They boarded beat-up buses, marched en masse on highways and byways and pedaled in from far-away provinces, arriving in Mexico City for the feast day of our Lady of Guadalupe — the dark-skinned virgin venerated by millions of Mexican and seen as a symbol of national identity.
Most have straightforward reasons for showing up at the world’s most visited Catholic shrine. “It’s more to give thanks than anything else,” offered student Diego Medina as to why he and two friends set out at 5 a.m. from Puebla state and slept on the sidewalk after arriving. Some simply stated, “Tradition,” for taking their trips. Some others said they fulfill promises made to the patroness by going to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe every year.
Mexico’s bishops, meanwhile, are calling on the country’s Catholics to turn this December 12 into a day of prayer, as outrage still stirs over the 43 Iguala students allegedly kidnapped by corrupt cops, turned over to organized crime and probably killed.
“Peace has to be a social construction that involves justice, truth and reconciliation,” Archbishop Carlos Garfías Merlos of Acapulco said in a statement posted on the Mexican bishops’ conference website.
Peace is a word that resounds loudly in this year’s celebration of the Mexican virgin. However, many here are reluctant to have the centenary tradition of thanksgiving and devotion tainted with the unpleasant realities of a country caught up in widespread crime and corruption.
Even those from the violence-ridden Guerrero state, where the students went missing back in September, said crises do little to dissuade their devotion or interest in celebrating.
“We come here every year, even if there’s a crisis,” said Luis Romero, who joined 90 pilgrims planning to run 190 miles back to their hometown.
December 12, most agree, is a date to put aside problems and focus in parish and community celebrations.
“December 12 is a show of affection for Our Lady of Guadalupe,” said Father Mario Campos, a priest in the impoverished La Montaña region of Guerrero. “In spite of the pain people are feeling, it won’t stop them from celebrating Guadalupe.”
Others say it's the Mexican mentality to not let circumstances ruin their celebrations.
“It could be the Apocalypse and Mexicans would still continue with their fiestas,” said Ilán Semo, professor at the Jesuit-run Iberoamerican University.
Catholics believe Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared before an indigenous farmer, now St. Juan Diego, in 1531 at the Hill of Tepeyac, in what today is the northern part of Mexico City. This devotion is credited with converting millions to Christianity, though it wasn’t especially popular with church officials in the first few centuries.
According to a telephone poll released earlier this month, 65.7 percent of people surveyed across the country said they consider Our Lady of Guadalupe to be “very miraculous.” The poll, conducted by Gabinete de Comunicación Estratégica, also found that 49.4 percent of respondents said they’re “used to” attending a parish on Dec. 12, while 6.6 percent said the same about going all the way to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Approximately 7 million of pilgrims are expected to converge at the Basilica this year, according to local government officials.
Interestingly, many Mexicans who say do not profess Catholicism call themselves “Guadalupanos,” or followers of Guadalupe. Her image is seen on everything from bumper stickers to lottery tickets, and workers across the spectrum – from clowns to mariachis to informal vendors – typically get organized and make annual pilgrimages.
Even after 483 years, “the devotion continues being very intense,” Semo said. “It's a (figure) that's not identified with the state or elites, but rather the people.”