Oakland’s Catholics celebrate Our Lady of Guadalupe with a six-mile pilgrimage

The morning light came up around them by degrees. No one was still; there were shaking maracas, beating drums, last-minute adjustments to pieces larger than an Alexander McQueen headdress. They moved their bodies in Mayan tradition—dancing as a form of prayer.

They prayed aloud, with their eyes closed, the special reminder of the constant presence of the Virgin Mary. “No temas, no estoy yo aquí que soy tu Madre?” Fear not, for aren’t I here, I who am your Mother?

Then, for the nearly 2000 Catholic worshipers gathered at East Oakland’s St. Louis Bertrand Church Saturday morning, it was time to proceed.

Churchgoers, most of them Hispanic, rejoiced in Mexican custom for more than six miles to the Cathedral of Christ the Light, near Lake Merrit, for the sixth annual Guadalupe Diocesan Pilgrimage.  The walk honors Our Lady of Guadalupe, the December 1531 apparition of the Virgin Mary as a vision to a peasant later named St. Juan Diego. The Virgin, according to Mexican Catholic teaching, told Juan Diego “fear not…I am your mother” and asked him to build a church on the site where she appeared—a hill in the Tepeyac desert, near Mexico City. He went to the bishop, shared his vision, and was challenged to prove it. Mary then reappeared, the teaching continues, and in the dead of winter said, “Bring the roses behind you.” On December 12, the bishop watched as Diego unwrapped a cloak that was filled with roses, and showed an image of the woman who described herself as Guadalupe.

That date, December 12, still plays a central role in Mexican culture. Before the start of the Mexican Christmas season—known as Las Posadas, a nine-day celebration from December 16 through December 24—the faithful join together in pilgrimages. On the 12th, thousands travel to the Basílica of Guadalupe, in Mexico City, where the image of Guadalupe is kept.

“There have been studies on the [cloak’s] material,” said Rafael Palacios, a parishioner of Mary Help of Christians Church in East Oakland’s Jingletown, as he looked at an image of Guadalupe. “It’s something that can’t be explained another way.” Palacios, originally from Mexico, said he takes part in the pilgrimage every year. “I’m always moved when people look out of their windows as we march to the Sign of the Cross,” he said. “It may be the only time they feel the presence.”

The worshipers wore a blend of Hispanic, Aztec, and Native American fashions. They sang “Mi Virgen Bella,” and the traditional Mexican birthday song “Las Mañanitas,” directing it at the Miraculous Virgin. Several girls stood on rose-decorated trucks, portraying the Blessed Mother. Dancers throughout the pilgrimage moved in celebration, blowing conch shells and making costumes adorned with feathers sway.

Walkers came from all over the Bay Area, including Livermore, Fremont, Concord, Hayward, Antioch and San Jose. “I came because my cousins and family are taking part,” said Gina Guilleu, who lives in Brentwood. “This is my first time making it out.” Others who lived in neighborhoods nearby tried to make sense of the action. “What’s going on?” one woman said, comparing the clothes they wore to traditional African garb. “I thought somebody may have died or something,” she said.

Officers from the Oakland Police Department, who just weeks ago were dealing with the Occupy Oakland protests, were more relaxed now as they monitored the streets. “It [the pilgrimage] started from East Oakland,” an officer said. “Most of Occupy happened downtown and it wasn’t like this.”

During the pilgrimage people could buy chicharrones de harina, fried flour pastries, with the choice of hot sauce or lemon; elotes, Mexican  corn on the cob, with chili or Parmesan and mango; or cucumber and cantaloupe slices with chili powder. Freshly made drinks—tamarindo (a tropical fruit), horchata (rice), piña (pineapple), and jaimaica (hibiscus)—were a dollar a cup.

Throughout the day, individuals in the crowd would yell “Arriba Guadalupe!” and anyone near them would reply, “Arriba!”   About 25 Boy Scouts, including troop 505 from East Oakland’s Discovery Academy, took part in the pilgrimage.   Many of the young walkers carried signs: “Haces en todo la voluntad de Dios. ”  Do in all things the will of God.   “Has dejado que Jesus nazca tambien en tu Corazon?”  Have you let Jesus be born in your heart, too?

The labor some showed—one man carried a statue of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe on his back, a strap around his forehead anchoring the statue’s weight—is also a part of tradition. When Mexicans travel to the Basílica in their home country, most go on bikes, pedaling without ceasing—just as 1 Thessalonians 5:17 says one must pray without ceasing—and, upon reaching the sacred site, drop to their knees. Another group, the one that included Rafael Palacios, carried a glass-framed image of Guadalupe that stayed erect on a heavy slate of wood. “We all take turns holding our end,” Palacios said.

When the pilgrimage reached Lake Merritt, the day’s usual Saturday runners were caught off-guard, forced to jog in place or walk lest they became a part of the celebration. Parishioners then began to walk along the lake before reaching Cathedral of Christ the Light.

Inside the city’s new downtown cathedral, light poured in like an aurora borealis. “Arriba Guadalupe!” someone yelled, as a life-size portrait of Guadalupe was raised at the entrance door.

Arriba…Arriba…Arriba!” hundreds replied.  So many came that the cathedral opened up downstairs rooms, with loudspeakers rigged up, for the overflow.

Within moments, their hands began reaching into a pool of holy water for the commencement of a bilingual Mass. The portrait of Guadalupe was placed in front of the church’s main aisle.  The smell of incense—frankincense, myrrh, styrax, and copal—filled the air. Men fell to their knees.

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