One of the largest pilgrimages in Mexico will be officially recognized by UNESCO as world heritage
The Romería de la Virgen de Zapopan is a big deal in the State of Jalisco. In 2017 nearly 2 million people made their way to the Basilica de Zapopan on October 12th. As an immigrant who has made his home in Mexico for the better part of a decade I am fascinated with the centuries old traditions of my adoptive home; particularly the ones that I don’t quite understand yet. This article is about my experience following the Virgin of Zapopan on her pilgrimage from Downtown Guadalajara to Downtown Zapopan.
I had been talking to people about the pilgrimage all week and was excited to witness it for myself. However, I was perplexed by the polemic responses I was getting to my questions. There was a broad range of disdain or apathy, to humble pride and excitement. I was surprised at how many people that were born and raised in Guadalajara had never been to such a massive and treasured celebration.
The Catholic Church evokes strong emotions in Mexico. Jalisco was a stronghold of the Cristero Rebellion during the 1920’s. Atheist President Plutarco Elias Calles’ attempt to enforce draconian, anti-clerical laws and suppress popular religious celebrations was met with fierce resistance by the rural population. The violent conflict between church and state is long over but the memory lingers. Today the Mexican government works with the Catholic Church to organize the event and is even seeking UNESCO recognition of the cultural value. It is my feeling that the historic government oppression of the religious celebrations only served to strengthen the will of the people and build these events into the immense celebrations that they are today.
What is the Romería de la Virgen de Zapopan
Much like the Virgen de Guadalupe, the Virgen de Zapopan is the image of Holy Mary Mother of God. She is the patroness of the Archdiocese of Guadalajara and the original image was brought to Guadalajara in 1530 from Pátzcuaro (today Michoacán). The Virgen de Zapopan has dark hair and dark skin which established a connection with the native peoples of this area and aided in evangelization.
In 1695 the Virgen de Zapopan is credited with saving the population from a streak of natural disasters. When the the storms and sickness came back in the early 1700’s the population pleaded with the ecclesiastical authorities to take the image of the virgin to the surrounding villages to protect them. The tradition has continues for almost 300 years. This year marks the 284th anniversary of the Virgin’s pilgrimage. She has spent the last 5 months traveling to the churches around Guadalajara and on the 12th of October she will be joined by nearly 2 million people as they make their way from the Guadalajara Metropolitan Cathedral to the Basilica of Zapopan.
The Virgin leaves the Guadalajara Metropolitan Cathedral at 6:30 in the morning and arrives at the Basilica de Zapopan around noon. The procession heads down Avenida Vallarta, turns right at Avenida Americas and follows that all the way up to the Arches of Zapopan where they enter the Basilica for another mass.
In the 20th century the date of the Romería was moved to October 12th. In the United States this is Columbus Day. In Mexico it is known as Día de la Raza or Day of the Race, referring to the mestizo race. The evangelical nature of the Roman Catholic Church played an integral role in the blending of the Spanish European and Indigenous American cultures, and the Romería would not be complete without the danzantes.
Nearly 35 thousand danzantes representing native dance troupes will lead the procession to Zapopan. Honestly, this is the part of the Romería that I found most interesting. These dance troupes spend months rehearsing choreography, music and stamina. They represent the native peoples of many of the surrounding states and put a lot of effort into their performance and traditional dress. Dancing for five and half miles is no joke.
Watching father and son danzantes being interviewed by a Catholic priest about what the Romería and Virgin mean to them is one of the most vivid memories I have of this event. They identify both with the Roman Catholic faith and their Native American ancestry in a way that is distinctly Mexican. The Romería de la Virgen de Zapopan is a really beautiful mestizo event. If you are looking to learn more about Mexico I would highly recommend waking up early and witnessing it for yourself.