The Shrine of Wine
Road Trips Revisited
Road Trip! When I was in college a group of students would gather on Saturdays for activities that, for the most part, were not beneficial to society. On many of these occasions, someone would yell, “Road Trip!” Planning would begin immediately and within an hour the cooler was full of soft drinks (or other beverages), and off we went. It was great entertainment and we visited some interesting places and actually engaged in some accidental learning.
In our Yucatan retirement years, my wife and I have returned to those wonderful experiences of times gone by. The Yucatan Peninsula is covered with roads that beckon the adventurer to explore a world of unexpected discoveries. We have met the perfect couple to share in these experiences. Ron and Dee Poland are a couple of expats from southern Canada. They spend their winters renovating their property, known as Hacienda Santa Inez, near Dzitas. Ron has a built-in GPS system in his brain, making him a handy companion for these trips, and Dee always packs a great cooler full of snacks and soft drinks.
Ron’s sense of humor is drier than the most recent climatic spell that brought no rain and the hottest temperatures on the planet to the Yucatan. So, when he suggested a road trip to the Shrine of Wine, we were all in. I have always had an abiding interest in the roadside monuments and chapels scattered along the Yucatan’s roads. They are wonderful expressions of some individual’s personal commitment to the memory of loved ones or personal expressions of faith, and like haciendas, each one is unique.
Who Built The Wine Bottle Chapel?
The Wine Bottle Chapel turned out to be well worth the road trip. The first visit initiated my interest in discovering how on earth an edifice of this nature could come to fruition. Ron declared that Dee and he knew the people responsible for building the chapel and that they were good friends. So, Ron made an appointment to meet with the builders and we all went back for a second visit, anxious to learn the fascinating story behind this unique shrine.
Victor Tuyub and his wife Diane are currently living in Sudzal, four kilometers away from the chapel on a road with a new asphalt surface. Victor is a local contractor and Diane is an archaeologist by training. After an impressive career in archaeology, Diane began to dabble in land investment and development of properties in the area of Yucatan near Izamal. A few years ago, there was a rash of fires set by an unknown individual that endangered livestock, wild animals, birds and property. Victor and Diane decided to build a chapel in the heart of the area where the fires were occurring. They hoped the chapel would have a positive impact on the perpetrator of the fires and that he would cease to engage in his illegal activity. The plan, by the way, seems to have worked and the fires have stopped.
Let us pause a moment to consider the wonderful Mexicanismo that resulted in this solution.
Why Wine Bottles?
When construction on the chapel started, Diane was the managing partner of the Hacienda San Antonio Chalante Bed and Breakfast, located a short distance from the chapel site. The Bed and Breakfast had a great kitchen, superb meals, and an excellent wine list. Diane could not bring herself to throw the beautiful, wine bottles of many colors away and asked if there was a way to incorporate them into the construction of the chapel. Since Victor is a talented builder, he was sure there was a way to use them and set about drafting a design for the inclusion of the wine bottles into the construction materials.
At one point, there was a brief hesitation in planning while they discussed the inclusion of wine bottles into a building devoted to prayer and religious issues. They came to the conclusion that it was permissible since Jesus turned water into wine at the marriage of Canaan, and wine was essential for the communion sacrament in the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. They feel it was a good decision and not a single person has ever suggested that the chapel is in any way sacrilegious. For my money, the beauty of the cross in the chapel will cause any thoughts along those lines to evaporate immediately.
Construction of the Wine Bottle Chapel
Construction of the chapel began in 2001. Initially, Victor and his father, Eliseo Tuyub, did the work. They cleared a space for the chapel near the road and started with the walls. The dimensions of the chapel were approximately 13.5 feet by 13.5 feet. The walls were built using the local construction technique using stone and mortar, known as mamposteria. Limestone rocks present in the area were used to form the walls and the rocks were held in place using a mortar, which consisted of cement, pulvo (dust), cal, and water.
Special care had to be taken to leave space for the massive wine bottle cross, the paloma, or dove of peace over the front door, two windows and the entrance door. The cross is composed almost entirely of green wine bottles. However, there are five blue bottles in the center of the cross. I suspected there was some symbolic meaning to these five blue bottles, so I asked Victor to explain its symbolism and the choice of only five blue bottles. He looked at me like I might be missing a few cells in the cabeza (head) and said, “because that is all there were.”
The chapel was an open sanctuary without a roof until additional building supplies could be acquired. Rafters for the roof were cut from Victor and Diane’s property. The metal covering was a gift from an anonymous donor. The door was salvaged and recycled from a previous construction project.
One major question remained unanswered. What should be done about the dirt floor? After some time passed, Victor suggested that wine bottles be used to create a glass floor. It would require that the bottles be inverted downward with the bottom of the bottle serving as the surface of the floor. Mortar would have to be mixed and each bottle would need to be installed separately. This would require a significant amount of labor and a truckload of bottles.
Los Patas Rajadas
Victor owned and still owns a construction company by the name of Los Patas Rajadas. At the time, the company had seven employees, and after a lengthy discussion the workers agreed to donate their labor and help install the floor.
At this point, I had to call a time out so that I could determine how Victor decided to use that name for his company. The term Los Patas Rajadas, means “the cracked feet” and has often been used as a derogatory term by some elite members of Yucatecan society to describe the fact that many Maya peasants walk barefooted, causing the bottom of their feet to get callouses and crack.
An incident in a pueblo in the area occurred shortly before Victor selected the name for his company. A local politician spoke at a political rally to endorse his favorite candidate. The largely Maya crowd asked the politician questions that were difficult for him to answer. He became more and more agitated until his frustration caused him to blurt out, “I am not going to continue to listen to a bunch of cracked foot Indians”. The candidate the politician had supported lost the election and Victor found a name for his company, which reminds the local population of the insensitive and unacceptable behavior that sometimes occurs in politics.
As an aside, Fernando Castro Pacheco, Yucatan’s famed muralist and painter, painted an image of two cracked feet walking down a path. This image can be found in Merida’s Palacio Municipal, and is a visual expression of the poverty and hard life experienced by many rural Maya.
Drink More Wine!
As the workers from Los Patas Rajadas continued to work on the floor, guests at Diana’s Hacienda San Antonio Chalante Bed and Breakfast were unable to consume enough wine to meet the needs of the floor crew. So, Victor drove to the Izamal sanitary landfill in search of more bottles. Appropriately, in the Bible, Matthew 7:7 and Luke 11:9 have similar verses which state, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and you shall find.” This was good advice, because as it turns out, Victor found a mound of hundreds of empty bottles in excellent condition that had been recently dumped by a local company. By the time the floor was finished, more than one thousand bottles had been consumed by the little chapel.
La Virgen That Could Not Be Stolen
Diane’s goddaughter wanted to contribute to the project, so she gave Diane a beautiful jute wall hanging of an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. After a year, a chapel visitor stole the special gift. Everyone involved in the project agreed that there had to be a new image of the Virgin in the chapel, but this time, the image should be an image that could not be stolen.
Los Patas Rajadas again came to the rescue. First a local artist named Pez from Izamal painted an image of the Virgin on the front wall next to the altar. The workers then made the shape of her body with mortar. The mortar used for her dress was dyed red and had pieces of clear glass bottle fragments imbedded in the mortar before it dried. Her cloak consisted of grey mortar with pieces of glass from blue wine bottles, and the halo surrounding her, utilized green bottle glass. It has been said that as drivers approach the front of the chapel at night, the lights of their vehicle reflect off the Virgin’s glass and it appears as if she moved. Perhaps it is only an optical illusion, but some drivers have been sure it was a miracle.
Quetzalcoatl Joins In
When the Virgin was completed, one of the Maya workers suggested that an image of a Maya god should be displayed on the other side of the altar. Some Maya still incorporate ancient Maya religious beliefs with Catholicism and this image would make the chapel ecumenical.
Enrique May Rejon, an extraordinarily talented designer, painter, and sculptor also from Izamal, was hired to create an image of Quetzalcoatl. The image was made of stucco and meticulously painted with bright colors. The builders expressed their hope that visitors to the chapel will not be offended by the presence of both Christian and Maya religious icons. They feel strongly that in the privacy of the chapel, an individual has the freedom to practice his or her own personal faith.
The floral mosaics on the exterior of the chapel were a labor of love by Leonardo Chi, an employee of Los Patas Rajadas. He requested permission to contribute his talents with the creation of his own floral designs. It is truly amazing what some talented individuals can do with pieces of broken glass.
Recently, when the road was straightened, improved and resurfaced, the chapel was nearly lost. Even though Victor and Diane had been assured that the chapel would be protected, information leaked back to them that this was not true. Anonymous sources warned that the state government and the construction company did not want to build a curve to avoid the chapel. The source went on to tell them that early some morning a bulldozer would appear, and make short work of the structure and then nothing could be done to save the chapel.
The information revealing the impending destruction of the beloved chapel spread like wildfire through the community. Local people expressed outrage and indignation and protested vociferously. Yamil Apud Chavez, a neighbor, traveled to Merida personally and informed the Diario de Yucatan of the potential injustice. The newspaper investigated and printed an article. This, along with local support, placed heavy pressure on those responsible for the road to preserve the chapel. So now, the road now makes a gentle curve around the Wine Bottle Chapel. Sometimes, the good guys do win!
Directions to the Wine Bottle Chapel: Take the autopista from Merida toward Cancun. At kilometer 68, turn at the retorno (return) and proceed west for a short distance before exiting at the sign to Izamal. Drive through Xanaba, and continue to the town square in Sudzal. Pass the brightly painted Palacio Municipal on your left and turn right at the first intersection. Follow that road for approximately four kilometers and the Wine Bottle Chapel will appear on your left. If you are arriving from the direction of Valladolid, exit at the sign to Izamal at kilometer 68 and follow the same directions the rest of the way. Please respect the sanctity of this unique site and leave it as you found it.