'Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe'

St. Julia celebrates Our Lady of Guadalupe by bringing her to the people

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SILER CITY — Outside one Siler City home, Father Julio Martinez of St. Julia Catholic Church stood on the back of a pickup truck last Saturday, leading a prayer in Spanish before a small crowd.

On another pickup truck to his right, a stand propped up a large portrait of a dark-skinned woman draped in a green mantle. Golden light engulfs her, and a black cord wraps around her waist, symbolizing that she’s pregnant with her son, Jesus.

Mexicans know her as the Virgin of Guadalupe, and Saturday, Dec. 12, was her Feast Day — a time when Mexican Catholics come together year after year to revere her and pray to her.

“¡Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe!” Martinez shouted to the crowd. “¡Que viva!” the crowd shouted back, clapping.

Like many other churches across America, St. Julia’s and her parishioners couldn’t host the large, multi-day celebration they’d usually hold for the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Yet while other churches canceled celebrations or brought them online, St. Julia’s found a way to mark the occasion together in person.

The idea came to Martinez and other church leaders in late October, when he said surging COVID-19 cases made it apparent that they needed to figure out an alternative celebration.

“For quite some time, I didn’t know what we were going to do,” Martinez told the News + Record. “Then when we sat down and ... gave birth to the idea that under normal circumstances, the people go in pilgrimage to La Virgen de Guadalupe, and since this year, they cannot, it will be the Virgin and her son who will go to the people.”

All day Saturday, Martinez, a caravan of cars and the Virgin of Guadalupe visited 15 homes and neighborhoods across Siler City, Snow Camp and Ramseur. People gathered together at each stop to listen to Martinez and others read scripture passages, share reflections and offer prayers. Afterward, some approached the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe to offer their own prayers.

Some sites served Mexican food, and many had their own altars, which often surrounded the Virgin’s portrait with ruby red poinsettias. At the Country Living mobile home park, parishioners even turned a basketball goal into a makeshift altar. They decorated the rim with flowers and tied red, white and green tulle fabric — the colors of the Mexican flag — to the goalpost, allowing each piece to tumble and sway behind the Virgin’s image on a table below.

“The whole celebration speaks about the love between the mother and her people,” Martinez said. “That’s really the bottom line — and the love of the people for the mother.”

That’s how many parishioners from Saturday’s pilgrimage described the Virgin of Guadalupe — as another mother, an empowering figure, a friend and a symbol of hope.

“She’s like a shield,” said Raul Rodriguez, who attended the celebration Saturday. He’s from Guanajuato, Mexico, and came to Siler City in 1995. “The Virgin of Guadalupe for us as Hispanics and Latinos is a force that motivates you to move forward, like when you cross the border. (She’s) an intercessor and brings petitions to her son Jesus. It is very beautiful.”

Maria Perez Hernandez, 65, moved to Siler City 20 years ago from Veracruz, Mexico. She’s been attending St. Julia’s — and every Feast Day celebration — ever since.

“The Virgin means a lot because ever since I opened my eyes, I have always carried this faith and religion with me,” she said.

Chelsea Prieto, 15, has lived in Siler City all her life. Her family’s house was one of 15 stops the Virgin made on Saturday. Her father’s Mexican, and she said Our Lady of Guadalupe Feast Day celebrations provide her a precious glimpse into her father’s roots.

“I get to see more of where I’m from, my parents, their culture,” she said, adding, “Just seeing a taste of it and seeing a good picture or just idea of it is really nice.”

To Rodriguez, that connection’s even more essential.

“These dates are very important because they bring you memories of your family that stayed in Mexico,” he added. “This day unites us.”

The Virgin of Guadalupe holds a special place in the hearts of Claudia Martinez and her family, too. Claudia, 27, grew up in Siler City, but her family migrated to the U.S. exactly 24 years ago as of Dec. 12.

“My mom, since I was little, she’s always told us that when she crossed the border, she always prayed to the Virgin Maria to help us cross and get here safely, so it’s extra special for us today,” she said, adding: “She’s guided us, and now I teach my kids (about her), too.”

Cecilia Esquivel, 27, grew up in Aguascalientes, Mexico, but has lived in Siler City for the past 15 years. She wore a green mantle, similar to the Virgin of Guadalupe’s, and dressed her two-month-old daughter, Evelyn, in a guadalupana dress, which bears an image of the Virgin.

“To me, she’s like my mother,” she said of the Virgin of Guadalupe. “My mom went back to Mexico over three years ago when my dad died of cancer, and so then I was left without my mom here. I have taken refuge in her (the Virgin). She’s the only one I have (here).”

‘Mexico is Guadalupe’

In Mexico, the story behind the Virgin of Guadalupe goes back nearly 500 years to Dec. 9, 1531, about a decade after the fall of the Aztec empire.

Juan Diego, an indigenous Mexican who’d recently converted to Catholicism, was walking across Tepeyac Hill (now in Mexico City) when a dark-skinned woman dressed like an Aztec princess appeared to him. Speaking in his native language, Nahuatl, she introduced herself as the Virgin Mary and instructed Diego to tell the local bishop to build a church on that hill in her honor.

At first, the bishop didn’t believe him and asked for proof, which the Virgin agreed to give in another appearance to Diego. On Dec. 12, she instructed him to gather Castilian roses — which weren’t native to Mexico — place them in his coat and deliver them to the bishop. Upon opening his cloak, the roses spilled out and an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe miraculously appeared on Diego’s cloak.

Recognizing the “miracle,” the bishop constructed a small shrine on Tepeyac Hill and later built a larger church below, known today as the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The original image still sits there today and draws millions of pilgrims each year.

For Mexican Catholics, the Virgin of Guadalupe isn’t just a religious icon; she’s ingrained into Mexico’s national identity, parishioners said. She’s mestiza — a mix of European and indigenous heritage, like many Mexicans — and appeared to a Mexican native, speaking his native tongue.

“There’s a great saying in Mexico that goes like this: ‘Mexico is Guadalupe, and Guadalupe is Mexico,’” Martinez said. “You can’t separate the two. When you meet the Mexican Catholic people, that’s when you understand that.”

“You can’t say it’s a tradition because it’s something stronger than that,” added Celia Rodriguez, 44, who came to Siler City from Guanajuato, Mexico. “It is what moves us, motivates us to survive the cold, to go through many things.”

St. Julia’s normal Feast Day celebrations embody this connection. Preparations — and even the celebration itself — often begin weeks before, Martinez said. Parishioners contribute money to cover the costs of mariachi bands; others contribute homemade Mexican food, like tacos and tamales.

The celebration typically starts in November, Martinez said, when they receive the “Antorcha,” or torch, from Mexico. About three weeks before Dec. 12, around 100 runners typically arrive by foot to St. Julia’s, carrying a torch lit with fire from the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, along with images of Juan Diego and the Virgin herself.

“The flame enters the United States and travels around to different parishes, and we are one of the parishes to receive them in the area,” Martinez said. “... So, we meet them here around (U.S.) 64, and then they are escorted here.”

Once it arrives, they usually have a mass and then throw a celebration with food, dancing and mariachi bands. They light a candle from the Antorcha, and then runners bring it to the next parish. On Dec. 12, it arrives in New York.

“What it represents is the immigrants, our roots or our ancestors,” said Jeronimo Prieto Medina, who’s from Oaxaca, Mexico. He and his family participate as runners. “That’s why they started doing this ... We’re trying to keep our culture, keep our beliefs, our religion going.”

“It’s a bit of home that comes to them,” Martinez added.

This year, the church accepted the Antorcha on Nov. 17, according to Martinez, though without its usual parade of runners. This year, he said, when the Antorcha reached the border, border guards did not allow Mexican runners to cross thanks to COVID-19, though they did allow in the images and the Antorcha.

“So we say that it’s wonderful that Our Lady of Guadalupe was able to come in without a visa,” he said with a laugh.

On Dec. 12, St. Julia usually begins “serenading” the Virgin into her Feast Day at 3:30 or 4 a.m., said Martinez, with a big mariachi band. People sing, dance and revere the Virgin’s image. Closer to dawn, they have a Mexican breakfast with hot chocolate. After, people go to work if the day falls during the week.

“Then for the big mass (at night), the church is usually packed and people are even outside the church because they just can’t fit,” he said. “The mariachis are there and the choirs from our churches also sing along. If the image enters the church, it will be accompanied by the dancers and drummers dressed in the indigenous clothing. ... It’s beautiful.”

And though parishioners said they wished they could have thrown a large celebration, many are also just happy to mark the occasion in some way.

“Through whatever way, method, either in the church or out here at our home, (it’s fine) as long as we get to celebrate her,” Claudia Martinez said.

“The faith moves us to wherever the Virgin is,” Perez Hernandez added. “That’s where we’ll be, too … We are always going to be with her.”

Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at victoria@chathamnr.com.

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