go outside, so I approached the altar, and looked closely at the hands of the statue.

They must have done a good repair job, because I couldn´t see any evidence of repairs to the fingers.

Sometimes legends are only stories and there isn´t any truth to them.

Or perhaps the message is that to steal things from the church has bad consequences.
Toward the Outside World
Next to the Front Door
For centuries, it was customary to bury people on the church grounds, or in the walls.

In Puebla, there are churches where you have to walk through the cemetery before reaching the front door.

Here in Cuyucuenda, there were several gravestones, just outside the front door.

People wanted to be close to their faith even when they died.
The Old Gravestones
The Old Gravestones

In Front of the Church: The Hacienda de Cuyucuenda

Time for a Refresco
Outside it was blazingly hot again, and it was time to take a break.

In Mexico, you can always find someone who sells cokes and chips just about anywhere.

Next door to the church was a small house with some refreshment signs out front, so we decided to go get a coke.

Maybe someone there had some new information about Cuyucuenda.
Doña Lucha
Doña Lucha
It wasn´t really a store, but someone´s living room. Off to one corner was a table and a refrigerator with some snacks.

The lady introduced herself and said, "My name is Lucy, but everybody around here calls me Doña Lucha."

She was friendly and told me the legend about the bandits who drowned in the river.

"The Virgen de Cuyucuenda has performed many miracles. That´s why people come here," she said.
A Souvenir Photo
A Souvenir Photo
When I go on these trips, I like to bring back little souvenirs to show my friends.

Doña Lucha had some photos for sale, so I bought one to take home.

The Siesta Hour was Close
Soon it was time to go. It was the hottest time of the day and it was almost time for a siesta for just about everyone in this part of Mexico.

I thanked Doña Lucha for the coke and drove back through the small village towards the highway.

Along the way, I thought to myself that it had been a long time since I´d talked to the old man at the tire shop with the portrait of Don Porfirio Díaz who had pointed me in the direction of Cuyucuenda.

It had been a satisfying short trip, just an hour from where I live in Veracruz.

5. Sudden Changes

The Gold and Silver Belt of Chihuahua

Two Virgins
The Next Day: A New Project!
Then, some unexpected things began to happen quickly.

The next day, I got an email from my former boss on a project about 10 years ago asking if I would be interested in a project deep in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Chihuahua.

You can´t really say no to a former boss, especially if you hadn´t worked at a formal job in a long time and weren´t doing anything now.

He gave me the email of a company in Houston in charge of the project.

About 2 hours later, I got an email back saying that they were impressed with my experience, and that the next day the site manager would give me a call.

The next day, the call came, and it sounded like he was calling on a satellite phone.

He was brief. He said that he liked my experience and asked when I could go to work in Chihuahua!

Next week, I said. OK, we will send you the plane ticket and you can leave next Sunday.

Just show up and go to work. They´d straighten the formal details out later.

To me it sounded like a miracle!

With Lots of Flowers
Another Visit to Cuyucuenda
After looking at the maps of Chihuahua for several days, around the middle of the week, I began to think that perhaps my visit to the Virgen of Cuyucuenda maybe had something to do with my good fortune, so I decided to go back to the old church.

Maybe Doña Lucha could tell me some more.

At the same time, I felt the need to share my newfound good fortune with someone who would understand these things.

I also wondered if I wasn´t going a little overboard about my own personal "miracle", if you could call it that.
San Charbel with his Colorful Ribbons
San Charbel
In the church there are also other recent saints like San Charbel.

He was a monk who lived in Lebanon and died in 1898.

He´s one of the recent saints.

The ribbons are there for people to take when they are asking for a miracle.

It seems like when you are in Cuyucuenda, time is no longer important.
Devout Prayer for a Miracle
A Devout Prayer for a Miracle
On my next trip to the church of the Virgen de Cuyucuenda, I was there all by myself looking at the different statues.

Then two men arrived, and the older one began to walk on his knees to the altar.

He had a look of anguish on his face and didn´t even notice I was there. He must have had a very serious problem.

In the city churches in Mexico, you don´t see people on their knees walking up to the altar to ask for a miracle.
The Altar
Perhaps city ways make us too proud to get down on our knees to ask for help.

Colored Yarn with Little Medals
On later visits to the shrine of the Virgen de Cuyucuenda, I noticed a little box covered with little strings of yarn attached to small medals representing an arm or leg.

There were even little medals for a house or a pick-up truck.

Doña Lucha explained that these were prayer requests for the intervention of the Virgen and that she sold them for about a dollar each.

My Problems with a Bad Knee
After a month in Chihuahua, I guess it was due to the stress of the job, I began to have gastric problems and my right knee began to hurt because of the heavy steel toed safety boots that I wasn´t used to wearing.

On my 7 day break I came home to Veracruz and returned to Cuyucuenda and talked to Doña Lucha about my discomforts.
Little "Milagros" on a Pin
Maybe the Virgen Could Help
At this point I was willing to try anything.

Doña Lucha took some little medals from a little box. She called them "milagritos", or little miracles.

Here is what you need.

She suggested I place a little medal of a leg and another of a person praying and said that was for my "cuerpecito."

I followed her instructions, and placed the medals on the cloth on the altar with a straight pin that also came with the the medal.
Colored Yarn with Little Medals
Placing the "Milagros" on the Altar
I carefully pinned my "milagritos" on cloth next to the others, and said a little prayer asking the Virgen to take care of my problems just as she had for others.

A day or two later I went back to work in Chihuahua. In about two weeks, I noticed that my knee was OK again!

I don´t know if it was a miracle or not.

Still there might be a more realistic explanation.

One day, the doctor at the clinic where I worked suggested I have a couple of cookies with my coffee before breakfast or at midmorning to help with the stomach problems.

After a couple of days, I found the symptoms had gone away.

As for the pain in the knee, I guess I slowly got used to the boots because I no longer felt the pain in my knee.
Old Moorish Designs on the Wall
Details from the Distant Past
On my trips to the church at Cuyucuenda, I began to notice some of the finer details in the floor and the walls that must be several hundred years old.

The people I talked to there had no explanation of their significance or how old they might be.

For example, I could see the fleur de lis, hidden among some of the details.

They were simply there, I was told.
Floor Tiles
Perhaps from the Days of the Crusades
It looked like many of the designs that were probably popular in the days of El Cid, when he was re-conquering Spain from 700 years of Moorish occupation.

Or at least that´s what crossed my mind.

In these old churches off the beaten path in Mexico you can find some remarkable litle details.

I really don´t know what they mean, and perhaps one day, I´ll find the answer in an old book in the Archives.
A Partial Fleur de Lis
A Strange Little Mystery
One thing I´ll need to find out more about is the use of the Fleur de Lis in religious symbols.

When they built churches in the old days, there was much attention to details, and for some reason, there was only half of the fleur de lis on the facade of the front door.

So, another mystery that goes on my list of explanations to look for.
Where Other Things Are
More Important Than Time
New Explorations Will Have to Wait
It all started with my curiosity about a portrait of don Porfirio Díaz on the street corner in Veracruz, which later led me to find the Virgen de Cuyucuenda.

Since 1570, or before, people have been coming to this special village, and perhaps now I know the reason why.

I don´t know if She is responsible for my good fortune with a new project, but, like many people, I don´t think I´ll take any chances and will continue to go back to Cuyucuenda to give thanks for what I have been given today.

Now I know that faith is probably an experience that you have to live for yourself.

Besides it doesn´t hurt anyone to believe in miracles like this and in my spare time, I enjoy hearing about the miracles of others.

But, for now, my explorations around Veracruz will go on hold while I go North to Chihuahua on a new project deep in the Sierra Madre Mountains .

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