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Marian shrines

The widespread feast of Morenita

The basilicas on the Tepeyac mountain, near Mexico City (Wikimedia Commons)
28 November 2020

On December 12, an empty basilica in Mexico City

There is no single, dominant color, instead there’s an explosion of color variations, millions of petals lying on top of each other, there at the feet of the Morenita. Throughout the month of November, the faithful go to the Tepeyac bringing floral gifts and candles, often in the name of distant relatives and friends, as suggested in an Internet video-message from the rector of the basilica, Salvador Martínez Ávila. The staff treat the flowers in such a way as to preserve them for the Noche guadalupana event.  This is when the floor of the temple is transformed into an enormous carpet of petals. To stem the risk of contagion, this year it is empty and without liturgical moments, as decided by the Mexican Episcopal Conference. The light of the candles brought by the devotees illuminates the darkness. Outside is in silence. The traditional birthday songs -the mañanitas-, do not resonate until dawn the next day for the esplanade. Their melody, however, spreads from house to house from PCs and, above all, from mobile phones. While the artistic event has moved onto the Net, the need for actual presence is satisfied by the altars, which were set up weeks in advance on the kitchen shelves, in the living rooms, on the street corners, at the entrance of the stores, next to the inevitable image of the “Brown Virgin”. The Coronavirus pandemic has not cancelled the great celebration of Our Lord of Guadalupe which, every year, on the December 11 and 12, brings ten million Catholics to the Basilica of the same name in Mexico City. The feast has “spread” throughout the entire country and Continent, scourged by the pandemic and even more in need of the “Mother’s” comfort. This is the same one that wiped away the tears of the indigenous Juan Diego, who is distressed for his dying uncle. “Am I not here, I who have the honor of being your Mother?”, said the dark-skinned visibly pregnant Lady with her native features, one morning 489 years ago. That gesture of incarnate love imprinted itself onto the skin of the Continent. Like the face and body of the Virgin on Juan Diego’s tiara, cloak, every year, forty million people go to the basilica where she is kept to worship her. With her nonviolent and welcoming “sortie”, and accomplished at the most dramatic moment of the discovery-conquest in 1531, -shortly after the exploits of Hernán Cortés-, Mary offered a chance for an “evangelical” encounter with the other. An “other” who is all too easily considered alien, rather than brother, and with whom in a dramatic and exciting way, European civilization was called upon to reckon with. As the philosopher Amelia Podetti affirms, the irruption of America represents the “birth of the world in its totality”, yet it was the Virgin of Guadalupe who accompanied the pregnancy of this land and, by reflection, of the rest of the globe. While the swords and diseases carried by the invaders decimated the native peoples and their culture, the Morenita assumed their flesh, embracing the New World in all its complexity, to lead it to fullness through the encounter with her Son, whom she carried in her womb. The devotion of Guadeloupians is much more than an expression, in fact, perhaps it is the most emblematic of popular Latin American mysticism.  Here, the mystery sinks into the very bowels of the immense region between the Rio Bravo and Tierra del Fuego. The Virgin’s brown face is the spiritual map of her people. Therefore, it is not surprising that five centuries later in Latin America - the epicenter of the pandemic, where the greatest number of victims have been claimed -, seeks that same close-knit mercy to move forward.

This culminated at Easter when, at 12 o’clock in Mexico, the heart of the Continent beat in unison as the bishops of the different nations - connected over the Internet - consecrated the Continent in the midst of the Coronavirus emergency to the Morenita. Once again, the women and men of America are using all their creativity to return to Her, in this anomalous December, without pilgrimages and crowds of people. Again, amidst the technology and the adapted traditions, Mary seems to come to them, repeating the words she said to Juan Diego: “Am I not here, I who have the honor of being your Mother?”.

by Lucia Capuzzi