A walk of faith

Published 3:31 pm Saturday, December 13, 2008

By Staff
Pilgrims celebrateVirgin of Guadalupewith march, service
Staff Writer
Just after 10 p.m. Thursday, about 100 Latinos, mostly Mexican immigrants, walked double-file on North Market Street.
They had a police escort. They repeatedly shouted “Viva!”
Viva roughly translates as “long live.”
Long live the mother of God.
Residents of the largely black neighborhood through which the procession passed stood on porches to watch the marchers. One or two residents responded with a brief, tentative chant of “Yes, we can!”
The pilgrims had walked more than three hours after starting on U.S. Highway 264, just over the Pitt County line, near Poorman’s Flea Market.
Drenching rains had doused them intermittently, and, as a result, much of their hike had been through the mud and puddles along the road’s shoulder.
The number of pilgrims who turned out for the trek was roughly half the number who had planned to participate, before the weather turned sour, said Everardo Machado, who organized the march.
Machado said he introduced the walk, which started with just one other participant, four years ago. In his native Mexico, he walked eight days to mark the holiday, Machado said.
Father M. Arturo Cabra, in an interview Friday, said the tradition of pilgrimage traces its roots to pre-modern Europe, where pilgrims faced dangers including disease and robbers to journey to saints’ relics. Relics are objects — including body parts — associated with saints.
Pilgrims pay homage to saints and are brought closer to God, said Cabra, pastor of Mother of Mercy Catholic Church in Washington.
Cabra said the physical journey is a metaphor for a spiritual journey: “We need to leave wherever sin has taken us and come back to God.”
By the time the pilgrims reached North Market Street, they were almost to their goal, Mother of Mercy Catholic Church on Ninth Street. They had stopped to rest and stopped to sing, but the big celebration was still ahead.
When they reached the church, they fell briefly to their knees as they entered. It was a gesture of invocation, asking the Virgin of Guadalupe to grant their prayers.
The Virgin Mary, important to Catholicism in general, is especially revered in Latin America. In some places, her celebration is the biggest occasion of the holiday season.
Mary is believed to have appeared many times in the region, and celebrations are often timed to the anniversaries of appearances in each region, Cabra said. In Mexico, by far the most revered is the Virgin of Guadalupe, who is honored from Dec. 9 to Dec. 12.
The faithful believe the Virgin Mary appeared in 1531 to an Indian, giving him miraculous signs, including flowers when none should grow and an image that appeared on his poncho.
Cabra said that the Virgin of Guadalupe is shown with child, and that by honoring her, people also honor the birth of her son, Jesus Christ.
Thursday night, after the pilgrims had entered, the church was fully packed, with a crammed balcony and people lined up along the walls.
The people sang traditional songs, led by a mariachi band. Between songs, Cabra read the Virgin of Guadalupe’s story and led the congregation in prayers.
The Virgin of Guadalupe is an important reference point for Mexican national identity and has been since at least the 1600s, said John Charles Chasteen, author of “Born in Blood and Fire: A Concise History of Latin America” and a professor of Latin American history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in a Friday interview.
It’s that combination of indigenous looks and culture with the Spanish Catholic tradition of saints and saints’ days that has created the modern Virgin of Guadalupe, Chasteen said. Like the Virgin Mary, modern Mexican culture can be traced to Spanish and indigenous roots, he said.
The songs called the Virgin Mary by a number of honorifics, including “virgen morena” and “madrecita de todos mexicanos,” which mean brown-haired virgin and dear mother of all Mexicans, respectively.
Cabra said the Virgin of Guadalupe became a symbol of peace between indigenous Mexicans and Spaniards, a symbol they shared.
And, even now, she’s a cultural phenomenon, he said.
Franklin Perez said he made this pilgrimage for the first time this year. He wanted to go last year, but couldn’t make it, he said after the service.
Perez said he liked the church service because of the singing associated with it.
Cabra said the service, which ran from about 11 p.m. to midnight, stems from the Mexican tradition of serenading people at midnight as their birthdays begin.
After the service, the crowd went across the street to the former Mother of Mercy School for hot chocolate, Mexican baked goods and tamales — spicy meat inside a corn dough, steamed in corn husks.
The mariachi band struck up again as people ate, and folks slowly filtered out to head home.
Many of them might not make it back to church the rest of the year, Cabra said, but come the next celebration of the Virgin, they’ll be back.
He said, “Many people who, during the year, don’t come to church any, that’s a day when they must be in church.”