Coronavirus changes everything about Virgen de Guadalupe procession but participants’ devotion

Parishioners celebrate Virgen de Guadalupe during a procession Sunday in San Gabriel.
Parishioners celebrate Virgen de Guadalupe during a procession Sunday in San Gabriel.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Nearly everything about Sunday’s 89th annual Virgen de Guadalupe procession and Mass at the San Gabriel Mission was different from the year before: a historic change of format and venue, a scant crowd, masks and social distancing.

The coronavirus changed it all — except for the faith of the attendees and the devotion of organizers.

Dancers lead Sunday's procession, which featured fewer participants due to the pandemic.
Dancers lead Sunday’s procession, which featured fewer participants due to the pandemic.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

“This year it was particularly important to continue this beautiful tradition celebrating the Virgen de Guadalupe because she is the mother of healing and hope,” Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez said shortly before leading Sunday’s service. “In these challenging times, she is the one who keeps us together as a family.”


This year’s procession was the first held outside Los Angeles and the first in years to be relocated from Cesar Chavez Avenue in East Los Angeles, in part to discourage a large crowd from gathering during a pandemic shutdown.

The hundreds of participants and dozens of floats and bands that were cheered by 10,000 attendees last year were replaced Sunday by a 30-car procession that began at Vincent Lugo Park and ended roughly a mile away at the mission, first constructed in 1771 in what is now Montebello and moved to present-day San Gabriel a few years later.

Mass was limited to 120 in-person, physically distanced participants, led by Gomez and assisted by two bishops and half a dozen priests and seminarians, but also livestreamed to 5,800 viewers, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles said.

The mission was selected as the host site to highlight its role in Los Angeles history, said Father Juan Ochoa, the procession organizer and administrator of Christ the King Catholic Church in Hollywood.

This year's Mass was limited to 120 people.
This year’s Mass was limited to 120 people.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

“There is a lot of history with this procession, and we wanted to tie it to the San Gabriel Mission,” Ochoa said. “Next year the mission will be celebrating its 250th anniversary, and the connection between its history and the building of Los Angeles is important.”

Donations made Sunday were also given to the mission, which is reconstructing its roof and repairing sections of the church damaged in a July fire.

Though attendance was deliberately limited, several residents of South Ramona Street were surprised and rushed out of their homes, some in pajamas and sweatpants, to witness and wave at the procession.

“In these challenging times, she is the one who keeps us together as a family,” Archbishop José H. Gomez said.
“In these challenging times, she is the one who keeps us together as a family,” Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez said of Virgen de Guadalupe.
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

Nearly every vehicle in the parade was decorated with tributes to the Virgin Mary, depicted in the traditional image of a dark-skinned, black-haired young Indigenous woman. Participants carried roses, Mexican flags and signs identifying the parish of the respective family.

The Virgen de Guadalupe is said to have appeared several times in December 1531 to an Indigenous peasant named Juan Diego, who was later canonized a Catholic saint.

In perhaps the most famous visitation, the Virgin Mary instructed the young man to pick roses, out of season because of the cold, from atop a hill near Mexico City and bring them to the local bishop as a sign of faith. Diego did as instructed, gathering the roses in his cloak and showing them to the bishop, who was awestruck at the miraculous sight of the Virgen de Guadalupe’s image on Diego’s clothing.

Those events are venerated in Mexico every year on Dec. 12, the official feast day of the Virgen de Guadalupe.

East Los Angeles resident Jose Juan Morales drove the first vehicle in Sunday’s procession, a pickup truck with an attached flatbed trailer converted into a moving shrine complete with hundreds of roses and a mural of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Morales, a parishioner at East Los Angeles’ Our Lady of Solitude Catholic Church, has participated in the devotion for nearly a dozen years but said he considers himself “extra blessed” to be involved this year.

The 45-year-old father of three, a native of Puebla, Mexico, said he was hospitalized for a week in July with COVID-19 and took three additional weeks to fully recover. While he says he’s healthy again, the pandemic forced him to close his small clothing and toy stand.

“I consider it a miracle to be here honoring the Virgen de Guadalupe and believe she saved me,” Morales said.

All eight members of the Hernandez family from Downey packed into their black Chevy Traverse adorned with sunflowers on the hood, roses on the roof, a small painting of the Virgin Mary and her likeness in red papel picado designs attached all over the vehicle.

This was the fourth year the Hernandezes had participated in the procession, but Margarita Hernandez said it was more important to be there this year than ever.


“This has been a crazy year, and we needed this,” said Hernandez, 19, whose parish is St. Dominic Savio in Bellflower. “We have a chance to escape our house for a little while, but also to be safe and honor Our Lady of Guadalupe.”