A handful of day laborers stood in the parking lot of a Woodbridge taco shop yesterday, shivering in too few clothes under a silvery sky that would soon spit snowflakes. It was noon, long past the hour they were likely to get work.
But an unusual sight brought hope in a different form: Two dozen runners in white arrived bearing a bright, warm torch and lugging two seven-foot-tall portraits in ornate frames -- one of the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe, another of a praying Saint Juan Diego.
The runners propped the portraits in the parking lot, and as a teenager held the flame high above her head, Ricardo Juarez stepped forward to explain.
"We want to dedicate this to all the workers that each morning gather here and at the 7-Eleven back there, who are all our brothers," he said in Spanish, gesturing toward a convenience store behind him, one of two 7-Eleven stores in a short stretch of Route 1.
"There are people who . . . are always thinking of you," he said.
The workers, their hands stuffed in pockets, nodded. "Gracias," they said.
The torch and portraits in front of them were making a stop in a pilgrimage to New York that began two months ago in Mexico City. Carried by thousands of runners, they have snaked through the dry tropics of Mexico, crossed the U.S. border into Texas, wound through the Deep South and journeyed up the Atlantic Coast, the runners stopping for sustenance and shelter at hundreds of Catholic churches and other spots along the way.
The annual event, called the Guadalupan Torch Race, honors the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico, whose blue-robed image is revered throughout Latin America. The torch left the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City on Oct. 9 and is scheduled to arrive at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York on Monday, a Catholic holiday honoring the saint. It is passed from runner to runner each mile of the way.
But the journey, sponsored by the Tepeyac Association, a New York-based immigrant rights group, is also meant to be a call for amnesty for illegal immigrants. The route through Northern Virginia includes stops at two hot spots in the region's debate over illegal immigration -- Woodbridge, where two dozen day laborers were arrested last year at one of the 7-Elevens on Route 1, and Herndon, where plans for a taxpayer-supported hiring hall for day laborers sparked bitter debate this summer.
The torch was to visit a Herndon 7-Eleven this morning, and it will be dedicated to day laborers who gather there, too, said Juarez, an organizer for Mexicans Without Borders, a District-based immigrant advocacy group that organized the local portion of the trek. From there, the runners will head for the White House.
"This is not like a protest. We are bringing peace, unity and hope," Juarez said. He said 600 people in the Washington region -- from day laborers to activists to high school students -- volunteered to help carry the torch from Richmond, where it appeared Saturday, to Baltimore, where it is scheduled to arrive tomorrow.
Valentin Palacios, 36, who works for a carpet company, joined the pilgrimage in Richmond, jogging short spurts during the day and sleeping in churches at night.
"We arrive here, maybe with nothing, maybe with something, but with lots of faith," he said of immigrants. "We need to ask God for help."
Palacios was one of about 25 people running yesterday from Quantico to Manassas. They were dressed in white pants and sweat shirts with a message on the back: "Messengers for the dignity of a people divided by the border!" Some wore terry cloth headbands and wristbands in red, green and white -- the colors of the Mexican flag -- that yesterday were more helpful for their extra insulation than for soaking up sweat.
They arrived in Woodbridge and walked through a vast Route 1 parking lot. There, Efraim Aguilar of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., rubbed his gloved hands together. He made part of last year's trek with his beloved "Mama Lupita," as he called the Virgin of Guadalupe, and he said he promised her he would do it again. This year, Aguilar, 32, a construction worker, took several days off work to escort the torch from Durham, N.C., to New York.
He said the Virgin offers much-needed hope to immigrants. "A lot of people don't have papers," Aguilar said. "We don't do anything bad to this country; we just come here to work, to get better lives."
After a stop at Ricos Tacos Moya, the torch was carried up a small hill to Our Lady of Angels Catholic Church, where two of seven weekend Masses are said in Spanish. With volunteers holding up the huge portraits behind him, the Rev. James Tucker told those gathered that the Virgin might identify with their journey. After all, he said, she, Jesus and Joseph fled from Bethlehem to Egypt to escape King Herod's decree to slaughter male infants.
"She was an immigrant, without papers, in a different country," Tucker said. "This is an important cause. It's a cause that the Virgin herself understands."