¡Viva la Virgen!
A week ago Sunday was the Fiesta del Pescador in Carboneras, dedicated to the Virgen del Carmen, and so we clambered onto one of the fishing boats for the annual procession out to sea. It was around 11 in the morning when, taking advantage of a moment when the boat rocked closer to the dock and the owner’s son – who had already decided that the boat was too full of celebrants and was trying to shoo them away – was otherwise occupied, we leapt aboard. Several others followed us, then and for the next half hour. Someone, the captain I suppose, had filled a cooler with cans of beer and soda for the kids; it was all happily unorganized, climbing aboard, grabbing for beers, finding a place to stand or sit on the crowded boat, either aft under the brutal sun, or under a plastic canopy forward, or up on the foredeck at the prow, where I finally found myself a space where I could stand supporting my buttocks against the low steel wall creating a protected space for ropes and anchors in front of the cabin with the steering wheel. Almost everyone else, those without such support, had to sit once we cast off, because the sea was heaving and the boat was rocking up and down.

Sun. Crowd. Chatter and jokes in a guttural Andaluz where I could catch only every fourth or fifth word. A boy of about 10 frightened by the violent leaps and falls of the boat and bawling, until his father, with the gentle help of one of the rough fishermen aboard, hoisted him to safety behind the wall where I was leaning. Bouncing on the waves. The other five or six good-sized fishing boats, plus a spontaneous flotilla of smaller craft, all heading out of the shallow bay, into the open sea. The boat behind us carried La Virgen, a plaster statue with a baby in her arms and protected from God’s sun by a canopy of palm branches. She looked overdressed for August in Carboneras, but I suppose a topless virgin, or even one in a bikini, would be distracting to the congregants when they returned her to her usual place inside the gloomy church.

We went so far out to sea that Susana said she could see Mojácar, the next town northeast, blocked from view from the Carboneras shore by two intervening capes. I didn’t notice, because I was watching the sea, and listening to the Banda Municipal which, luckily, had chosen our boat. There were at least a dozen musicians down below, where Susana was, horns and drums playing Spanish marches, like the ones that accompany bullfights, and keeping time despite the bouncing of the boat. Then we saw the dolphins. At least half a dozen of them, maybe more, leaping from the water to come to greet the Virgin and Child. One of my mothers-in-law used to sing an old Spanish song, “Cantan y bailan los peces en el agua / Cantan y bailan porque ha nacido un niño.”

And I thought again about what was the Virgin. Being literal-minded, I had always imagined her as a particular young Jewish woman named Miryam in the time of Herod. Clearly the Virgin has long since grown beyond that mortal representation. She is something much grander, among other things the motive for the Cofradía de Pescadores, the Fishermen’s Brotherhood, to sponsor a lubricated revel for the town aboard their boats, for even the non-believing Socialist council members to join the procession that later, on foot, carried her statue through the streets back to the church, and afterwards for the Cofradía to treat all comers to a sardinada -- volunteers frying thousands of big sardines in salt and olive oil, piling them on paper plates to the chaotic crowd (no such thing as taking a number, you just reached and called out and hoped to be the next to get a heaping plate). Beer and soda free, too. Now, that’s some Virgin! She smiles even on unbelievers.

So it doesn’t really matter what sort of robes they put on the plaster Virgin, because the Virgin is not in the plaster, but in the collective spirit of those fishermen, the ones who think of the sea itself as female and say “la mar” (almost everyone else says “el mar”). The Virgin is the comforting security we associate with our mothers (the luckier ones among us, who have had such mothers). So it is quite possible to accept the power of the Virgin without torturing the imagination to believe in anything as preposterous as God.

She had smiled on us, too, that Virgin. Our business here had finally prospered – that is, our dogged defense of the little piece of land that we want to make into something beautiful. So, ¡Viva la Virgen!

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