washingtonpost.com
In a Troubled Time, Mexicans Turn to the 'Mother'
More Than 5 Million Pilgrims Converge at Virgin of Guadalupe Basilica in the Capital

By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 13, 2008

MEXICO CITY, Dec. 12 -- The pilgrims walked for miles, some for days, carrying framed portraits of the Virgin of Guadalupe roped to their backs, a parade of movable shrines dressed in paper flowers and plastic tinsel.

In all, more than 5 million of the faithful converged at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Friday to give thanks for the everyday miracles of good health or a decent job, and to pray for divine help in the year to come, as Mexico shudders from the violence of a vicious drug war and global economic turmoil.

The Virgin of Guadalupe is the supreme icon and mother of the Catholic Church in Mexico, and she is adored by many other Latinos as the "Empress of the Americas," a beneficent figure of solace and support, especially in times of trouble, when her devotees say she is needed most. Like right now.

"I pray for Mexico and the people like me who must live in fear of criminals," said Elias Martínez, who fixes tires at a roadside shop on the highway to Puebla and says this pilgrimage, his sixth, calms his fears of the future. "I see these criminals every day," Martínez said. "They are the ones with new cars."

On the eve of the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico City's Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera asked the faithful to pray for an end to "the wave of violence that has destabilized Mexico." Mexico's attorney general reported last week that 5,376 people had been killed this year in the war among drug traffickers and police, double the number of slayings involving organized crime last year.

In his message, the leader of Mexico City's Catholics asked his flock to pray especially for the soul of Silvia Vargas, one of the thousands of people kidnapped in Mexico in recent years. Vargas, the 19-year-old daughter of a wealthy sports official, was abducted on her way to classes last year. Her body was found last weekend, buried under a patio in a house south of the city. DNA results confirming her identity were announced Thursday night.

An English-language newspaper in Mexico City, the News, found two police officers from the town of Chalco who carried a lacquered wood etching of the Virgin to ask for her protection. "We put our lives in danger every day," Edgar Avelino Escorcia told the News.

A group of police officers from the state of Nuevo Leon prayed at a special Mass at the basilica in Monterrey on Wednesday. The officers asked for protection against organized crime and brought offerings to honor their fallen colleagues. More than 500 police officers have been killed this year nationwide.

An assembly-line worker from Ciudad Juarez told the newspaper La Jornada that she came to ask the Virgin to solve the murders of hundreds of women in her city on the U.S. border.

To make their pilgrimage, hundreds of thousands of people pedaled bicycles into Mexico City, one of the largest cities on Earth, and the usually chaotic streets became hushed, out of respect. Volunteers lined the avenues, offering pilgrims free cups of coffee and pieces of bread.

The atmosphere around the basilica was calm and quiet, despite the millions of visitors. At night, many pilgrims slept wrapped in blankets along the curbs. Dressed in jeans, sneakers and T-shirts of the Virgin, and draped in flags and shawls with her image, those in the crowd were mostly young and working class.

On Dec. 9, 1531, the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared in a vision to an Indian peasant, Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, on a hill north of the ruined Aztec capital, where the basilica stands today. According to accounts, the apparition spoke to Juan Diego in Nahuatl, an Indian language still used in parts of Mexico. When the Spanish bishop asked for proof of the encounter, Juan Diego gathered roses on the hill. As he presented them to the bishop, the image of the Virgin miraculously appeared on his tilma, a kind of traditional cloak fastened at the shoulder with a knot.

The novelist Carlos Fuentes said, "You cannot truly be considered a Mexican unless you believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe."

Nobel laureate Octavio Paz wrote that if the macho in Mexican society is represented by the conquistador, then the Virgin "is the consolation of the poor, the shield of the weak, the help of the oppressed."

At a time when the tremors of global recession are spreading from the United States to Mexico, where workers in assembly plants and farm fields provide auto parts and winter tomatoes for American consumption, many of the people who stood in line for hours to enter the basilica said they would ask the Virgin of Guadalupe to watch over their wallets and keep them filled with pesos, even these weaker pesos.

"It is never easy here in Mexico, but it is harder now to find work that feeds our families," said Miguel Ortega, who sells used clothes in a market in Morelia. He took a bus and rode a borrowed bicycle, a poster of the Virgin of Guadalupe strapped to the handlebars, to complete his pilgrimage, his fourth such trip in a decade. His legs trembled from the effort.

"I will thank the Virgin for all I have," Ortega said, "and then ask for a little bit more."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company