December 12 is a day of celebration for Mexican Catholics: we mark the appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe in 1531 on a Mexico City hilltop. Each morning on this holiday, Mexicans crowd churches at dawn, singing to the patron saint of the Americas. In Mexico City, where her church is built next to Tepeyac Hill, over two million people will gather throughout the day.
Almost five hundred years ago, Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to a Mexican indian named Juan Diego. She asked him to convince the bishop that a church be constructed in her name. As evidence of her appearance, roses miraculously grew in December. The indian harvested the flowers and carried them away. When Juan Diego released the roses at the bishop’s feet, an image of Our Lady remained on his apron.
That image still exists. Scientists challenged its authenticity without success. For Mexican Catholics, Our Lady of Guadalupe remains the symbol of unending faith, cultural pride, and religious identity. Chicana artists create contemporary images as liberation and praise. Yolanda López painted the image in this post.
It is our tradition, when she intervenes on our behalf, to leave candles and roses as ofrendas at her feet. Six years ago, a version of this essay aired on National Public Radio as my offering of thanks.
On this December 12, during the mañanitas, again I offer up my work, my writing, with gratitude for my mother’s health and my sister’s survival, as well as with hope for all the women who fought and keep fighting cancer–especially for those who cannot afford better health care.
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I stopped believing in the Catholic Church for a few years. But I never stopped believing in Our Lady of Guadalupe. She’s separate from scandal. She’s brown, humble. And unlike the other saints who stare blankly past people requesting intervention at their plaster feet, La Virgen never looks away. She has unwrinkled eyelids and black lashes.
Her original cloth image is enclosed behind bullet-proof glass in Mexico City. It’s surrounded by as much gold as the controversy of her origin. Every December 12, millions of Mexican Catholics serenade her and buy roses in her name. Catholics worldwide recognize her as the patron saint of the Americas.
At sixteen, I saw her in the basilica on Tepeyac Hill. People made their way down the long aisle on their knees. Worshipers around me whispered in appreciation. My grandmother was upstairs praying in a pew. I stared at the image trying to figure out what to say and what to do.
But when my mother was diagnosed with cancer in 2005, I knew exactly what to ask for when I knelt in front of La Virgen at St. Pius Church.
My son and I were with my mother when she found out. I held her hands. The same hands I have. The hands my son inherited. When the doctor spoke, my mom folded over like a finger. I searched for every way to assure her that cancer is surmountable.
I went with her to every doctor’s visit. I stood behind the curtain while the doctor examined her. I respected her privacy but never left her all alone. Six years later, my mother is strong. And I keep praying for her health.
La Virgen has the power to unite people in a crisis. She was an organizing force behind the farm workers, along with Cesar Chávez. She brings together educated Chicanas who might be skeptical about the Church, but never doubt the power of a brown-faced pregnant saint. La Virgen is the single Mexican woman powerful enough to pull a European Pope across an ocean.
Like La Virgen, my mother taught us to unite during desperate times. That year, each person in my family joined my mother in her fight. My youngest brother engaged her in heart-to-heart conversations. My sister, the leukemia survivor, took my mom on trips to flea markets. My other brother didn’t talk about it so my mom could focus on what was good. My father made her oatmeal to make sure she ate.
That’s my mother’s quiet influence. Throughout her life, she teaches us to overcome controversy, desperation, and doubt.
La Virgen does the same. I see her now in alley murals, on concrete walls, ID bracelets, gold charms. I recognize the influence of her existence. La Virgen is one woman who changed a continent’s perspective simply by existing.
That summer, my mom inspired us to take a Sunday drive. We filled two vans and two cars and drove to the outdoor shrine for Our Lady of Guadalupe in Des Plaines.
Underneath the sun, my mom stood before the image trying not to cry. My father ambled next to her. Then my siblings and I accompanied by our spouses and the grandchildren. Now there are twelve. Huddling around our mother, asking for intervention of immeasurable worth, we all prayed silently. Together, we all stood resolutely—like roses.