The Virgin of Guadalupe -- the beloved brown-skinned image of the Virgin Mary long venerated in Mexico -- has won a new following in multiethnic Los Angeles.
"We see the Virgin of Guadalupe as Mother of the Americas -- north, central and south," said George Takahashi, a Japanese American who is a member of the Maryknoll Japanese Catholic Center, St. Francis Xavier Chapel near Little Tokyo. "She is not just for Latinos. She is for all people of the Americas."
An estimated 10,000 devotees turned out Sunday for a procession in honor of the Virgin, among them ethnic Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Tongan and Vietnamese worshipers.
Although Catholic leaders disagree, some historians theorize that the Virgin of Guadalupe represents a melding of two strands of belief -- Catholic teachings about Mary and indigenous traditions about the Aztec goddess Tonantzin. Devotees of the Virgin believe she appeared in 1531 to a Catholic convert, Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, at the hill of Tepeyac in Mexico.
According to tradition, she spoke in the local language and directed Juan Diego to build a chapel on the site. The local bishop asked the man, now canonized as St. Juan Diego, for proof, so the Virgin told him to gather roses from the hill -- even though it was winter. Miraculously, the roses bloomed, and Juan Diego brought them back wrapped in his cloak. When the roses fell from the cloak, believers say, the image of the Virgin appeared on the cloth.
On Sunday, dancers and musicians in colorful costumes performed in the Virgin's honor. Street vendors did brisk business selling flags and T-shirts adorned with her image, and spectators lined the street along the procession route.
"I brought all my children because I want them to learn about their heritage and history," said Francisco Morales, a salesman from Santa Ana.
But that heritage has been expanding, as Catholics who don't hail from Mexico adopt the Virgin as their own.
"She is our intercessor -- a very powerful, loving mother," said Dr. Truc Truong, a Vietnamese American physician who is among the growing ranks of devotees of the Virgin of Guadalupe. For the last year, Truong, who came to the United States after the fall of Saigon in 1975, has been donating 2,000 roses every week for the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe at Hombre Nuevo, a Catholic media center in El Monte. "I can never spend enough money for Mother of God and God," she said of her $1,500 weekly flower bill.
The physician donated thousands of orange and red roses for Sunday's event, which culminated in a Mass celebrated by Cardinal Roger M. Mahony at the East Los Angeles College stadium.
The roses were arranged like flower beds, filling a sizable portion of the field, where 6-foot framed images of the Virgin of Guadalupe and St. Juan Diego stood. Roses also filled giant urns.
"The whole world's here," Mahony said, looking at the sea of people around him. "We are all brothers and sisters under her."
Some credit the growth of devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe among non-Latinos to Bishop Oscar A. Solis, vicar in charge of ethnic ministries for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
Solis, a native of the Philippines, was invited in 1984 by the archdiocese to start the outreach to a number of ethnic groups.
"This is an exciting moment in our church," Solis said as he walked with other auxiliary bishops in the procession. "You see a multicultural perspective of this celebration. That's what excites me the most."
Recognizing the importance of the Virgin of Guadalupe to the Catholic faith, Pope John Paul II in 1992 dedicated a chapel within St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican to her. Seven years later he named her patron saint of the Americas, and in 2002, John Paul canonized Juan Diego before a crowd of 12 million in Mexico City.
Clara Park, a member of St. Paul's Korean Catholic Church near Koreatown, said she feels blessed to have both "God the Father" and "Holy Mother" to go to.
"When I need forgiveness, I often pray to Holy Mother to intercede in my behalf," Park said.
Park's group walked in a one-mile procession from La Soledad Church to East Los Angeles College with members of its sister Latino congregation, which shares the same facility.
Soana Moimoi, a native of Tonga and a member of St. Anthony's Catholic Church in Long Beach, loves the account of Mary appearing to an indigenous man.
For the eighth year in a row, Moimoi and her family were at the procession.