At times, it feels like all Mexico is on the move, streaming toward the Basilica as if magnetised, disheveled, defiant, on knees bent and shoes scuffed from miles and miles of trudging along unforgiving concrete. For this will be a celebration, the “Dia de la Virgen de Guadalupe,” patron saint of Mexico, and these are the true believers, the “peregrinos.”
They come for many different reasons, profound and personal, to find something, to forget something, or to fulfill their “manda,” solemn promises made in public or in private. One wish unifies them all, that they on this day can claim a place close to Guadalupe, who embodies at once the Christian Virgin Mary, the Aztec earth goddess Tonantzin, and everything else that is seen to be good and miraculous in this vast, complicated country.
From Puebla, from Hidalgo, from far-flung states or the outskirts of the Distrito Federal, from tiny towns and devout congregations, every year “peregrinos” save up to make this pilgrimage of faith, in groups, small or large, in trucks and buses and many on foot, in the traditional way.
They come alone, they come with friends - working men, teenagers, grandmothers, and householders with babies in tow, carrying the most remarkable things strapped to worn backpacks: huge portraits of the Virgin in green and gold, thirty-pound statues, rosaries and figurines, crosses of dark wood and shiny metal, elaborate altars in boxes made of glass.
But mostly they walk, steadily putting one foot in front of another, shuffling along with determination and pride in their faces, one and all with awkward bundles tied with string, filled with blankets, bandages, tortillas and tamales. As they approach their goal, some collapse with exhaustion and some, from a place deep inside, find renewed energy at the end.
For Miguel Benancio Cepeda, and his wife Maria, from San Miguel Canoa in Puebla, their third journey is to give thanks, and to ask that the baby Maria is carrying be blessed. After three days of walking from five in the morning till ten at night, they were within sight of the Basilica.
Fifty-one year old Jose Luis Gomez Pereira made a “manda secreta,” a secret promise to the Virgin, and when his friends didn't come with the horses, he came anyway, staying here in the city without any money. Thanks to local volunteers like Israel Aguilera, who works with twenty families to provide free food and drink for the pilgrims, Jose Luis and many others can show their devotion knowing help will always be there.
In 1531, the farmer Juan Diego's vision of a young woman atop a hill in Tepeyac gave birth to an enduring legend. To build the church she asked for, the Catholic bishop needed proof. Surely in the journey of millions to this huge square, which today encompasses the original sanctuary with its beautiful gardens and a sweeping new basilica, there is proof and more that faith in her existence was justified.
Both the city and the church provide ample support for these pilgrimages. There are medics, lost and found services, meeting places, and plenty of personnel for information and security. The center walkway of the “Calzada de Guadalupe,” a main route, is made smooth to assuage the knees, and near the Basilica, the vista widens, and the path turns to marble, shiny now in pain and pride.
But despite the crowds, the community of it, these are individual journeys, made of heart, soul, and something indefinable that links pilgrims of faith around the world. In the will to put one foot in front of another, day after day, every one of these people has to meet their measure and make it greater.
For forty-five year-old Norma Campo Trejo, on her fifth pilgrimage from Chalco, Estado de Mexico, it is a “manda” she has made for the health of her mother. On her knees, and blindfolded, she is within a few hundred yards of her goal. She does it this way so she cannot know where along the road she is, confident in her devotion and the strength that wells from within.
Jay Dunn, Mexico City, December 12th, 2011
A sincere thanks is given here to Andrea Fernandez, whose gracious help was essential to this story