In the ever-evolving city of Los Angeles, some traditions never fade. This Sunday, just like every year around this date for the last eighty-seven, thousands of faithful descended on Cesar Chavez Boulevard to witness the oldest religious procession in the metropolis and to renew their devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe.
The festive event, marked by a mile-long procession with dozens of traditional "matachines" (dancers), floats and music, ended in a special Mass celebrated with thousands at the East Los Angeles College Stadium, led by the Archbishop José H. Gómez.
Among the many faithful lining up the streets, walking, making penitence or participating in the Eucharist was Leovigilda Aldaba. She is now in her seventies, but since she arrived in Los Angeles 40 years ago, she’s never missed the yearly procession honoring "La Morenita.”
"It’s my father’s heritage,” she tells Angelus, standing right on the corner where the procession was to start shortly after. "I grew up in Zacatecas, México and when I was little, my father became very ill and had to get surgery. He promised the Virgin that he would keep her vigil every year on December 12.”
To keep the children awake, they would get them to make "buñuelos" -deep fried fritters covered in cinnamon and sugar, typical of the holidays-. In her house, there was a whole room for the Virgin.
"Nobody slept there, it was a room that belonged to her, and when I set out to come to the United States in 1978, my dad entrusted me to her in that room," said "Leo," who believes that this is the reason she never had problems crossing "the line" at the border.
The day of the Virgin the Guadalupe is December 12, but December 9 is the Feast Day of St. Juan Diego, to whom the Virgin appeared to miraculously in this day in 1531.
The procession in East LA started at 10:30 sharp. The first group to march included sixty youngsters from the St. Michael Parish, carrying flags from sixty countries in the world to signify unity and diversity. Then came the floats, adorned with fruits, flowers the image of "La Morenita" and San Juan Diego, or with singing angels, maguey plants, roses, vegetables and ribbons in many colors.
The faithful lined up along the main boulevard eating fruit with chile, drinking café de olla and champurrado, waiting and praying. They were young and old, often all members of a family came together.
Some came alone. A young man, wearing a Virgin of Guadalupe jacket and a medal with her image stood in silence, watching the procession with a grave face. He had something in his mind and heart.
"I pray to her for immigration reform,” Marcos Trujillo, 39, said. "It’s necessary so many of us can have a more dignified and secure life, a life with no fear, that doesn’t require us to stay trapped inside a country and we can leave and visit family back home".
It´s a very specific request and one that many immigrants are likely to be thinking about more nowadays.
Still, "La Morenita" is not exclusive to the Mexican faithful. Leticia Flores, a Guatemalan mother and grandmother stood with two friends and then followed the procession into the East Los Angeles College Stadium to be part of the mass.
In Guatemala, her mother instilled in her the love for "La Guadalupana.”
"My mother was very devoted to her, I had an aunt named Guadalupe," Flores says. "My 38-year-old daughter and son-in-law have a very large Virgin in their home. I personally always have her in my heart.”
The Virgin of Guadalupe is the Patroness of Mexico and the Americas. But also, of the city of Ponce, in Puerto Rico. "It’s our mother, the mother of all,” said Berta Arroyo. "We ask her for everything we need, and she listens to us.”
As thousands of people streamed into the East Los Angeles College Stadium, where the special Mass was to be celebrated by Archbishop Gomez, others stopped to get a bite from the vendors that lined the streets outside and inside serving churros, fruit and homemade tamales.
Inside, Father Armando Lopez explained to the crowd finding their seats for the Mass that his own grandfather belonged to the "Cristeros"--the rebels who took up arms almost one hundred years ago in Mexico to preserve religious freedom.
"It’s in our blood,” he said. "Many Cristeros came from México to Los Angeles and they started this event. Today, we continue this tradition.”
The Mass was preceded by mariachi music and a performance of "Ave María" by Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Brennan, episcopal vicar for the San Fernando Pastoral Region.
In his homily, Archbishop Gomez began by thanking the Virgin for sending some clouds to block the full sun inside the roofless stadium. But he wasted little time in reminding the faithful of the need for her help in the midst of close-to-home topics like the caravan of Central American refugees and the "failure" of the government to pass immigration reform and to address the situation of “Dreamers.”
“This is a year where our community has seen wildfires and mass shootings, and in the Church, we have seen the sadness of scandal,” he said. “Sometimes we have many reasons for tears, but God is our heavenly father and our Blessed Mother, our Lady of Guadalupe, is always with us.”