11 December 2007

12 de diciembre

An estimated eight million Mexicans will descend on the Basílica de Guadalupe in the capital this week and fete Our Lady of Guadalupe, the country's most revered religious icon. This gentleman in Puerto Vallarta honored the Guadalupe with a sandcastle by the Malecón

I spent the wee hours of Wednesday morning at the basilica. Here's what ran the following day in The News.

Pilgrims descend on the capital to celebrate the Virgin of Guadalupe

David Agren
The News

Esteban Cruz tumbled into the deep end of a swimming pool six years ago while horsing around with a cousin. Unable to swim, he quickly sunk to the bottom. Desperate and "drowning" he begged the Virgin of Guadalupe for intervention. A lifeguard pulled him from the pool moments later, sparing him a watery death.

Cruz has made a pilgrimage every December since to the Basílica de Guadalupe, where he gives thanks for what he considers a miracle. This year, he pedaled his red mountain bike from Valle de Chalco Solidaridad, a sprawling municipality on the southeastern outskirts of the capital, to the basilica in the northern part of Mexico City, leaving at 9 p.m. and arriving just in time for Midnight mañanitas.

"I thought I was going to die," Cruz recalled while sitting on the curb in front of the basilica during the wee hours of Wednesday morning.

"Thankfully, the virgin intervened."

Cruz was just one of an estimated eight million Mexicans flocking to the basilica over the past week as the country feted its patron saint, a dark-skinned virgin that they believe appeared in front of an indigenous farmer named Juan Diego on Dec. 12, 1531. And 476 years later, the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe still captivates tens of millions of devotees in the world's second most populous Catholic country.

The virgin also draws adherents from immigrant communities in the United States and Latin America. The Basílica de Guadalupe attracts 20 million visitors a year, ranging from gaggles of clowns decked out in face paint and baggy pants to world leaders – Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega paid a visit over the summer, fulfilling a campaign promise to visit the shrine if he retook power in the Central American

Her influence on Mexican society is still strong. Author and social commentator Carlos Fuentes even called President Felipe Calderón's win in last year's election, "A triumph of the Virgin of Guadalupe."

In spite of a long-term decline in the percentage of the population that identifies itself as Catholic, the virgin's popularity shows few signs of waning.

"In reality, it never has diminished, but actually grown," said Conrado Ulloa Cárdenas, a philosophy professor at the University of Guadalajara.

"The devotion [is still] growing against all our predictions to the contrary."

Devotion to the virgin persists most strongly in Mexico City and the states surrounding the capital, especially among the working classes and the poor, according to Ulloa Cárdenas.

He added that wealthier Mexicans still believe in the virgin but are less inclined to publicly show their devotion.

Many of those arriving at the basilica arrived on foot, walking for days in many cases. Others rode bicycles or took the Metro. Entire families toting backpacks, blankets and bagged lunches spilled out of the Metro stops surrounding the basilica in the hours leading up to Midnight on Tuesday.

As the clock struck 12 a.m., fireworks exploded, trumpets from the assembled mariachi bands blared and the assembled masses began singing traditional mañanitas, or birthday songs to the virgin.

Many of the out-out-state pilgrims would later camp out on the streets and sidewalks surrounding the basilica – and even between the pumps at a Pemex station.

Midnight also ushered in a day of 15 masses. The lineup included a solemn mass featuring mariachi groups, a 2 a.m. service for construction workers and concheros, or traditional Aztec dancers, and a mass for cyclists coming in from two municipalities in Puebla.

Some visiting the Basilica started repaying mandas, or fulfilling promises made to the virgin in exchange for intervention.

María Luisa Guerrero and four family members poured 100 cups of coffee for pilgrims caught in the crushing line to enter the basilica, starting at midnight.

"It's something small, but it's the act that counts," she said.

"It's what I could afford to do."

Guerrero prayed to the virgin after her daughter was hospitalized with severe intestinal problems during the spring. She promised that she would serve coffee to the pilgrims streaming past her home every Dec. 12 if her daughter was cured.

"I always had a lot of faith," Guerrero said, adding that her daughter made a full recovery.

Guerrero, who lives mere blocks from the basilica, has always believed in the virgin, but never participated in the Dec. 12 festivities until recently. She said the numbers were as large as ever, but the local government and church officials had created a more controlled atmosphere.

A force of more than 2,200 police officials – some in riot gear – patrolled the area along with support workers from the local borough and inspectors from the federal consumer protection agency Profeco on the lookout for price gouging.

The numbers could grow even larger said borough of Gustavo A. Madero spokesman Ruben Chavarría as the Archdiocese of Mexico City builds a new plaza near the basilica containing shops, a museum and crypts.

Vendors in the area viewed the new project with suspicion, however.

"The government and the church is kicking us out of here," said Jazmín Hernández, a vendor whose family has been selling religious items at the basilica for four generations.

"The church sees a business opportunity and wants to capture all of it," she added.

Her family is devoted to the virgin, but Hernández's merchandise selection now features statues of the Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, a skeletal figure popular with the downtrodden and kidnapping gangs. She expressed misgivings about the church, but not the virgin.

Others were less questioning, including Cruz, the Chalco resident, who planned on leaving the Basilica at 4:30 a.m.. That would provide him with enough time to pedal home and still arrive at work on time. Although he acknowledged his fatigue and carried a heavy portrait of the virgin on his back, he was undaunted by his journey and the full day of manual labor at a marble cutting business awaiting him back in Chalco.

"If you don't have faith, the [pilgrimage] can be pretty uncomfortable," he said.

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