More than three million Catholic pilgrims made their way to Mexico City this week for the annual feast day honoring the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico.
Some traveled on foot, some rode bikes or buses, and others crawled forward on their knees. For the first time in two years, many slept on the ground near the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. In 2020 and 2021, the pilgrimage had been canceled or restricted due to the pandemic.
The festivities this year were back in full force, with two days of celebrations, a midnight mass led by Mexico’s senior archbishop, and sprawling crowds gathered at the end of the pilgrims’ long journey. The tradition dates back almost 500 years.
Engracia Martinez, 55, has been making the trip for 25 years. “We have the material things, but sometimes what’s missing is in the heart,” she tells NPR’s Eyder Peralta. She prays to the Virgin, as Peralta translates, “when she doesn’t understand her kids, when someone gets sick or when life just seems too hard. It’s the virgin, she says, who gives her strength.”
The story behind the pilgrimage begins in 1531, the year Catholics believe Juan Diego, an Indigenous farmer, saw a vision of the Virgin Mary on Tepeyac Hill, in what is now Mexico City. As the story goes, she asked him to erect a shrine in her honor on the hill. He consulted a local bishop, who didn’t believe him. But Mary visited again, instructing him to bring the bishop roses. That time, when he spoke with the bishop, a colorful image of the Virgin appeared on the inside of his cloak.
Today, the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe houses Juan Diego’s cloak, protected behind bullet-proof glass. “To many Mexicans, the Virgin’s image became a symbol of unity because her face looks mixed-race—neither fully Indigenous nor European, but a bit of both,” writes Maria Teresa Hernandez of the Associated Press (AP).
“Perhaps the most important reason why the Virgin of Guadalupe is so revered in Mexico is that she appeared before Juan Diego, an indigenous commoner, just ten years after Spanish conquistadors had captured the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan (present-day Mexico City),” James Deutsch, curator at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, wrote in Smithsonian magazine in 2017. “By favoring a representative of those who have been marginalized or oppressed in Mexico, the Virgin became a liberating symbol of freedom and social justice.”
Mary, he said, is still a mother figure for today’s Latin Americans, including migrants hoping to make their way to the United States. “She’s there, in the middle of the caravans that, seeking freedom and well-being, head north.”