In a small town tucked into a valley, songs from a local band heralded a religious wedding that had remained out of reach for decades.
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The band, whose name translates to “The Forever Young Friendly Band,” was aptly named to play for 75-year-old Pablo Ibarra and 65-year-old Francisca Santiago, who finally married in the church after nearly a half century together.
The couple first met in 1967 while tending goats in the fields outside Santa Ana in the southern state of Oaxaca. Soon, Ibarra asked Santiago to marry him, but with a catch. He wanted her to accompany him to Mexico City for three years while he worked as a security guard at construction sites around the capital.
Santiago, who was 16 at the time, said she turned down his offer “out of respect” for her widowed mother. Her father died when she was 8 and she felt obligated to help put food on the table to support her mom and three siblings until she became an adult.
When Ibarra returned in 1970, Santiago married him in a civil ceremony. They couldn’t marry in a Roman Catholic church because Ibarra had divorced his first wife before he went to Mexico City. All four of the children from that first marriage died at a young age from illness.
In 46 years of marriage, Ibarra and Santiago have had eight children and several grandchildren. But until Pope Francis’ reforms to the church’s annulment process went into effect on Dec. 8, 2015, they didn’t think they could be married in a religious ceremony.
The reforms streamlined a previously complicated process for divorces.
So last year, with the help of the Rev. Domingo Garcia Martinez, the couple’s annulment case was taken to a bishop in Oaxaca. The prelate determined Ibarra’s first marriage was null because he had not lived with his former wife for more than 40 years and she didn’t present herself to petition the annulment.
On July 23, Garcia performed Ibarra and Santiago’s wedding in front of about 250 family members and friends.
After receiving the sacrament, Santiago pulled in the priest for a big hug while a nose-wrinkling smile lit up her face.
“It was beautiful, everything I hoped for,” she said. “Now we are together with the blessing of God.”
There was chicken with a dark Oaxacan mole sauce made from spices and chilies scooped up with fresh tortillas. Servers weaved between tables popping open beer bottles. Fireworks screamed through the air.
And the “The Forever Young Friendly Band” played on as family and friends encircled the dancing couple.
“It felt like the first time I saw her,” Ibarra said. “But now it finally feels right. With her, God has blessed my life so much.”