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Despite challenges, Mexico’s devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe is unwavering

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Joanna van der Gracht de Rosado
Joanna van der Gracht de Rosado is a writer, artist and educator from British Columbia, Canada. She has lived in Merida, Yucatan, since 1976, where she co-founded the TTT school and raised two children. Joanna blogs at Changes In Our Lives.

Mérida is an extremely social city, and despite continuing COVID worries, Guadalupe-Reyes is the most intensely social period of the year.

In fact, there is non-stop celebrating, as one special date rolls into the next – so to keep the description short, Mexicans refer to the holiday season as Guadalupe-Reyes.

Guadalupe-Reyes encompasses the time between the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12 and the Feast of the Three Wise Men on Jan. 6.

Images of the Virgen de Guadalupe are ubiquitous across Mexico. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

In Mexico, many holidays are commemorated the night before the actual festivity. For example, the Independence of Mexico on Sep. 16, is celebrated on the night of Sep. 15. In keeping with this practice, family fiestas for Christmas are held on Christmas Eve. In fact, a lot of people stay up until dawn and then sleep most of Christmas Day.

Dec. 12 is the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. But it is on the night of Dec. 11 that the most important observances are held.

A little girl wears a homemade poncho with the image our the Virgen de Guadalupe. Photo: Joanna Rosado van der Gracht

The Virgin of Guadalupe is more than a religious icon. Many feel she is the spiritual mother of all Mexicans. In Mexico City, there is a Basilica and it is the second-most visited Catholic shrine in the world after the Vatican in Rome.

Inaugurated in 1976, the new Basilica de Guadalupe was built adjacent to the original to better accommodate the millions of believers who visit every year. Photo: Wikimedia Foundation

Roman Catholics believe that Our Lady of Guadalupe has powers of intercession with her son and that she can persuade him to grant special favors. They pray to Guadalupe for miracles and often they add promises they imagine will strengthen their pleas. The most common of these promises is to participate in a relay run from their neighborhood, village, or town to the nearest church dedicated to the Virgen de Guadalupe. 

Mérida’s Church of San Cristobal, the main temple of worship in the city to the Virgen de Guadalupe. Photo: Wikimedia Foundation

In Mérida, this is the Church of San Cristobal, located on the corner of Calle 50 and 69. Believers pray for help when a relative is ill, for the safe birth of a child, for the success of a job application, or for a salary raise. They believe that public displays of faith and thanksgiving are pleasing to Guadalupe. Theirs is an uncomplicated faith. They don’t ask a lot of theological questions — they simply believe.  

Many of the faithful old and young, fit and not-at-all-fit participate in the relay runs in whatever way they can. They are called antorchistas because the youth leading the group run while carrying a lit torch – una antorcha – aloft while they run. Eventually, they tire and pass it on to the next runner. The torch is never allowed to burn out. Some participants ride bicycles and the elderly are carried in vehicles such as pick-ups and flat-bed delivery trucks. They are adorned with depictions of La Virgen, balloons and streamers. The whole distance, which can be quite far, the participants sing and pray the rosary.

A group of exhausted but beaming young men from Tizimin after a three-week trip on foot to the Basilica of the Virgen de Guadalupe. Photo: Joanna van der Gracht de Rosado

The antorchistas try to time their arrival in San Cristobal with the start of a mass that runs non-stop all day and night. These antorchistas are exhausted when they roll in but elated for having kept their promise. After attending mass, they find a corner on the sidewalk and spread out blankets. There they sleep on the cold cement for the night of the reaffirmation of their faith.

Antorchistas can be seen on bicycles, adorned with flags and images of the Virgen. They are also often used to carry images or idols of the blessed mother while the rest of the troop proceeds on foot. Photo: Joanna van der Gracht de Rosado

It is very moving to witness the devotion to a faith that sustains them through trial after trial. Last year because of the pandemic, there were no antorchistas arriving in San Cristobal with tears of joy running from their tired eyes. Yet another casualty of the pandemic.

A packed service at San Cristobal Church, obviously before the outbreak of the pandemic. Photo: Joanna van der Gracht de Rosado

Church officials are urging their parishioners to attend mass in their own churches again this year. The faithful are not at all happy with this. Some groups will do a mini-relay by running laps around the periphery of their hometown. Others will try to run along the highways that lead from their town to Mérida.

Group of young antorchistas on their way to Mexico City back in 2012. Photo: Joanna van der Gracht de Rosado
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