The Pilgrimage to Guadalupe: Sacred Renewal in Mexico City
A Photoessay by Ryan Christopher Jones
Mother of gods and men, of stars and ants, of maize and agave, Tonantzin-Guadalupe was the imaginary compensation of the Indians for the state of orphanage to which the Conquest had reduced them…The Feast Day of Guadalupe, December 12, is still the feast day par excellence, the central date of the emotional calendar of the Mexican people.
-Octavio Paz, “The Flight of Quetzalcóatl and the Quest for Legitimacy”
Along the Calzada de Guadalupe in Mexico City, I walked shoulder to shoulder with a growing swarm of pilgrims. They moved briskly and flocked in passage, with printed images of the Virgen de Guadalupe on their arms or backs. They carried sacred bundles from their villages and homes—items transported for spiritual regeneration—statues, paintings, banners, candles, crosses and flags. Some trekked hundreds of miles, their backpacks overflowing with a week’s worth of clothes and blankets. A few dropped to their knees, skin to stone, as they began the slow and sacrificial crawl to the Basilica of Guadalupe, where they would trade physical pain for spiritual rewards. Whether walking or crawling, the steady procession fixed their eyes toward Tepeyac Hill a mile away: a sacred mountain, an imminent renewal.
It was the annual feast of the Virgen de Guadalupe, a centuries-old Catholic pilgrimage to celebrate the miracle on Tepeyac Hill. According to Catholic tradition, in 1531 the mother of Christ presented herself on the hill to a Nahua villager named Juan Diego. She left him a cloak imprinted with an image of herself—a glowing, brown-skinned goddess robed with stars. In the following centuries the image was used to evangelize and convert the indigenous Nahua in the Valley of Mexico, who were skeptical of this newfound Christianity. As a product of Spanish colonialism and forced conversion, the image is not without its difficult histories, but its long- lasting cultural importance cannot be overstated. The image, 500 years later, has become a diverse and omnipresent symbol for the continuing tenacity of Mexico and its people.
Though it was my first time visiting the Basilica, the image of Guadalupe was a fixture of my upbringing. Since I was a child, the brown-skinned goddess has been burned into my imagination as a symbol of family, faith and heritage. My grandmother Beatrice was born and raised in Mexico and her devotion to the Virgen has been a lifelong kinship, one she has gifted to her descendants of four generations. The walls of my grandparents’ small home in my hometown of Fresno, California, are covered floor-to-ceiling with pictures and figures of the Virgen that overlap with pictures of us, her family. Their home introduced me to the many symbols, traditions, and myths of Mexico, and also to the ancestral power of sacred imagery. It’s why my first trip to the Basilica felt like home. I wandered its grounds with a sense of familiarity and belonging, because in these these pilgrim’s faces I saw the devotion of my grandmother. In their statues and pictures, I saw her walls bursting with the same images.
These photos are from a trip I made in December 2018 to document the Guadalupe pilgrimage in Mexico City for The New York Times. I am a full-time photojournalist and ALB candidate in Anthropology at the Harvard Extension School. In Fall 2018, I enrolled in Professor Davíd Carrasco’s class, “Moctezuma’s Mexico Then and Now: The Deep History, Triumphs, and Transformations of the Aztecs and their Descendants.” Carrasco’s class was a brilliant meditation on nearly a thousand years of Mexican history and it intensified a quest to make sense of my own Mexican-American ancestry and identity. I am fortunate to work in a field that allows my personal and academic interests to intersect with my professional ones. This assignment to Mexico City was a compelling example of these intersections.
The 2020 Guadalupe festivities were cancelled due to Covid-19. For the first time in nearly a century, the pilgrimage was not held. The Basilica’s celebrations were moved online, creating a virtual pilgrimage. In a pandemic world of muted socialization and increasing isolation, my photos from 2018 now feel surreal. The throngs of maskless crowds and extravagant indoor celebrations read as a different world, and in many ways it is a different world. Despite the unwelcome changes to the ways we live, worship and socialize, one thing can be for certain: la Virgen de Guadalupe will persist, as she has for many centuries. Mexico has seen plague and suffering before and la Virgen has been there to provide solace and healing. Mourners have cried over the deaths of loved ones and la Virgen has wept with them. The pandemic has altered the future of Mexico and the rest of the world, and just as in the centuries that precede us, Mexicans across the globe will pull la Virgen into yet another new social reality.
As the clock crept towards midnight approaching December 12, I stood on the balcony of the new Basilica of Guadalupe and looked down into the main plaza. This historical space overflowed with people from all over Mexico to celebrate the country that it has become because of the Virgin. At the stroke of midnight a bell rung, and the crowd started to sing in unison, and the traditional mañanitas birthday song filled the courtyard with thousands of voices:
How pretty is the morning In which I come to greet you.
We all came with pleasure and joy to congratulate you. On the day you were born
All the flowers were born.
At the baptismal font The nightingales sang. It is starting to be dawn,
The day has given us light.
Get up in the morning,
Look at what you’ve already dawned.
—(This translation of Las Mañanitas) is by Miguel Govea and la familia Piña-Govea)
Winter 2021, Volume XX, Number 2
Ryan Christopher Jones is a Mexican-American photojournalist originally from California’s Central Valley and currently living in New York City. In addition to working on stories of immigration, labor and identity, Ryan is a fierce advocate of compassionate photojournalism and he has written on this theme in two essays for the New York Times, “How Photography Exploits the Vulnerable” and “The Deja Vu of Mass Shootings.” Ryan is also an ALB candidate in Anthropology at Harvard Extension School.
Ryan’s portfolio can be seen at ryanchristopherjones.com
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