Mexico City welcomes the pope: 'Francis, brother, now you're a Mexican!'

The devoted and the curious gathered 10 deep at times to watch as the motorcade headed down the Calzada de Guadalupe, the avenue leading to Mexico’s pre-eminent religious shrine, the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Some waited for hours.

The early arrivals won the spots offering the best views, closest to the broad thoroughfare as it slices through a working class district in the northern fringes of this vibrant mega-city, crossing the Avenue of the Mysteries just before the basilica complex at the foot of the scrubby hills of Tepeyac.

“The only thing we want is the sacred blessing of the pope so that it will enlighten the lives of all of our family,” said Patricia Velazquez, a native of Guatemala who now lives in Compton and arrived on a plane at 7 a.m. from Los Angeles with seven relatives. They all huddled along the avenue, hoping for a glimpse of the great man.

“We are going to bring a little of the pope’s blessing back to all of our people in Los Angeles,” declared an emotional Velazquez, whose husband, a native of Mexico, remained at home to work.

Her daughter, Jaquelin, 9, was dressed for the occasion in an outfit that reflected her parents’ varied origins, donning a multi-hued Guatemalan indigenous skirt, blouse-and-scarf ensemble, while her hair dazzled with ribbons of green, white and red — the three colors of the Mexican flag.

The visit of Pope Francis to Mexico galvanized this hectic and often frenzied capital, drawing multitudes of the faithful and the inquisitive from far and wide to the streets in the hope of seeing the leader of the Roman Catholic Church. Despite long waits and sometimes crushing crowds, most people seemed remarkably well-behaved, and patient.

Mexico City can be a tough town, its people not easily impressed. But the Argentine-born pope was clearly a hit, his Latin American origins winning affection — even if Argentines, with a bit of a reputation for arrogance, aren’t always the most popular folks in these parts.

“Francisco, hermano, ya eres mexicano!” came the chant — “Francis, brother, now you’re a Mexican!”

The pontiff’s first full day of his six-day visit here included a pair of highly symbolic public appearances — in the Zocalo, the central plaza downtown, site of the colonial-era cathedral and once the hub of the Aztec empire; and at the famed basilica, where, according to Catholic belief, the Virgin Mary appeared in the year 1531 before Juan Diego, a Mexican indigenous peasant, in the nearby hills

A piece of fabric said to bear the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe has become perhaps the most revered artifact in the Western Hemisphere, a potent and ubiquitous symbol in Mexico and beyond. The virgin is considered the patroness of Latin America, offering protection and solace.

The pope was granted his wish of time alone with the image, which he said has long been a source of inspiration. He spent 24 minutes with it.

“How many times I have been fearful of a problem or that something bad has happened and I don't know how to react, and I pray to her,” said the pope in September, according to quotes distributed by Catholic News Service.

On Saturday, the pope celebrated mass at the basilica with a white cassock emblazoned with the virgin’s image. Some 35,000 lucky people had tickets to be present on the basilica grounds; others watched on giant screens placed outside.

There was no immediate official estimate as to how many people lined the streets as the pope’s motorcade made its way to the basilica grounds, below the hill of Tepeyac, where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to Juan Diego. But the streets were packed.

“I came here on my bicycle because there was no public transport,” said Juan Carlos Flores, 58, who said he biked almost 12 miles to arrive at the main avenue where the pope’s motorcade would pass.

Earlier, the pope had made several pointed speeches at the National Palace and the Cathedral, excoriating corrupt politicians and unresponsive church officials alike and urging support for the poor. The tone seemed to go down well here.

“I am in agreement with the pope, because a lot of people are straying from the church precisely because there is not sufficient interest in the plight of the less fortunate,” said Ana Magalia, 46, who was among those gathered on the street.

The excitement on the streets rose as word spread that the motorcade was approaching. A buzz coursed through the crowd. People pushed toward the barricades. Some had ladders to improve their chances of seeing the pope. Everyone seemed to raise a mobile phone to catch a photo of the moment, which lasted a few seconds.

Afterward, there were tears and smiles. People compared notes. Many seemed stunned that they had actually seen the now-familiar figure.

“I’m full of emotions,” said Gloria Guerrero Marquez, 65, who was in tears after seeing the pope. “I saw him and he gave us his blessing. It was a fleeting instant, it's true. But it was one of the best moments of my life.”

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patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

Sanchez is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Liliana Nieto del Rio contributed to this report.

Follow @mcdneville on Twitter

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