¡Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe!

basilica guadalupe altar   CafePress Guadalupe
Francisco García and Javier Zavala

Francisco García and Javier Zavala

This week, the search for Mexican Success Stories has taken me to the rectory of Holy Cross Catholic Church in Santa Cruz, California. “How do you view the Virgin of Guadalupe?” I ask Javier Zavala and Francisco García, Mexican immigrants who became parishioners and then friends at Holy Cross.

“She’s the Queen, the Mother of God, the Mother of us all,” Javier responds. “The previous Pope himself called her ‘Queen of Mexico, Empress of the Americas.’”

“I feel very proud that the Virgin, the Mother of God, honored us by appearing in our country in 1531,” Francisco adds. “We Mexicans feel like she is ours, even though she really belongs to the world. My mother and grandmother taught me devotion to the Virgin from a young age.”

No matter where your religious beliefs lie, if you want to understand Mexico, it’s a good idea to know a little about how Mexicans view mothers in general and the Virgin, or Our Lady, of Guadalupe in particular. Mothers, even those with ample flaws, are deeply respected and loved, protected and cared for in old age. The worst verbal offenses among men usually insult the intended party’s mother one way or another. As for the Virgin of Guadalupe, Javier spoke for millions of Mexicans who see her as “the mother of us all.”

eBay decal, "Queen of Mexico and Empress of the Americas"

eBay decal, “Queen of Mexico and Empress of the Americas”

If you live in the southwestern United States, chances are you recognize the image. You’ve seen it on the windows of low riders, pickup trucks and SUVs or on calendars in Mexican restaurants. If you don’t know a human Lupe (the short form), you probably know of a Guadalupe geographical location. In Central Texas alone, a river, a county and a major street bear the name, although locals pronounce the street that runs along the UT Austin campus as “Guadaloop.” If you want to buy your very own Guadalupe decal, you have plenty of options including Amazon, eBay and CafePress.

According to Catholic teachings, in 1531, this indigenous incarnation of the Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego, an Indian, on a country hillside called Tepeyac and requested a church be built to her on the site. Juan Diego delivered the message to the archbishop who didn’t believe him. The Virgin reappeared to Juan Diego and filled his tilma, a sort of cloak, with white roses like those in the archbishop’s native Spain. When Juan Diego reported back to the archbishop and opened the tilma, the roses had transformed into the image of the dark-skinned Virgin.

Old and New Churches at Mexico City Basilica

Old and New Churches at Mexico City Basilica

Tepeyac, today part of Mexico City, has been home to churches in Guadalupe’s honor ever since. The newest basilica, completed in 1976, can accommodate up to 50,000 people. Hanging above the altar as the grand focal point is what is purported to be Juan Diego’s tilma. Nearly five centuries of believers have viewed the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint, as a maternal and heavenly advocate. When Miguel Hidalgo made his famous independence speech and grito ¡Viva México! in 1810, he led the way hoisting a banner of the Virgin.

In the days before her December 12th feast day, pilgrims all over the country make their way to guadalupano churches, often accompanied by matachines, indigenous dancers. Outside the churches the atmosphere is like a religious street fair with vendors selling specifically Mexican food, drinks, toys and guadalupano-themed gifts.

At the stroke of midnight, mariachis and believers at the Mexico City basilica and elsewhere in the country serenade the Virgin beginning with Las mañanitas, the traditional birthday song, and continuing with a host of guadalupano songs. According to a 2012, CNN Mexico report, 45,000 faithful  sung Las mañanitas inside the basilica with 800,000 more outside. Catholic churches all over Mexico are packed for masses at five or six a.m., but many of the faithful, laden with flowers, come much earlier to honor the Virgin and to sing with the mariachis.

Jean Rigg in shirt from Cafe Pasqual's, Santa Fe

Jean Rigg in shirt from Cafe Pasqual’s, Santa Fe

Guadalupano churches can be found from Uruguay to the Philippines. Francisco García noted that St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City and Notre Dame in Paris have altars in Guadalupe’s honor. Jean Rigg, a non-Catholic Anglo who grew up in Las Cruces, New Mexico, recalls, “The Virgin was a big deal in my community, well, in nearby Tortugas where there’s a shrine to her on top of Tortugas Mountain about a thousand feet above the mesa. Every December 12th, on her feast day, they still light bonfires along the trail that zigzags up the mountain to the shrine.

Tortugas New Mexico Guadalupe Celebrations

Tortugas New Mexico Guadalupe Celebrations

“My father and a friend of his,” she continues, “were World War II veterans. When the friend returned home, he learned his mother had made a vow to the Virgin that if he came home safely, he, not the mother, would make a pilgrimage up the mountain to the shrine—on his knees. And he followed through on his mother’s vow.”

Over 65 years since that vet’s pilgrimage, and nearly 500 years after Juan Diego’s visits to the archbishop, the Lady’s many millions of followers all over the world would, no doubt, say that she is a Mexican Success Story.

In the video below, some of Mexico’s most famous musicians sing  Las mañanitas to the Virgin of Guadalupe in 2012.

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