For the faithful, the pilgrimage to the Virgin of Juquila begins at the Cerro de Pedimiento, the Asking Hill. Nestled by the pine-forested mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico, the pilgrims pedir, or ask, the Virgin for a favor and give thanks for one granted.
From the brown earth they make clay figures of their petition. A young woman, Natividad Rojas, 21, makes a clay baby for her sister. "A girl," she prays. She has faith the Virgin will help her again. The year before, Natividad asked the Virgin for a baby for her sister-in-law in Los Angeles, and she delivered one within the year.
A young man, Luis Garcia, 20, gives thanks to the Virgin. He says his mother had inoperable breast cancer but after he prayed to the Virgin last year, his mother was healed. "The Virgincita gave us a miracle," he says. Like many of the faithful, Luis walked six days in a pilgrimage to this image of the black Virgin Mary, who is celebrated each year in the mountain village of Santa Catarina Juquila, Oaxaca on December 8, the feast day of the Immaculate Conception.
Scattered on the hill are small figurines that represent what the pilgrims believe the Virgin can provide, from cars to cures for illnesses. After the faithful make their petitions, they take the mud and spread it on their faces as a testament to their faith.
I have traveled more than 20 hours and on three different buses from my apartment in Guadalajara to Oaxaca, stopping in Mexico City to pick up my sister Sylvia, who flew in from our hometown of Chicago. As we walk through the throngs of pilgrims in Santa Catarina Juquila, my sister and I join the sea of brown and black faces, mestizo and indigenous peoples, who have come to pay their respects to the black Virgin.
Teresa Puente is an assistant professor o f journalism at Columbia College Chicago and writes the blog Chicanisima on Latino politics and culture at ChicagoNow.com.
In black pants and jean jackets, we stand out from the indigenous women in their brightly colored skirts and rebozos, shawls. No English is spoken here, and even less Spanish. The melodic strains of Zapotec blend with Mixtec, two of the 12 languages spoken by 1 million indigenous who live in Oaxaca.
I have lived in Mexico for four years and have traveled to more than 25 religious shrines here, from Oaxaca in the south up to the U.S.-Mexico border city of Tijuana. Although I grew up in a Catholic family and attended Catholic elementary school in a Chicago suburb, I drifted away from the Catholic Church in the United States. I was put off by what I perceived to be a strict and cold religious upbringing in the upper-middleclass, mostly white church where my family was an ethnic minority. I never felt like I belonged.
In Mexico I welcome the way faith is celebrated in the streets with processions and offerings like the one in Oaxaca. Faith is more openly expressed in Mexico in a way I didn't experience in my church growing up. It is certainly more maternal, with the iconic Virgin of Guadalupe found at roadside shrines, in bus stations and supermarkets, and in nearly every Mexican home.
Even though my family migrated from Mexico more than 100 years ago, going back feels like going home. And I feel most welcome visiting shrines and attending processions where faith is celebrated by entire villages.
At the Asking Hill, three miles outside of town, two lines stretch for a mile. Behind us in the line is Apolonio Martinez Garcia, 51, a Zapotec man from Asuncion, Oaxaca. My sister and I tell him that we are from Chicago, and he speaks to us in English. He has been working seasonally as an irrigation specialist on a farm in Butte, Montana for the last 13 years.
"I'm a U.S. citizen now," Apolonio says proudly. "But I still am a Mexican."
He was granted amnesty after the Immigration Reform and Control Act was passed in 1986, and he eventually became a U. …