Across the United States, immigrants from Mexico and other parts of Latin America are honoring this week the Virgin of Guadalupe, in three days of events that culminate on Thursday. People flocked to early morning and late afternoon masses with armfuls of roses, feasted on tamales, and walked in processions to shrines devoted to the “queen of Mexico” and “empress of America,” as Pope Pius XII declared in 1945.

The largest Guadalupan procession in the U.S. takes place in suburban Chicago to the shrine in Des Plaines, Ill., where tens of thousands of people gather every year. Lit torches are run between the shrine and the surrounding parish churches, the birthday tune “Las Mañanitas” gets sung to the statue of Mary and people pray for her assistance.

“It used to be pretty much the Mexican community,” Rev. Marco Mercado, the rector of the shrine, told the Chicago Sun-Times. “Now it’s pretty spread out throughout the Hispanic community, and more and more it’s getting to other cultures, like the Polish community and the Filipino community.”

In El Paso, Texas, mariachi bands were gathering late in the afternoon on Thursday at a mural of the virgin at the Alameda and Zaragoza streets. In Raleigh, N.C., more than 60 churches held feast day celebrations – a number that has doubled in just three years.

The oldest procession in the U.S., started in 1931, takes place in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles. It covers one mile in the eastern end of the city and includes floats depicting the Virgin’s history.

According to official Catholic dogma, on Dec. 9, 1531, Our Lady of Guadalupe, an incarnation of Mary, appeared before Juan Diego, a 50-year-old indigenous man who had converted to Catholicism, in Tepeyac, near the current location of Mexico City, and spoke to him in his native Nahuatl. The Spanish archbishop didn’t believe that Mary would appear to a native Mexican, so he sent Juan Diego back to Tepeyac to ask her for a sign to prove her identity.

Mary directed Juan Diego to a patch of Castilian roses not native to Mexico and instructed him to cover his cloak with their petals. When Juan Diego next met with the archbishop, three days later, he opened his cloak, the petals fell off and on the fabric was the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

With several million visitors a year, the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City is the most visited shrine to Mary in the world. Her image is unique in the Catholic iconography in that her skin tone is neither typically Caucasian nor indigenous, and so a symbol of the mixed race heritage of the region.

In Southern California, the artist Lalo Garcia has made a career of painting that image. She is present, although not always immediately obvious, in every one of his works. “[Mexicans] have a very intimate and personal relationship with her,” Garcia told the L.A. Daily News recently. “We talk to her, we sing to her, we dance to her … and we really do not see her up on a pedestal like we do the saints or Jesus on the cross. She is down [here] with us.”

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