Procession of the Virgen

San Felipe, Baja, Mexico

She first allegedly appeared on Tepeyac Hill near Mexico City nearly five centuries ago, on Dec. 12, 1531. Now she appears yearly in almost every city, town, village and hamlet in Mexico in the form of paintings, statues or living representatives during the December processions and pilgrimages commemorating the legendary encounter between the Virgen de Guadalupe and the Indian Juan Diego all those years ago.

Her image has become iconic, revered by the entire country. Several armies fighting in Mexico have used it as their symbol. Miguel Hidalgo in the Mexican War of Independence and Emiliano Zapata during the Mexican Revolution carried flags bearing the image of this icon. The first Mexican president changed his name to honor the symbol.

The enormous basilica of Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe in Mexico City is the reliquary that enshrines the famous relic. Yearly, over ten million pilgrims come to venerate the tilma (or apron) of Juan Diego, which shows the icon of Our Lady of Guadalupe, making the basilica the second most visited Catholic site in the world, next to the Vatican.

Its location, on the hill of Tepeyac, was a place of great sanctity long before the arrival of the Spanish in the New World. In pre-Hispanic times, Tepeyac had been the site of a temple dedicated to an Earth and fertility goddess called Tonantzin. Her full Aztec name, Tonantzin Tlalli, means "Our Revered Mother Earth." Tonantzin is believed to be a manifestation of the Earth Mother, known as Coatlicue, the mother of all living things, who was conceived by immaculate and miraculous means. She was also the one who decided the length of life. To the Mexica, the earth was both mother and tomb, the giver of life and the devourer. Human sacrifice and harsh physical penance were used to appease this goddess. Tonantzin, or Little Mother, patron of childbirth, had a devout following. The Aztecs mourned their goddess and felt threatened and endangered by the profanation and razing of her temple by the Spaniards.

Viewing this extraordinary yearly pageant, it's difficult to separate what is Christian and what is indigenous in the rituals being performed. Nuestra Senora

Click the first image for a Slide Show

de Guadalupe is Mexico's patron saint, and her image adorns churches and altars, house fronts and interiors, taxis and buses, bull rings and gambling dens, restaurants and houses of ill repute. The basilica of Guadalupe is a place of extraordinary vitality and celebration. On major festival days, such as the anniversary of the apparition on December 12th, the atmosphere of devotion created by the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims is truly electrifying.

This year in San Felipe, 2009, the annual procession of Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe changed its habitual format and replaced a lifeless icon of past years with a living child dressed as the Virgen. The small passion play moved slowly along Av. Chetumal on its way to la Capilla, which houses the venerative candles and icon of the Virgen.