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Mexico kneels to its 'Little Virgin'

December 12, 2007 |  9:59 am

Every year, on the north side of Mexico City, a remarkable sight begins to materialize around mid-December. Thousands of worshipers of the Virgen de Guadalupe converge on the basilica named for her, an oasis of calm and spiritual contemplation in the heart of this restless metropolis.

They come by foot, subway, bus and car, from all parts of the republic. Some arrive on their knees, inching along the rough sidewalks in a gesture of contrition and devotion. Some carry children in their arms. Some pilgrims bear flowers, or paintings of the icon strapped to their backs. Mexicans revere their national heroes: Pancho Villa, Frida Kahlo, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz.

But by far the country's most beloved figure is the Virgen de Guadalupe, the dark-skinned, Mexican incarnation of the Virgin Mary, synthesized with the indigenous Aztec goddess Tonantzin. According to Roman Catholic belief, she first appeared as a vision to the Indian peasant (and, eventually, saint) Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin between Dec. 9 and Dec. 12, 1531, and spoke to him in the indigenous Nahuatl language.

Since then, her image has spread across the hemisphere, and she is worshiped as ardently in East Los Angeles as in Guadalajara, by Latinos and non-Latinos alike. But for the faithful, there is nothing quite like the ritual unfolding this week in Mexico City, where the Virgencita (little virgin) is making her annual procession before the powerful and the poor.

For those wanting a more strenuous pilgrimage, residents of Tilaco undertake a 250-mile torch relay to their town from Mexico City in veneration of the Virgen de Guadalupe.

— Reed Johnson in Mexico City