The twinkling caravans of people who flooded into Des Plaines on Sunday night came in reflective vests, capes, snowsuits and formal wear. They came with banners, megaphones, wooden statues and bouquet after bouquet of flowers in tow. They came with prayers for health and unity and peace in chaotic times. They came as a way to connect with faraway family, as a way to give thanks.
Many had walked miles in the cold to observe the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which occurs Dec. 12. They lifted flags and smartphones over their heads as they passed the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, home to an 800-pound replica painting of Mexico’s patron saint that’s been preserved for almost 500 years.
The celebration in Des Plaines is the largest outside of Mexico City, routinely drawing 200,000 people from around the region. This year, nine days of celebration continuing into Monday marked the day that the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to St. Juan Diego in December 1531.
By the time of the opening mass with Cardinal Blase Cupich, waves of people inundated the plaza in front of the outdoor shrine. A fleet of well-bundled volunteers formed human chains to pass the flowers and candles visitors brought across the stone platform beneath the shrine.
Many guadalupanos — the term used in Mexico and Latin America for those who believe in Our Lady of Guadalupe — had journeyed on foot from Chicago neighborhoods or nearby suburbs with family and friends.
Patricia Zapeda, 56, walked from Chicago’s Portage Park neighborhood.
Zapeda confessed to being “a little sore” after the 12-mile walk, but said she found deep meaning in making the trip on foot as a way to remember her mother-in-law, a devout Catholic.
She and her husband had attended the celebration for years, Zapeda said, but they began making the pilgrimage on foot after her husband’s mother died last year.
They carried a banner depicting Our Lady of Guadalupe they’d embellished with twinkle lights.
This year, Zapeda said, they would pray for “health and staying together.”
Rocio Castro, 40, and Abraham Reyes, 50, had walked from Palatine with a large white banner depicting the Virgin Mary on a tall pole with a group of 19 people. They began making the pilgrimage in 2013 to ask Our Lady of Guadalupe to help Castro’s parents with securing their visas.
Castro’s parents did eventually obtain their visas, they said, and Castro and Reyes have made the pilgrimage every year since as a way to keep their promise.
Their daughter, Jackie Reyes, said they walked for about three hours to reach the shrine.
For her family, Reyes said, making the pilgrimage to Des Plaines is also a way for them to stay connected to how they’d celebrate the feast day in Mexico.
“It represents what (my parents) did back home in Mexico; they would always do this every year,” Reyes said.
Odalise Cuitareo, 16, of Carpentersville, also came with that group and said she wanted to give thanks to Our Lady of Guadalupe for every part of life.
“We’re here to thank her for our help and for giving us great opportunities in life,” she said. “We appreciate her in every way. She helps us with everything.”
For Guadalupe Lopez, 10, the celebration was personal.
Lopez attended the mass Sunday night in Our Lady of Guadalupe’s outfit: a red gown and a green manta, or cape, studded with yellow stars. Lopez’s birthday is Dec. 12 and she has dressed as Our Lady of Guadalupe every year for the feast since she was 2, her parents said.
Lopez’s mother, Laura Mancilla, said they’d driven halfway from Kankakee to Des Plaines and walked the rest of the way to the shrine.
“I had a rough pregnancy with her,” Mancilla said, noting Lopez had been born about a month premature.
Because of the day their daughter was born, Mancilla said, she and her family go all out to celebrate the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
When Lopez is 15, Mancilla said, they hope to take her to the Basilica in Mexico, to see the original image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
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Juan Garcia, 31, walked to the shrine from Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood. This was his seventh pilgrimage, he said.
Garcia’s stepdaughter, who will be 12 this month, made most of the journey with him. This was her first time participating in the pilgrimage, he said, which he sees as important because sometimes “it seems like the traditions start dying.”
“I’m hoping that she learns to keep our traditions as long as she can,” Garcia said.
For volunteer Fabian Montoyo, 27, that sense of tradition had brought him out to the shrine at 8 a.m. to direct traffic and later to make sure the placement of pilgrims’ flowers and candles went smoothly as the pilgrims processed past the shrine.
He’ll miss work if he has to come help celebrate the feast, Montoyo said as flowers piled up behind him.
“It doesn’t matter what day it is,” he said. “It’s just my culture. It just runs in me. I feel like it’s just something I have to do.”