OUR LADY OF ZAPOPAN, Zapopan, Jalisco
October 12 is the feastday of Our Lady of Zapopan in Guadalajara, Mexico. According to one travel guidebook “she is one of the most revered religious relics in Mexico.”
What is unusual about this celebration is the homage that the secular media pays to it! One travel guide stated: “the legendary image of Our Lady of Zapopan has enjoyed generations of popularity so enormous that it must be seen to be believed.” Another comments on her “continuous stream of penitents.”
The media are stunned by the multitudes who participate in Our Lady of Zapopan’s pilgrimage every October 12th: she processes from the Cathedral of Guadalajara to her home sanctuary at the Franciscan Basilica of Zapopan; a journey of six miles, in “numbers that are beyond belief.” The Oct. 13, 2005, issue of the Miami Herald reported that one million people participated in the event in 2005. Security personnel estimated the numbers to be two million in 2008, the year I attended the event. EWTN reported that four million people walked in the procession to Zapopan from the Eucharistic Congress in Guadalajara in 2004.
Amid great pomp and pageantry she is escorted back to Zapopan, after traveling through the diocese of Guadalajara for the previous four months. She is accompanied by throngs of rejoicing pilgrims, honour guards, priests and nuns, charros (cowboys or horsemen dressed in traditional clothes), marching bands, Mariachi musicians, jugglers, children’s choirs, and Indian dancers in traditional costumes. Airplanes may strew flowers along the route. Fireworks punctuate the night sky. And Rosaries and stirring hymns are heard all along the route. All to celebrate the diminutive 13” figure of La Zapopanita, who is not only the oldest statue of Mary but the first one to be venerated in the state.
Most striking are the numbers of indigenous dancers. The Mural, Guadalajara’s Spanish language newspaper, reported that “16,000 Indian dancers” participated in the annual procession in 2008. Dicken’s words from Hard Times came to mind as I was watching the procession: “a blaze of splendor.” He could have been describing the befeathered Indian dancers at Zapopan! Splashes of colour going marching by—firecracker reds, brilliant blues, emerald greens, all in exquisitely embroidered and beaded and bejeweled costumes. A dazzling sight! And dazzling too was the sound of their “ankle “rattlers.” A sound I will never forget. These are made from shells of nuts which have been partially filled with small stones and sewn on to leather ankle bands. It is a spellbinding, melodious sound, k-poosh, k-poosh, k-poosh, multiplied a few million times over, like an army on its way to heaven. The dancers spend a year in intense training for the event, training weekly, sometimes daily, until all is just right, each step perfect, to offer to Our Lady of Zapopan.
It all began with the Franciscans: In 1524 the first group of twelve Franciscan missionaries arrived on Mexican soil. In 1525 the second group arrived, among them Fray Antonio de Segovia and his traveling companion, Fray Miguel de Bolonia, who became the first evangelizers in Jalisco. The ascetic and kindly Fray Antonio had a deep devotion to Our Lady and always carried her image with him on his missionary travels. He would wear it around his neck, claiming that it was she who was the evangelizer, not himself! The statue was one he brought from Spain and is the same statue that resides in the Basilica of Zapopan today.
She became known as “La Pacificadora,” the one who makes peace: One day while Fray Antonio was preaching “luminous rays issued from the statue.” So impressed (and startled!) were the Indians with this divine manifestation that they laid down their arms (the Spaniards and the Indians had been at war with each other) and begged to be baptized. Since the earliest days the indigenous peoples of Guadalajara have been devoted to Our Lord and His Mother.
Many are the honours accorded to Our Lady of Zapopan. After reports of numerous miracles an ecclesiastsical investigation in 1641 declared the image to be taumaturga which means “wonder-working.” Among the verified miracles were the curing of a blind man and the restoration of a dead child to life. In 1919 the Vatican authorized the Pontifical coronation of the image and she was crowned in 1921. In 1940 Pope Pius Xll elevated the shrine to the status of a basilica. Another great honour accorded to Our Lady of Zapopan was the visit by Pope St. John Paul ll on January 30, 1979. While there, he said to vast crowds: “This sanctuary of Zapopan is proof, most consoling, of the intense devotion, that the Mexican people profess to the Virgin Immaculate.”
Our Lady of Zapopan wears different costumes: for the October 12th procession she is dressed in “a medieval pilgrim’s cloak and a broad-brimmed hat” complete with a large satchel. Because what lady can travel without her travel bag? At other times she is seen wearing a gold-tasseled blue sash, indicating military rank and carrying a “gold baston of command.”Military rank? A baston of command? For Our Lady? Well, in 1821, the “Year of Independence” for Mexico, the government of Jalisco commissioned Our Lady as “General of the Army and of the State.” At which time she was vested with the sash and the baton! Our Lady of Zapopan is also known as the Patroness of Guadalajara because of her protection of its citizens in storms and plagues.
A visit to Zapopan on October 12th will provide memories for a lifetime of the deep veneration of the people of Mexico toward Our Lady.