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'We need hope': Latino Catholics commemorate Virgen de Guadalupe through virtual events

“It’s dramatically different this year,” said Monsignor Arturo Bañuelas in El Paso, Texas, as Catholics observe the celebration amid coronavirus restrictions.
Our Lady Of Guadalupe Procession In Los Angeles
People take part in the 87th annual procession and Mass in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Los Angeles on Dec. 9, 2018, celebrating the apparition of the Virgin Mary in Mexico in 1531. This year, celebrations are virtual due to the pandemic.Ronen Tivony / NurPhoto via Getty Images file

EL PASO, Texas — The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, honoring the Virgin Mary, has been celebrated by Latino Catholics for hundreds of years, with large gatherings of the faithful at Mass and processions.

In past years, the celebrations have included rosaries, mariachi bands, ministries and plays for children and adults. Family and friends from neighboring Juárez, Mexico, would cross the international bridges to join in celebration.

But in the midst of the growing coronavirus pandemic along the border, the observance on Saturday by the El Paso Diocese will be virtual — a choice that has been difficult, but necessary, to maintain both faith and public health.

“It’s dramatically different this year,” said Monsignor Arturo Bañuelas, of St. Mark Catholic Church. “Last year, we had thousands of people come. We’re doing the same, but it’s all livestreamed."

The Dec. 12 celebration, also known as El Día de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, marks the date in 1531 when the Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego, an Indigenous peasant, to ask that a church be built on the side of a hill outside of Mexico City.

People queue at the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City, on Dec. 7, 2020. The Basilica of Guadalupe will remain closed from December 10 to 13 during the festivities of the Virgen de Guadalupe to avoid crowds and minimize the risks of possible contagion of Covid-19 among pilgrims.Claudio Cruz / AFP - Getty Images

St. Mark parishioner Ricardo Vargas and his family have participated in large public celebrations commemorating the miracle appearance of the Virgin Mary. But Covid-19 has him and his relatives worried.

“The family will celebrate in our house with a picture of the Virgin Mary," Vargas said. "We’re devoted to our Virgin Mary and to us it’s very important, but we want to keep everyone safe and be away from crowds.”

Still, it's tough for parishioners to be away from each other, especially after a difficult year.

“We’re used to being together and sharing the food. It’s actually been hard," Vargas said. "Some people have lost relatives to the virus and they want to go pray at church or at the shrine, but they do understand that this is a difficult time."

"We’re used to doing something big for our mother," Vargas said, referring to the Virgin Mary, "but we’re encouraging everyone to stay home."

Others are looking forward to the change in worship. Marisa Limon Garza is excited about participating in the virtual activities.

“I’ve celebrated this for 20 years. But in a time of pandemic, there is still solace to be found,” the former Catholic schoolteacher said. “The message is still hopeful, but I don’t need it to be in person. It provides a level of understanding and care when the world is frenetic.”

The notion of the building of a church was not lost on Bañelas, given the political emphasis on the border and immigration.

“The temple today means we have to build a society where everyone is welcome and protected. We need to show how connected we are to each other," said Bañuelas, who is active in human rights work in his community.

“From the perspective of the border, looking at Guadalupe, it is an image of hope to immigrants that God brings something new," Bañuelas said. "If you’re Indigenous or poor or an immigrant, you see hope. You feel close to God."

"She comes to bring us hope," said the monsignor about Our Lady of Guadalupe. "We need hope, lots of hope. It’s one of the most beautiful symbols.”

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