By Galen Holley
TUPELO – The thumping beat of drums, the comforting smell of pastries and hot chocolate and the soaring sounds of mariachi music filled the air throughout northeast Mississippi earlier this month as Catholic faithful celebrated the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
From Tupelo to Ripley, from Pontotoc to Pittsboro, communities gathered in the wee hours for the traditional mañanitas, or songs and devotions offered on special occasions. In parish halls and in outdoor processions, Hispanic Catholics brought to life, through dramatic reenactment, the peasant Juan Diego, gathering armfuls of roses at the feet of young girls who, resplendent in the turquoise mantle and rose-colored dress, portrayed the Virgin with heartwarming reality.
The crowd was standing-room only in Shelton Hall at Tupelo St. James Parish on Saturday, Dec. 9. The festivities began at 10 p.m., with a reenactment of the Virgin’s apparition on the Tepeyac Hill.
Ingrid Juarez was breathtaking, encircled in a corona of light, speaking the Virgin’s comforting words to Alejandro Cruz, who portrayed Juan Diego.
After the drama, some 300 praised in song the “Paloma Blanca,” or White Dove, as the song names the Virgin. “We, supplicants, put our hands together, bearing your likeness,” they sang. Moments later, mariachis, Rayos Del Sur, strolled into the hall, adding to the chorus the fluttering, Spanish guitar and mournful violin.
Song gave way to the clicking of rosary beads and the whispers of the “Padre Nuestro,” and the “Ave Maria.”
It is hard to overstate the importance of Our Lady of Guadalupe to the Hispanic community, said Raquel Thompson, St. James’s Hispanic minister.
“She is the model to live the life of Christ amid our worries and challenges,” said Thompson. “We come to her because she is the bridge between Jesus and us. Throughout the year, I have seen so many people come and offer prayers to her, and return, days later, with bouquets of flowers, meaning their prayers had been answered. In this celebration, we have people who have been away from the church, but their devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe brings them back to God’s house.”
The image of Guadalupe serves as a source of pride and a means by which to share Hispanic culture with the people of northeast Mississippi, Thompson said. For example, the Matachines, who perform traditional, Aztec-style dancing, in honor the Virgin, and who danced at several community gatherings around northeast Mississippi last weekend, participated in the Tupelo Christmas this year.
The Virgin also symbolizes motherhood, femininity and the challenges women face in society, Thompson added. “She remains our identity, and her image is very much associated with social justice,” said Thompson. “Juan Diego represents immigrants and all vulnerable people.”
Elquin Gonzales reiterated that understanding of the Virgin of Guadalupe as a symbol of femininity at Pontotoc St. Christopher Parish the following morning. “Let us give thanks to the Virgin, and through her intercession, pray for mothers and for all women who suffer from domestic violence and other forms of masculine sin,” said Gonzales, during the petitions.
Before proceeding into the new church hall to celebrate Mass, St. Christopher parishioners gathered in the parking lot. The Matachines, in bright green and red costumes, shifted back and forth rhythmically to the drums. Singing children, bearing handmade images of the Virgin, led the way, and adults carried a statue of the Virgin above the crowd.
“We come together as a pilgrim Church, united with the churches of our continent,” said Danna Johnson, Hispanic minister at St. Christopher, in her opening remarks before Mass. “We celebrate the Solemnity of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mother of the Americas and Star of the New Evangelization. She brings us her son, and shows him to us with all her love, comprehension, help and defense. We participate with joy in this Eucharist, invoking, along with our various countries of origin, the intercession of the true Mother of God.”
Delicious, herbaceous smells emanated from the kitchen at Ripley St. Matthew Parish on Monday, Dec. 11, as women prepared a hominy dish to be enjoyed by the faithful after Mass. Twelve-year-old Yuridia Benadides practiced a few notes on her clarinet, a little nervous, she said, about playing along to the traditional song, “Las Apariciones Guadalupanas.”
Lilliana Rangel took a break from cooking to reflect on the importance of the Virgin of Guadalupe in the lives of Hispanic Catholics.
“She is important for us in many ways, particularly as a symbol that helps us hold to our culture, our national character and the beliefs that are part of it,” said Rangel. As a mother of three, Rangel said she looks to the Virgin as a guide. “She is a teaching symbol for our children, a demonstration of the importance of their heritage and culture here, in the United States, away from their original homeland,” said Rangel. “She is an example of complete and total love, care and obedience to God. To women she is a strong example of struggling always to care for and defend family and carrying out the will of God in our lives.”
Before Mass, those gathered recited the Joyful Mysteries of the rosary, along with the Litany of Loreto. “Tower of Ivory, pray for us,” they whispered, as one of the many invocations to Mary. “Mystical Rose, Morning Star, Gate of Heaven, pray for us.”
Shortly before sunrise, parishioners gathered at New Albany St. Francis of Assisi. The lights in the sanctuary were dim, and Julia Osorio inched forward on her knees, pausing to venerate the Tabernacle, then resting in front of the statue of Mary. The Virgin of Guadalupe was surrounded by hundreds of roses. Their petals were heavy and fresh, and shown red, white and soft pink in the string of white lights encircling the Virgin. Estella Moreno joined Osorio, kneeling in prayer at the Virgin’s feet, and families trickled in, many bringing fresh bouquets to lay before their Mother in faith.
Pablo Garcia donned his red and black serape and stood in back of the church welcoming families as they entered the warm, quiet sanctuary.
“The Hispanic community walks on a pilgrimage through life with the Virgin of Guadalupe in its heart,” said Garcia. “She protects us and our families, and we want to follow her, as she followed her son, Jesus Christ.
(Galen Holley is a member of New Albany St. Francis of Assisi Parish.)