The day after Miguel’s daughter was sequestered by her mother, Miguel got sick and a day later I came down with one of my lung-racking colds. I had to attribute it to the stress of the situation; there was just no other apparent cause. We spent most of the remainder of the week in bed, sweating it out; me sleeping with my head covered to breathe warm air, and sucking on an asthma inhaler in hopes of warding off pneumonia. Miguel recovered quickly but by December 6th I was only barely better enough to fly and we trundled off to Puerto Vallarta with our advance-purchased plane tickets.

We received the best news of all that morning before leaving for the airport – Miguel’s persistence had paid off and he was allowed to drive his daughter to school that morning, and she announced that her mother had decided that she could visit her dad anytime she wanted to. With that good news we flew to the coast with tranquil hearts to accompany our seven boxes of medication.

The warm beach weather was a blessing after Mexico City’s 40 degree nights. The first day I was still coughing much of the time, but it was not painful to breathe the soft summer air and by the next day we could sit in the sand and if I breathed slowly and not too deeply I could go more than an hour without a coughing fit. The nights were equally luscious and I could sleep all night with just one puff on the inhaler and one Hall’s lozenge – sliding glass door open and only a sheet covering us on the king size bed.

We flew home on December 10th to one of the worst air pollution days of the year in Mexico City. By the time we fought through three hours of traffic, I felt like the carnival fat lady was sitting on my chest rocking and laughing with garish rouged cheeks. But the emotional stress was gone and Miguel’s daughter announced the next day that there was no school on Wednesday, the 12th, and she wanted to spend the day with her dad.

December 12 is the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe.  La Guadalupana.  On December 9 in 1531, the Virgin of Guadalupe first appeared to the Indian Juan Diego on the hill at Tepeyac, where the Aztec people had revered the goddess Tonantzin. Of course the local Spanish bishop didn’t believe a word of it and demanded a sign – twice.  So on December 12, Juan Diego returned to Tepeyac and the Virgin gave him the proof he asked for – She instructed him to gather flowers despite the fact that it was winter and out of season for blooming. He found wild Castillian roses, gathered them in his plain cape (called a tilma), and when he spilled them out in front of the bishop the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe was imprinted on the cloth.

Upon recovering his composure, the bishop immediately built a shrine on the hill at Tepeyac and La Villa, as it is endearingly referred to today, has been an international sacred site since the first papal recognition in 1754. Amazingly, the tilma, a cloth with a natural lifespan of about 30 years, has survived intact for almost 500 years, unscathed by a 1921 bomb that destroyed the shrine, and recovered from a 1791 ammonia spill which caused a large hole that inexplicably disappeared within two weeks. And the image of the Virgin has remained bright while all the paintings around it have faded and grayed with the years.

The miracle of the Virgin of Guadalupe has not been without controversy, of course, but once an image comes to represent the identity of a nation it’s like trying to stop waves from breaking on the beach. Modern popes have seen fit to firmly establish her place in the Catholic Church by recognizing the Virgin of Guadalupe as the “Queen of Mexico and Empress of the Americas” in 1945, the “Patroness of the Americas” in 1946, the “Mother of the Americas” and “Mother and Teacher of the Faith of All American populations” in 1961. For the effect of his vision and for his humble and devout example, in 2002 the Indian Juan Diego was canonized, becoming the first indigenous American saint.

Modern Mexicans celebrate this feast day in the same way they celebrate all the saints’ days – with fireworks and street fairs and pilgrimages.  But in a bigger way. The fireworks and fairs start on or before December 9th.  Many schools, offices and businesses are closed at least on the 12th, if not the entire count of days.  Many of the pilgrimages start weeks in advance with people leaving small towns in the far provinces to walk all the way to La Villa, the site of the two basilicas that mark the spot of the Virgin’s appearance to Juan Diego now situated in the northern suburbs of Mexico City, in time to arrive on the 12th.  Those neighborhoods that don’t make the pilgrimage to La Villa will remove the statue of the Virgin from her public niche and make a pilgrimage through the neighborhood each night, singing hymns as they walk, stopping at a selected home to pray, followed by eating and socializing. The host home sets up an altar to receive the neighborhood icon and the Virgin’s presence in the house for the night is said to bring great blessings to the family. The next night the neighbors return to remove the Virgin, carrying her through the streets singing to the next host house.

There are actually pilgrimages to La Villa all year round.  Each neighborhood and market and individual business has a saint, frequently the Virgin of Guadalupe, and each year on an anniversary date of the locale the members of the community walk to La Villa from however far the locale may be – often walking days or weeks, carrying a statute of the Virgin of Guadalupe, usually atop an altar. Arriving at La Villa, it is common for the pilgrims drop to the ground just inside the entry gate and cross the interior plaza to the doors of the main basilica on their knees.

The Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes has often and accurately characterized the relationship of the Virgin of Guadalupe to the Mexican people in interviews over the years, saying that “…one may no longer consider himself a Christian, but you cannot truly be considered a Mexican unless you believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe.” And that “the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint. She is the only true reality in Mexico. She is all that people really believe in.” I would add that even for non-Christian people the Virgin of Guadalupe can be a powerful touchstone that, despite her very Catholic proclamation, does not carry the spiritual contamination of organized religion. Indeed, the acclaim of the Virgin of Guadalupe goes beyond religion and, for many, affirms in a far more profound manner than dogma the true spiritual nature of life and the abiding presence of the Divine.

I first met the Virgin of Guadalupe on a flight from Seattle to Mexico City, January 19, 1999. The woman sitting next to me had a large laminated metal pin on her sweater of the most beautiful image – a dark haired woman surrounded by golden rays, wearing a cape of deep blue covered in stars, standing on a crescent moon sustained by an angel in a cloud of red roses. I was captivated by the image as we talked casually and near the end of the flight I couldn’t help asking her where she got the pin, hoping to find one for myself when I returned to Seattle. I still remember the radiant way the sandy-haired woman smiled at me, the pins were not for sale, they were from her church and she was traveling with a group on their way to see the Pope in Mexico City. She unpinned the trinket and handed it to me, “Here, take it,” she said, “the Virgin of Guadalupe will travel with you.” When we stood up to deplane, I looked around and the entire rear of the plane was populated by sweaters and jackets bearing the same pin.

Within the hour I had met the man who would become my husband.

Almost a year later, on January 1, 2000, I made my first visit to La Villa with my future in-laws. Seeing people, young and old alike, walking on their knees in the plaza shocked me, but there was not a pained expression anywhere and teared faces glowed with peace and hope.

The main basilica, with an interior capacity of 10,000 and extended capacity in the atrium for 40,000, was a river of people flowing through the building – down the side aisle to mount the moving walkway that passes below the tilma mounted behind the altar, through the atrium where humble religious items are sold by nuns, in the shaded entry where the padres stand on boxes and sprinkle holy water across the people holding up metal icons, cloth scapulars, beaded and wooden rosaries, bare hands and wriggling babies, to receive the wet blessing. It was the only time in my life I’ve been in a dense crowd without feeling oppressed.

From the basilica we climbed the wide concrete stairs to the old chapel on Tepeyac hill. Half way up the hill we stopped to toss coins into a fountain. Mine landed in one of the small volcanic bowls – my sister-in-law urged me to make a wish quickly. I wished for what all soon-to-be-brides wish for – but not really believing the luck was for me, non-Catholic, non-religious, non-Mexican.

But every wish of that day has come true, tenfold.

I have lived in Mexico for just over a year now. I am still not Catholic. I am still not religious. I am still not Mexican, despite my in-laws assertions to the contrary. And yet I know that the Virgin of Guadalupe has welcomed me into her spiritual home. I know that the words attributed to her are speaking to the motherless child that I am:

Am I not here, I who am your Mother?

Are you not under my shadow and protection?

Am I not the fountain of your joy?

Are you not in the fold of my mantle, in the cradle of my arms?

So this year, on the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Miguel and his daughter were reunited and played late into the evening at the local neighborhood fair with his sister and niece and nephew; riding the wheel of fortune, eating cotton candy and tacos, throwing balls for cheap ceramic piggybanks, watching the giant fireworks tower.

I stayed at home and worked as much as I could between napping and coughing. But it was okay. Our dog Chispa, a chihuahua greyhound mix, is terrified of fireworks and on this festival day they started promptly at 5 a.m. (yes, in the morning). Every time a round would go off on our street I would hear the soft click of her nails on the floor as she came straight to my chair, waiting quietly to be held and protected. In order to continue working I would tuck her into my fleece vest and zip up just under her chin, where she would promptly fall asleep and snore. And I would look over at my pin of the Virgin and think: Are you not in the fold of my mantle, in the cradle of my arms?