Huge Throng Hails Virgin of Guadalupe


Bearing red roses, rosary beads and banners emblazoned with the image of the Virgin Mary, more than 50,000 people gathered Saturday in Los Angeles in an outpouring of faith and devotion to honor the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Under a blazing sun, Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum was transformed into a massive open-air cathedral for the multicultural Roman Catholic liturgy, which primarily drew worshipers of Mexican descent, but also scores of Central Americans, Vietnamese, Filipinos and African Americans.

“This is a holy day for us,” said Emma Perez of Los Angeles. “She is the mother of God, and she’s our mother. And we’re here to show how much we love her.”


Today marks the 468th anniversary of the day on which it is believed that a dark-skinned Virgin Mary appeared to an Indian named Juan Diego on the Mexican hill of Tepeyac and left her image on his cloak. For Mexican immigrants to the United States, no holy day is more significant than the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The turnout Saturday was a testament to how the powerful image has become embedded in the life of polyglot Los Angeles. Theologians and church leaders said the circle of those devoted to the Virgin of Guadalupe has expanded from its Mexican origins to assume international, interfaith dimensions.

Saturday’s event also marked the Southland’s farewell to a reproduction of the image of Guadalupe that has been touring churches throughout the three-county Archdiocese of Los Angeles since September. The original image lies inside the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, which was built on the site where the appearance is believed to have occurred.

By 7 a.m. Saturday, worshipers had begun lining up outside the Coliseum in hope of getting a seat close enough to view the replica.

The elaborate procession that carried the framed picture began at Our Saviour Church on 32nd and Hoover streets. Amid burning incense and the beat of Indian drums, hundreds of Aztec dancers led the image through the streets to the Coliseum.

The procession also included an international delegation of worshipers--reminiscent of Olympics opening ceremonies--dressed in their respective countries’ dress, from Austria and Slovakia to Cambodia and Lithuania.


When the Virgin’s image finally arrived at the Coliseum in the early afternoon, people in the crowd screamed, many raising their own pictures of Guadalupe or waving flags of Mexico. As the picture entered, a flock of white doves was released. Upon seeing the sacred image, hundreds rushed onto the field, hoping to touch the icon. Still others wept in their seats or fell to their knees, moved by the sight of the Virgin. When the image was placed on the stage, fireworks exploded above the Coliseum.

Tomas Bustos of Long Beach said that for many Mexicans in the crowd, it had been years since they had returned to their native country to visit the home of the original image. For them, Saturday’s event was akin to a spiritual reunion.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve seen her,” Bustos said. “It’s been a long time since we’ve been home. So we come here to thank her for all she’s given us.”

Paul Dang, a 25-year-old Vietnamese Catholic from San Gabriel, said he decided to attend the event after seeing how thousands of people flocked to his church to see the reproduction of the Virgin’s image.

“Even though we’re not Mexican, we still want to show our love for Mary. I mean, she’s universal,” he said.

This year also marks the first time in church history that the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe is being celebrated by all bishops and priests in the Western Hemisphere. In an apostolic exhortation delivered during his visit to Mexico in January, Pope John Paul II elevated Dec. 12 to a holy day for the Catholic Church across the hemisphere and emphasized the Virgin of Guadalupe’s role as evangelizer and patroness of the Americas.


During his homily Saturday, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony emphasized Guadalupe’s role in uniting Christians of every race.

“When Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared, she asked the bishop to build a temple . . . a spiritual home where all would be welcomed regardless of race or culture. Los Angeles can be another Tepeyac, where all races can be welcomed,” Mahony said.

Our Lady of Guadalupe is a powerful image that has come to symbolize the maternal face of God. As immigrants from Latin America settled across California and the West, they brought Guadalupe with them and she evolved as protectress of the poor and marginalized.

Countless murals of her can be seen in the barrios of Los Angeles. Young men tattoo themselves with her image as protection. Merchants of varied races and faiths have even painted Guadalupe murals on their storefronts to guard against graffiti and vandalism.

“This is a story of oppression, of hopelessness. Her appearance as a humble woman bringing hope and bringing new life is a story that resonates with all of us,” said Ronaldo M. Cruz, executive director of the Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs in Washington.

Earlier this year, a book on the Virgin of Guadalupe was translated into German and became a religion best-seller throughout Europe. In recent months, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops has received several calls--from Indiana and Canada--inquiring about the holy day.


At the Los Angeles celebration on Saturday, more than 50 languages echoed throughout the Coliseum during a multilingual rosary recited by immigrants from diverse nations.

Jeanette Rodriguez, a theologian at Seattle University who has analyzed the widening response to the symbol, wrote an essay on her ongoing, unexpected encounters with Guadalupe devotees, including a Jewish woman and a group of Anglo lay ministers. Rodriguez believes that Juan Diego’s vision touches a universal chord similar to that of the Exodus in Hebrew Scriptures.

“Something is being transmitted by her message. If you study that message, she doesn’t say, ‘I’m just here for Mexicans.’ She’s like a prism that people come to see in different ways,” Rodriguez said.

In Mexico City, controversy surrounding the campaign to canonize Juan Diego as a saint reignited last week and caused an uproar in the Catholic Church. The former abbot of the Basilica of Guadalupe sent a protest letter to the Vatican, stating that Juan Diego never existed and that he should not be made a saint. Mexican Catholic leaders denounced the attacks and remained hopeful that Juan Diego would be canonized next year.

Through the years, the dark-skinned image of the Virgin has been so revered that even some within the Catholic Church have spoken out against devotion to her as an obsession or referred to the phenomenon as the “cult of Guadalupe.”

The passion that Guadalupe stirs in Southern California has even moved some to desecrate her image around the city. In October, about two dozen street-side murals of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Boyle Heights and South-Central Los Angeles were marred with slashes of paint, some including “666” and “La Bestia” (The Beast) scrawled under the Virgin’s womb.


For those who gathered at the Coliseum, the desecration had only made their faith stronger.

Jose Deanda, 21, said that even though he did not count himself as a devout follower of Guadalupe, her message still resonated in his soul.

“This is something we’ve all grown up with and all know,” he said. “So we came to pay respect and say goodbye.”