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A drive on the roads in Mexico is an experience that's not easily forgotten. No enforced speed limits, bumpy roads, corrupt cops. So it's not really surprising that many drivers there look for divine intervention. Every weekend in the town of Chalma, drivers bring hundreds of cars to be blessed by a priest at a Catholic cathedral.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: The priest is coming, they say to each other, standing in the hot sun on a small narrow street packed tight. Whole families crowd around the flower festooned hoods of shiny new cars, beaten up clunkers and even motorcycles.

Mr. JOSE SERGOVIA(ph): (Speaking Foreign Language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jose Sergovia makes an unlikely pilgrim. He looks large and menacing, dressed in black leather chaps with black sunglasses. Around him are the crew he rides with. He gestures proudly to his new Honda Shadow motorcycle.

Mr. SERGOVIA: (Through Translator) This is part of our culture. Our parents have inculcated Catholicism in us. We believe in the Lord and we are asking him to give us a hand when we are on the road in these machines.

Mr. PACO JAVIER CHAVAS(ph): (Speaking Foreign Language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Paco Javier Chavas is a member of the Augustine Order. Wearing a black cassock, his face shiny with sweat, he uses a dipper to splash holy water onto the cars and even the keys. Some give a few dollars as a donation to the church.

Mr. CHAVAS: (Through Translator) They come here to ask for protection and some return year after year. This is a longstanding tradition in Chalma. The use of water is important because it is something we carry in our veins. It comes from our ancestors in the pre-Columbian age. For the indigenous peoples here, water had value.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Chalma is the second most visited pilgrimage site after the shrine dedicated to Mexico's patron saint, La Virgin de Guadalupe. Its roots are pre-Hispanic. It was a holy place to the locals, who are believed to have made blood sacrifices at a sacred cave.

The Augustines came in the early 1500s and placed a church in its stead. All across Latin America, Catholicism has shown a genius for incorporating local traditions into their faith. Father Gabriel says that continues today.

Father GABRIEL: (Through Translator) This is the popular side of the faith. One has to distinguish between this and official religion. In some manner, they make up their own rites. This is an important rite for them. If we take it away from them, they will see it as taking away their protection.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Many of the people who are here to bless their cars come from Mexico City, about a two hour drive away. Father Gabriel says it also helps them define themselves, this collective act of worship.

Father ARIYA: (Through Translator) The pilgrims that come from the city have in a certain way lost their identity. Many are people who have immigrated from their villages. When they get to the city, they are completely unknown. In their pueblos, they are Don Pancho, Don Julio, Doña Maria. In the cities, they are Don Nobody.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But of course, there is a practical reason why people come here. Driving in Mexico is scary and no place provides more challenges to those behind the wheel than the capital.

(Soundbite of traffic)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I'm now in Mexico City. We have jumped into the car with Marco Antonio Alanis(ph), who is a driving instructor, and 43-year-old Rosa Riyego(ph) who is now for the first time finding out what it means to drive in the Mexican capital.

(Soundbite of car starting)

Mr. MARCO ANTONIO ALANIS: (Speaking foreign language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Alanis is jocular, trying to put his student at ease. He truly confesses that he's been driving since he was nine years old. No one in the car is wearing a seatbelt.

Mr. ALANIS: (Through Translator) There is a saying here, if you can drive in Mexico, you can drive anywhere in the world. Because here you'll find everything. We hurl our cars at each other, people jump in front of us when we are speeding along. We have to drive with our five senses alert.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In the car with us also is NPR producer Luisa Ortiz, who's Mexican. She said this lesson would have until recently been the exception. Most people never really learned how to drive here. She got a driver's license through a friend of her grandfather's.

LUISA ORTIZ: He gave for my birthday as a present my license. And I did not know how to drive there and then.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you mean he gave it to you as a present?

ORTIZ: I didn't even have to go to the transportation office or anything. He just appeared with an envelope at home with my picture and I was very happy. There's no regulation. There's no - there's none. You don't have to go through a medical exam. I mean, they don't care if you can't see, which is a problem.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Not surprisingly, the driving teacher Marco Antonio Alanis says he teaches defensive driving. Back in Chalma, the afternoon blessing session is winding up.

So the priest is coming down towards us amid the crush of cars. He's got his holy water out and he is blessing all the other vehicles around this. And well, we decided to have our car blessed, too, because, well, we have to drive back to Mexico City.

Father GABRIEL: (Speaking foreign language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Chalma, Mexico.

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