Joyful Mysteries: After Visiting the Virgin of Juquila in Oaxaca, Mexico, an American Pilgrim Finds the Church Family She's Never Known

By Puente, Teresa | U.S. Catholic, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Joyful Mysteries: After Visiting the Virgin of Juquila in Oaxaca, Mexico, an American Pilgrim Finds the Church Family She's Never Known


Puente, Teresa, U.S. Catholic


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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.

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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.

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"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.S. citizen in July 2004. He lives in Montana in the spring and summer months, leaving behind his wife and their 11 children. The youngest child is only 4 and the oldest is 32.

Apolonio credits the Virgin of Juquila with all the good fortune he has found in the United States. With his hard-earned dollars he has built a humble home, bought a pickup truck and tractor, and sent his daughters to elementary school. He has made an annual pilgrimage to the Virgin since the 1970s. His petitions this year are simple: for mas vida (more life) and mas para mis hijos (more for my children).

"God gave her power to make miracles," he says. "All the things I have asked for I have received from the will of God and the force of the Virgin. I hope the Virgin will give me another 50 years of life."

As my sister walks off to make her own offering, I follow Apolonio and his wife, accompanied by their three youngest daughters. We sit on the hillside, the lush green mountains of Oaxaca in the distance.

Then the mother asks me a question. "Do you know what it means to be a madrina?"

"Yes, I know what the word means," I say. It means godmother, I think to myself.

Then the wife turns to her husband and they have a conversation in Zapotec, a rush of consonants that I can make no sense of. I wonder what they could be talking about, and a few minutes later I find out. "She wants you to be the godmother to our daughters," he tells me.

"Haven't they already been baptized?" I ask in Spanish. "What kind of madrina?"

"A madrina of the rosary," Apolonio explains, asking me to buy three rosaries for each of the girls.

It's quite common in Mexico to have madrinas or padrinos as sponsors. They donate the cake, the music, the dress for a young woman's quinceanera. It's a way for friends and relatives to help a young woman or couple through an important life event. Though I wonder why they would want me as a madrina, I decide it doesn't matter. The Virgin of Juquila was giving me a chance to help three little girls. I say yes.

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I only prayed the rosary as a child after confession in Catholic school. But on my visits to shrines and churches around Mexico I hear women pray it. The words in Spanish hold more meaning for me now, as if that is the language that I should pray in.

Dios te salve Maria, llena eres de Gracia, El Senor es contigo, bendita Tu eres entre todas las mujeres, y bendito es el fruto de tu vientre, Jesus.

Santa Maria Madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros los pecadores, ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte. Amen.

A few months before this trip I visited another shrine to the Virgin of Talpa in Jalisco, Mexico, where I purchased a rosary. I took a walk up a hill for a view of the town and sat on a bench. There were women seated near me praying the rosary, and I quietly prayed with them. It was the first time I said the rosary since elementary school. And here I am being given a chance to encourage several young children to pray it as well.

In town my sister and I go rosary shopping. I walk past booth after booth looking for the right ones. I pick a finely threaded white rosary, for innocence. I find a wooden one, for strength, and a pink stone one, for hope. I buy one of each for the three girls.

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The next day we arrive at the church to meet the family at 11 a.m. sharp, as planned. The sun is blazing down and a group of dancers perform outside the church, reenacting the conquest with Indians battling the Spaniards. Soon it is 11:30 and the family isn't in sight.

Has something happened to them? They don't have a hotel room and sleep in their truck. Maybe there isn't a clock nearby. Maybe they've changed their minds. I am about to give up when they show up a few minutes before noon. With them are another woman and her grandson. She asks me to be the madrina to the little boy, too. His father is working somewhere in Indiana. She doesn't even know the name of the town. How can I say no?

I run off to buy more rosaries at the street market. We go to an open plaza behind the church where a makeshift stage is set up and squeeze in next to 100 people waiting before the stage. They clutch rosaries, photos, and candles. A priest goes up on the stage and blesses the religious objects of the pilgrims with holy water.

The priest invites everyone to come up on the stage, where there is another replica of the Virgin. I walk up with the four children. They kneel down and I also get down on my knees. I light a candle for each of the children. One by one, I give them the rosaries and tell them what they symbolize to me. "This one is for hope. This one is for strength. And this one is for innocence." The girls--Eva, 4; Rosalia, 6; and Carmela, 8--smile back at me, and I accept them as my goddaughters. The boy--Raul, 10--leans in to hug me, and I think of my godson back home in Chicago.

Afterward I pose for a picture with the family. We walk back to the church and say our goodbyes. I wonder what the children's future will bring, if they will eventually migrate to the United States or stay in the small village. I hope the rosaries I gave them will lift their spirits and nurture their faith as they have touched my heart. I say goodbye to my Zapotec Indian godchildren and ask the Virgin of Juquila to watch over them.

RELATED ARTICLE: Who's that lady?

The Black Virgin is a statue of the Virgin Mary that was brought to the village of Santa Catarina Juquila in the 16th century by a priest. In 1633 a fire burned most of the houses in the village and the roof of the chapel where this statue was housed. She was not destroyed--not even her robes were singed--but her face was permanently darkened by the smoke.

The local priests considered her survival miraculous, and soon the devotion to this image of the Virgin Mary grew. Her image has been replicated in photos and statues as a black virgin. Tens of thousands of Mexicans embark on a pilgrimage to the small town starting in late November.

Many of the groups we met walked six to eight hours a day up mountain roads, and bike riders made 40-hour journeys. Several of the faithful carry 2-foot-long crosses or framed pictures of the Virgin strapped to their backs. The tiring and arduous journey is an offering they make for the Virgin.

The original statue of the black Virgin is kept in a glass case behind the altar in a beige colonial church. She is about 12 inches tall and clothed in a white gown with golden trim. Her yards-long veil extends behind the altar like a parachute.

All the pews have been removed from the church, and people crawl toward the altar on their knees. They hold candles, calla lilies, and children in their arms. Some women cry as they pray, expressions of the intensity of their faith. I wonder why they hold this Virgin so dear. Is it because they see themselves reflected in this dark-skinned Madonna?

story and photos by Teresa Puente

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