LA BARCA, Mexico — The town motto, “A City Alive,” feels like a stretch for this corn-farming crossroads, with its flaking paint and rutted roads and long afternoon shadows.
But now the old men are wheeling out their churro carts and little girls are prancing in sequined Virgin Mary capes. The priest has swept his hair back for the occasion, his vestments white as teeth. Nissan pickups are decked out with plastic flowers. Shiny-suit musicians are testing their clarinets.
Mass grave or no, this little town will be having its annual parade.
“Not many people this year,” Rogelio Gomez said, as he sold slushies and surveyed the crowd. “People don’t know if they should go outside.”
Last month, when police found the first bodies among the broken cornstalks along a bend in the Rio Lerma, it was a few more scratches in the sad tally of Mexico’s drug war. “Another day, another mass grave,” read one headline. The investigation netted 22 police officers accused of participating in the killings. They came from across the river, marking the Jalisco-Michoacan state line, where cartels have been fighting.
Then the numbers kept rising — 18, 31, 42, 60 — and the newspaper vendors outside Claudia Ponce’s hair salon began shouting, “They found women and children in the graves!” Ponce’s father asked her to stay home after dark.
The lawyers who used to drop in for cappuccinos at Monique Jimenez’s cafe stopped coming around, leaving her to sit alone at a back table reading her gold-leaf Bible.
“And you know what I learned?” she asked. “They were at war back then, too. They needed someone to bring rules and order, and God gave that to them.”
Jimenez found order in her life by opening Cafe D’Monique after her divorce, and she loves La Barca for the life it afforded: “I can work, exercise, study and be independent, which is the most beautiful thing for a woman.” She volunteers at a Catholic church, where the mayor’s father plays piano on Sundays and where she started to see little notes a few years ago about parishioners who went missing.
That’s how the violence arrived. Out of the air like bad weather or low corn prices. As easy to stop as relatives leaving for the states. Someone else’s problem, becoming yours. Restaurants emptied out. Shops closed early. Worry blew into town.
“We’ve never seen anything like this type of crime before in our town,” Mayor Eduardo Espinoza Salazar said.
The official count is 64 bodies unearthed from 35 graves in and around a vine-entangled brick building along a dirt road toward the riverbend known as “The Great Corner.” The dead have not been identified.
“It hits you in the chest,” Jimenez said.
“It’s just our bad luck,” Reina Villanueva said, as people started to assemble outside her cellphone shop to watch the parade. “Guadalupe is the most important event of the year for us. We’re a small town but very linked to our traditions and our roots. And now people are afraid to come here.”
The first 12 nights of December, residents of La Barca honor Mexico’s patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe, with theater and concerts and a procession down Calle Hidalgo from one Catholic church to the other. It is a time for emigrants to come home to their families; neighbors to visit their friends. To offer the virgin a token and ask her for a miracle.
“The lights, the color, the happiness of the people, the music — it all combines to give ourselves and our visitors a demonstration of what is best in us,” the mayor, an art teacher by profession, wrote in the program for this year’s festivities.
And so one sundown in this difficult time, the people of La Barca lined up for their parade. It was a thin, rather grim-faced crowd. But the night was warm, and there were balloons and cotton candy. Mothers blew bubbles for their children, who waved their arms and spun trying to catch them before they fell.
Then from behind the police truck, a bugler and his marching drummers led acolytes and their virgin statue through the town. Once the residents fell in behind them, the street was full. It was dark by they time they passed the priest flicking holy water and entered the chandeliered brilliance of the cathedral, Santa Monica de La Barca, where the drumming echoed against the stone walls with martial thunder.
The townspeople walked toward the altar to pay their respects and offer their secret wishes.
Villanueva, from the cellphone shop, didn’t mind sharing hers.
“I asked for the people to come back,” she said.