Culture : No Sacrifice Too Great for the Mayordomos of Mexico : Ancient village tradition celebrates religious figures. It's an expensive honor, but many seek it all the same.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Domingo and Luz Flores are planning a party, and literally everyone who passes through this village on the outskirts of Mexico City will be invited.

And this won't be just any party. It will start with fireworks the evening before, continue with a parade through town and end with an open-air battle of the bands. Tamales and atole , a corn-based drink similar to hot chocolate, will be available for traditionalists, and those who are more modern will be able to drink their fill of brandy and Coca-Cola.

The Floreses will offer the party as an expression of their religious faith, the climax of their year as mayordomos for Our Lord of Mercy, a religious statue whose fame for working miracles has made it better known than the village's patron saint.

Before that party next May, they will have given a dozen other fetes and carried out numerous traditions to honor various saints and religious figures, gradually passing on their responsibilities to their successors.

"We are just giving the Lord back a little of everything he has given us," says Luz Flores, perched on a straight-back chair in the chapel she and her husband built to shelter a likeness of Our Lord of Mercy that is in their stewardship this year. Every two months, the village priest celebrates Mass in the living-room-sized chapel, the largest room in their home.

The Floreses are carrying on a tradition that dates from colonial times and probably has its roots in pre-Columbian customs. Villages all over Mexico rely on mayordomos to organize and finance their annual religious fiestas and the events leading up to them.

The mayordomo tradition is the great equalizer of rural Mexico. When a family starts to prosper, the head of the household is expected to take his turn as mayordomo for the village patron saint. Fulfilling the duties of the office often wipes out the family fortune: Houses and lands are mortgaged or sold, and relatives are sometimes sent to the United States to earn money to pay for the village party.

"You have to be people of means, because this involves a lot of expense," says Luz Flores, explaining how mayordomos are selected. She would not specify how much expense, commenting only that "because it is for God, you spend what is needed."

Despite the cost, the waiting list for couples who want to be mayordomos here stretches to the year 2002.

"Before, when you were finishing your time, you had to go look for someone to replace you," says Domingo Flores, at 46 a dark-haired, quiet man. "Now that the town is more prosperous, people come ask to be put on the list."

The prosperity came with a highway built in 1976. That made San Pedro Atocpan a comfortable Sunday drive from central Mexico City and brought in tourists to sample the mole , a spicy meat sauce that is a specialty in this village of restaurants and cobblestone streets. So far, the Floreses have been able to pay the costs of their term as mayordomos from their earnings at a stall in an open-air market, where they sell mole and nopales , a vegetable dish made from cactus leaves.

"We know we have these expenses, so we save up and meet our obligations," says Luz Flores.

A soft-spoken woman of 41 with a broad face framed by chin-length, wavy, salt-and-pepper hair, Luz Flores does most of the talking for the couple, as her husband stands nearby, offering an occasional comment.

Becoming mayordomos was her idea, she says.

The tradition here in San Pedro Atocpan started with Our Lord of Mercy, the statue that is said to have visited this village in 1550 and decided to stay.

According to the legend, mice had gnawed off the statue's fingertips in its home village, in the nearby state of Morelos, and villagers there took the image to Mexico City for repair. On the way home, they stopped here to rest overnight. But in the morning, the statue was too heavy to move, leading the faithful to conclude that the image wanted to remain in San Petro Atocpan. Over the years, people who prayed to the statue found their pleas answered, and its fame grew.

Luz Flores' family has lived in San Pedro Atocpan for at least four generations and maybe more, from the time when villagers still spoke Nahuatl, the native language. As she grew up, she recalls, she watched the decade-long construction of a new hilltop sanctuary for the miracle-working statue to replace a 16th-Century shelter.

So it was only natural that she should put her faith in Our Lord of Mercy when their 2-year-old daughter, Erika, became ill with meningitis.

"When she got well, I promised the Lord that I would take the responsibility for his feast as soon as I had a house to receive him," recalls Luz Flores. That was 14 years ago.

The Floreses, who now have three children, put themselves on the waiting list four years ago, right after they built a comfortable two-story house on the edge of the village.

"I thought you just went down, put your name on the list, they told you which year you were it and you went home," says Domingo Flores. "It's not that way at all. From the minute you put your name down, you start to follow Our Lord."

Following him meant attending special Masses and celebrations both inside and outside the village, forming a sort of honor guard for the reigning mayordomos. Then, two years ago, the expenses started. The Floreses took on more and more responsibilities for the village's religious celebrations until, one morning this summer, the village band arrived at their door.

Serenaded by trumpets and drums, the Floreses joined a dawn procession through town and up the winding walkway to the hilltop sanctuary. The walkway was hung with rows of red and yellow plastic banners depicting Our Lord of Mercy and the church building.

As they climbed, they could see the door of the church, framed in flowers in a technique reminiscent of that used on Rose Bowl floats. Father Ignacio Roman, the village priest, met the procession at the door, welcoming them to a sanctuary fragrant with carnations and roses. Twelve brass vases lined the center aisle, and ceramic vases filled the altar.

In the midst of the flowers was the original statue that legend says decided to stay in San Pedro Atocpan--a life-size crucifix in a cross-shaped glass case with ceramic angels on each side. Unlike most Mexican churches, the sanctuary to Our Lord of Mercy contains no images of other saints.

As softly colored light streamed through the single, stained-glass window, creating a rainbow at the altar, Father Ignacio admonished the new mayordomos and their attendants, "Always be fresh and fragrant like these flowers."

The outgoing mayordomos lifted crowns of thorns carried on trays during the procession and placed them on the heads of the Floreses. They embraced formally, barely touching. With that, Domingo and Luz Flores took on the responsibility for their village's most important religious feast.

They sense the weight even more this month, now that their predecessors have given their last celebration--a Mass thanking Our Lord of Mercy for helping them do their duty to him. The Floreses are months away from finishing, and they already feel their lives changing.

"Before, our life was just work," says Domingo Flores. "Now we think about Our Lord every day. With his image in our home, we feel protected. We go to work thinking that we are working for him."

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