[This is the first in a multi-part series on religious pilgrims.]
It didn’t take very long before we saw the first signs we were close. A long train of bikers, flanked by brightly decorated vehicles, signaled we were heading in the right direction. Each additional block brought us closer to our final destination, the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in the north of Mexico City. Surrounding the basilica for several blocks was a thronging mass of Catholic pilgrims, known as los peregrinos. The crowd was a mix of individuals, families and entire communities of all ages who had traveled from far and wide to take part in this annual religious pilgrimage celebrating the Virgin of Guadalupe. Besides its status as a national shrine, the basilica is among the largest religious pilgrimage sites in the world, with tens of millions of Catholics estimated to visit the shrine each year. It has been my experience that interfaith religious experiences require active participation, rather than passive observation. If I wanted to better understand why millions of people are drawn to this place, these rituals, and the image of the Virgin, I would have to join the pilgrims and become one myself, even if only for one night.
The height of the celebration takes place between December 11th and 12th, when according to Catholic folk tradition the Blessed Virgin once appeared to an Indigenous Chichimeca man named Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin. The story itself is fascinating, and not being raised in a Catholic family, was not one I was familiar with. This excerpt from the Catholic Encyclopedia gives the main outlines of the story:
To a neophyte, fifty five years old, named Juan Diego, who was hurrying down Tepeyac hill to hear Mass in Mexico City, on Saturday, 9 December, 1531, the Blessed Virgin appeared and sent him to Bishop Zumárraga to have a temple built where she stood. She was at the same place that evening and Sunday evening to get the bishop’s answer. He had not immediately believed the messenger; having cross-questioned him and had him watched, he finally bade him ask a sign of the lady who said she was the mother of the true God. The neophyte agreed so readily to ask any sign desired, that the bishop was impressed and left the sign to the apparition. Juan was occupied all Monday with Bernardino, an uncle, who seemed dying of fever. Indian specifics failed; so at daybreak on Tuesday, 12 December, the grieved nephew was running to the St. James’s convent for a priest. To avoid the apparition and untimely message to the bishop, he slipped round where the well chapel now stands. But the Blessed Virgin crossed down to meet him and said: “What road is this thou takest son?” A tender dialogue ensued. Reassuring Juan about his uncle whom at that instant she cured, appearing to him also and calling herself Holy Mary of Guadalupe she bade him go again to the bishop. Without hesitating he joyously asked the sign. She told him to go up to the rocks and gather roses. He knew it was neither the time nor the place for roses, but he went and found them. Gathering many into the lap of his tilma a long cloak or wrapper used by Mexican Indians he came back. The Holy Mother, rearranging the roses, bade him keep them untouched and unseen till he reached the bishop. Having got to the presence of Zumárraga, Juan offered the sign. As he unfolded his cloak the roses fell out, and he was startled to see the bishop and his attendants kneeling before him: the life size figure of the Virgin Mother, just as he had described her, was glowing on the poor tilma. A great mural decoration in the renovated basilica commemorates the scene. The picture was venerated, guarded in the bishop’s chapel, and soon after carried processionally to the preliminary shrine.
When I asked my partner, who grew up in Mexico, if she knew this story, she looked at me a bit perplexed, as if I had just asked if water is wet. Of course she knew it, I was informed. Everyone in Mexico knows this story. Not everyone may agree on the interpretation of the story she told me, but everyone knows the basics. One would be hard-pressed to live in Mexico for any length of time and not be exposed to the Cult of the Virgin. Although, truth be told, one need not go to Mexico for this experience. The old Polish neighborhood of Greenpoint, Brooklyn where I live has its own obsession with the Virgin and Catholic rituals if you pay attention and know where to look.
A stroll through any Mexican neighborhood reveals numerous household shrines, ranging from simple to extremely elaborate, all dedicated to the Virgin. In the days leading up to the 12th, houses and businesses all over the city were busy preparing for the festivities. The importance of the image is even greater for the pilgrims, many of whom carry images of the Virgin with them during the entire pilgrimage process. This point is worth stressing, as it’s the dominant image stuck in my head from the pilgrimage, and it plays a key part in the religious symbolism and ritual practices of millions of devout Catholics. Everywhere you went there were printed images, carved statues, banners, t-shirts and even entire mobile altars, all with the image of the Virgin. Many of the pictures were strapped to the backs of people, others held them tenderly in their arms, almost as if cradling a child. To truly grasp the importance attached to the image of the Virgin, I think you have to see it firsthand. My usual camera had run out of power the night before, and the borrowed camera I used took terrible pictures, but a few images should give readers a feel for what I’m describing.
Besides the visuals there is a lot to think about in observing these religious pilgrims, but I’ll save those additional reflections for my subsequent post.