Palmar de Troya, located about 40 kilometers south of Seville, close to Utrera, was settled in the 1930s. By the late 1960s, the town had about 2,000 inhabitants, most having relocated from other parts of Spain. The majority of them were day laborers on big agricultural estates, latifundios. Anne Cadoret-Abeles, who conducted anthropological fieldwork there in the late 1960s and early 1970s, noted the lack of communitarian spirit resulting from virtually all inhabitants being newcomers. The town had electricity but still lacked a medical doctor and running water, and its school remained undeveloped.
It was ecclesiastically marginal as well, having neither resident priest nor permanent church building. When the curate from the neighboring town of Gudalema de los Quintero did arrive, religious services were held in a private home or at an industrial compound. Few townspeople went to mass regularly, and Palmar de Troya was considered something of a mission field (Cadoret-Abeles 1981). Nothing indicated that, beginning in 1968, this town would be the center of an important religious movement, when apparitions of the Virgin Mary and Christ were reported.
Given its marginal status, the press hardly ever reported anything from Palmar de Troya, but that would change in the spring of 1968. On March 30, four school girls, Ana, Josefa, Rafaela and Ana, aged between eleven and thirteen reported seeing a “very beautiful lady” when picking flowers by a mastic tree (lentisco) on the Alcaparrosa field, less than a kilometer from the town center. The woman was identified as the Virgin Mary. In a testimony, one of the girls described the event:
“We saw the face of a very beautiful lady, with dark brown, beautiful eyes. At the beginning, we thought that it was a hangman or a bull with green horns, but later we saw that it was the face of a lady. It was very round and rosy, with a green thing around her (head) and she was dressed in a brown mantle. She smiled at us. It was the Virgin (Cited in Garrido Vázquez 2004; my translation).”
The purported apparition was the beginning of a religious phenomenon that soon would attract large crowds, who came there as pilgrims to pray the rosary and meditate on the Stations of the Cross, waiting for miracles to come. A simple cross was made by pieces of the tree, thus indicating the holy place (ABC, 14, 23, 27 April and 14 May, 1968; Gómez Burón and Martín Alonso 1976:35-37; Garrido Vázquez 2004).
Modern Marian apparitions often take place in a context of social and economic crisis. The location is generally poor and marginalized and the seers are lay people and frequently young girls, who at the time of the first apparition are involved in every-day activities (Bromley and Bobbitt 2011). In this sense, Palmar de Troya was very typical. In the Palmarian case, however, the young girls were soon out of the picture; they did only claim to have a few very similar visions in the next couple of days (Garrido Vázquez 2004).
Nevertheless, from April 1968 onwards, other people asserted to have mystical experiences close to the mastic tree, which almost disappeared as pilgrims took leaves and pieces of wood as relics. Several women and men fell into trances, claiming that the Virgin Mary appeared and spoke to them, particularly on a low hill, later known as Mount Christ the King. Most of the ecstatic were not natives of Palmar de Troya, but came from other locations in the nearby area. Among the most important seers at this early stage were Rosario Arenillas from Dos Hermanas, María Marín from Utrera and María Luisa Vila from Seville. The first two came from poor circumstances, while the third was an affluent woman. Some males also had visions, including natives from Palmar de Troya such as Antonio Anillos, but during the first years, these three women were the most prominent seers (CESC; Alfaro 1975; Gómez Burón & Martín Alonso 1976: 38-41; Vidal 1976: 37-43; Cardoret-Abeles 1981).
The heavenly messages received at Palmar de Troya at this early stage were often very brief and general. The Virgin told the seers that she was their mother and that all people should frequently pray Our Father and the rosary. Prayers and conversion to traditional Catholic faith were the only ways to calm divine ire and save humanity in that time of darkness and perdition. They also claimed to receive communions from Christ himself,– a communion host (sometimes bloody) miraculously appeared in their mouths, and pilgrims reported that they had observed strange solar phenomena at the field, the sun appeared to be dancing. Photographs were taken and messages were recorded and written down (CESC; Alfaro 1975; Cadoret-Abeles 1981).
Initially a local and regional attraction, the stories rapidly spread to other parts of the country, and even abroad. By mid-1968, newspapers reported the growing hordes of people who visited the place; on certain days, particularly on the 15th of each month when the Virgin usually made important statements, they numbered to thousands (ABC 14, 23 and 27 April and 14 May 1968; cf. Molina 1996: 21-26 and Vidal 1976).