During my 1970s adolescence there were few famous Latina actresses or singers, like Jennifer Lopez or Salma Hayek, who made curves cool and Latinas fashionable. The first major image of Latina womanhood that I discovered was on a childhood road trip with my family to Mexico. She is the Virgin of Guadalupe and her feast day is celebrated every Dec. 12.
My mother, who is Tex-Mex, isn't the kind of woman who would light candles or keep a shrine to the Virgin in our home. She's more of an activist, and she and my father were part of a group that advocated for a Spanish-language mass at our first Catholic Church, St. James in Maywood, Ill. I didn't learn of the Virgin's importance until we visited the Basilica to the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City.
Thousands of people packed the pews of the new modern Basilica. People poured out into the plaza, where street vendors hawked everything from T-shirts to night lights and key chains with the image of the Virgin. Aztec dancers with shells on their ankles danced in a slow rhythmic chant. I gazed at men in bare feet and women with rebozos draped around the heads crawling on their knees to the Basilica. It looked painful to me.
"Mom," I asked. "What are they doing?"
"Giving thanks for a miracle," she said holding my hand.
As a young girl, I wondered if the Virgin could grant me a miracle too. Could she make me popular at school? Could she make my father less angry? Could she make my family rich?
We waited in a long line to see her miraculous image preserved on a cloth. There it was above us framed as if in a cloud of light. She first appeared in 1531 to Juan Diego, an indigenous man, who was canonized by the Pope in 2002. When I stood before her, I didn't ask for a miracle. I was just awed by her beauty and I felt a sense of peace. I connected to the Queen of the Americas when I saw my brown face reflected in hers.
As an adult I would go back to the Basilica several more times. I went back in 2001 when I was a staff reporter for the Chicago Tribune. I had the opportunity to spend four months in Mexico and report on a variety of stories. The Archdiocese of Mexico City wanted to clear the grounds of all unauthorized street vendors. This would hurt the livelihood of as many as 400 vendors, who run an informal market on the Basilica grounds.
I interviewed vendors, some whose families had sold religious memorabilia for three generations. A 65-year-old woman, Gloria Hernandez told me, "We're not hurting anybody. We're only trying to earn a few cents here."
When she was 3-years-old, she started helping her parents sell religious trinkets outside the Basilica. "They are treating us like we are criminals. But were are only merchants trying to make a living," she added.
So many livelihoods depend on the Virgin. Could she grant them a miracle too?
"Si Dios quiere," she told me. "If God is willing."
After I finished my interviews, I waited in line to get a glimpse of the famous image of the Virgin This time I asked her for help. I pleaded with her to help me to find a way to live in Mexico.
My great grandparents were born in Mexico and I have always been hungry to know more about the homeland of my ancestors. My paternal great grandfather left Coahuila, Mexico, in 1890 with his children and was among the first Mexican families to settle in Carrizo Springs, Texas. My paternal grandparents left San Luis Potosi in the 1920s.
Even though I was born and raised in Chicago, in my heart I still felt this connection to Mexico. It was a leap of faith that led me there.
This is an excerpt of a travel memoir I am writing called "My Pilgrimage in Mexico" about my life in Mexico from 2002 to 2006.