Faith and Festivity


Red paper roses covered the front of the small wooden house on Pecan Street in East Los Angeles. Outside the picket fence a procession of 200 or more people stopped and waited in the dark street. The play began without announcements. The Virgin of Guadalupe appeared in her blue veil, and the native Indian Juan Diego wore a bath towel as a cloak (as played by seventh-graders from the Dolores Mission school). They stood on the porch, their faces lit by flashlights, and spoke to each other from the heart.

She called him “Juanito”; he answered, “my dear child,” although he recognized the expectant young woman to be the mother of Jesus.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Dec. 10, 1999 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday December 10, 1999 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong credit--A photograph accompanying Wednesday’s story on the Virgin of Guadalupe had an incorrect photo credit. The picture was taken by Times staff photographer Genaro Molina.

The rest of the story will take eight more nights of processions and plays to tell, as events build to the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Sunday. Originally a Mexican holy day, the feast commemorates the visitation by Our Lady of Guadalupe to Juan Diego in December 1531. She asked him to inform the Spanish bishop that he must build a church. She spoke to him in Nahuatl, an Aztec dialect, and had brown skin. Her title, “Guadalupe,” means, “she will crush the serpent” in Nahuatl. In other words, she was with the natives, not the invaders who occupied their country, forever making her an icon for indigenous people.


Juan Diego convinced the bishop, but it took a miracle. He opened his cloak to release a shower of roses and reveal the image of the Virgin impressed in the fabric. It is preserved at the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City and still has the power to move people. This fall a laser reproduction of the image toured 58 local churches and attracted as many as 30,000 people to a single parish.

Nine nights of processions with papier-ma^che puppets, Guadalupe T-shirts and guitars, candles and prayers will end on Saturday. By then, any Catholic parish that keeps the tradition will just be warming up.

In the Roman Catholic church calendar there are four days set aside as major feasts of the Virgin Mary, and an additional 10 or so honor her on a smaller scale. None but this one wraps religion so tightly around an ethnic identity.

What started as a feast day and a point of ethnic pride has turned into a neighborhood event with a prophetic message of unity for the Americas, since Guadalupe is the patroness of both continents.

“Juan Diego was a baptized Catholic who recognized Guadalupe from his cultural background as well,” said Jeanette Rodriguez, chairwoman of the theology department at Seattle University. Details in the original image relate both to Aztec and Christian symbols. Blending two cultures in the artwork is a way of calling the Spaniards and Indians together, Rodriguez said.

But it goes beyond that. According to a Nahuatl narrative published in 1649, the Virgin’s message to Juan Diego was, “I am your loving mother.” Mother as well to “all who are with you, to all the inhabitants of this land and to all who love me, call upon me and trust me.”


There were signs of it at the bilingual procession Friday night that brought a sprinkling of Anglos from Hollywood, Echo Park and Pasadena to East L.A.

“There’s more community involvement now,” said Rita Chairez, who has attended the event for 10 years. “It’s important for our children.”

Sunday at Dolores Mission the mariachis will start playing at 4:30 a.m. Stay for the whole program, there or at any Catholic church with a strong Latino membership, and you may spend up to five hours. The prayers and partying begin before dawn because Juan Diego met the Virgin in the early morning darkness.

Mass is a jolt of trumpets and violins.

“We include mariachis because that is a very Mexican style of music, and we offer the Virgin what belongs to us,” said Sister Rosa Maria Icaza of the Mexican American Cultural Center in San Antonio. “The musicians serenade her because that is what we do on the birthday or feast day of someone we love.”

Olga Ponce Furginson is a big name in the world of cut paper, or papel picado, the lacy banners that decorate churches for feast day.

“Part of honoring Guadalupe is making the church beautiful,” said Furginson, whose studio is in Signal Hill. “When I started 15 years ago, not even Mexican Americans had any idea what paper cutting was.”


She first noticed it in old Spanish-language movies and made trips to meet craftsmen in Mexico City and in Puebla, Mexico, who helped her get started. Now she teaches the craft at schools and in private classes.

After Mass an early breakfast made by the women of the parish or a local restaurant is created around menudo and Mexican-style hot chocolate. Chocolate was first discovered in Mexico; the word comes from the Nahuatl.

Aztec dancers might be part of the program too (kindergartners played that role at the Dolores Mission novena procession). “The Indian matachines danced as their way of praying,” Sister Icaza said.

But ties to the Virgin extend beyond the festival and the church.

“You see images of the Virgin of Guadalupe on liquor stores and the fronts of shops, as protection,” said Tomas Benitez, director of Self Help Graphics in East Los Angeles, where every artist who has produced a print or lithograph has used the image at least once. “Young women in particular explore their identity by using Guadalupe as a symbol of self-empowerment,” he said.

The artists don’t try to copy the original image. Most often it is the cultural, not the religious, symbol that attracts them. There is the Virgin as a teenage Rollerblader, or as the icon on the dashboard of the family car. In their minds she lives in Los Angeles, and always, her skin is cocoa-colored.

“The European invaders identified our indigenous qualities as inferior to theirs,” Benitez said. “Resistance is saying, ‘It’s OK to be brown and indigenous.’ The Virgin is a cultural warrior who symbolizes that spiritual strength.”


Mary Rourke can be reached by e-mail at