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‘Each House Becomes a Sacred Temple:’ Honoring the Virgin of Guadalupe in a Pandemic

Before the pandemic, throngs of people in the Bay Area would gather to commemorate the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a Roman Catholic holiday with Mexican indigenous roots.

The feast, observed on Dec. 12, typically draws thousands of faithful each year to parishes such as St. Elizabeth’s in Oakland, in celebrations that last day and night with banda and mariachi music, and lots of food.

But with COVID-19 cases surging, the festivities this weekend will be markedly different.

At a recent outdoor mass at St. Elizabeth’s, Father Antonio Galindo spoke in Spanish from the pulpit about the changes. Dozens of parishioners sat on folding chairs six feet apart, and clutched their coats in the morning cold.

The priest said the parish would abide by the pandemic restrictions currently in effect in Alameda and most Bay Area counties, which prohibit indoor mass and cap outdoor religious services to a maximum of 100 people.

Mass would be livestreamed, he said, and no food vendors would crowd the street as in previous celebrations. The temple, where streams of people would drop bunches of red roses to an image of the virgin, would remain pretty much closed.

“We’ll set up a large altar by that tree over there,” Galindo told the masked congregation. “It won’t be as big as the one we’d have inside the temple, but people can still come and offer flowers and candles.”

Father Antonio Galindo officiates outdoor mass at St. Elizabeth’s on Dec. 3, 2020, as a cell phone records the event for livestreaming. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

Many of St. Elizabeth’s parishioners are Latino immigrants and essential workers. The area surrounding the church in the Fruitvale is part of a cluster of zip codes that have struggled with the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the county for months.

Galindo is keenly aware of the havoc the pandemic has wrought in the community. St. Elizabeth’s fundraises and distributes aid to people who’ve lost jobs so they can pay their rent. And Galindo, who said he regularly visits coronavirus patients, has presided over funerals as well.

So for the Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, he offered a stern warning.

“If anyone has COVID-19, stay home,” he said. “We have to take care of each other so we can care for others.”

After mass, Patricia Silva, 47, hurried home to her three children. She said she’d miss the sense of unity during the feast, but she understood the need to avoid crowds to protect public health.

“It feels sad and it hurts a little because one’s used to that experience of coming together before the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe,” said Silva, who has attended mass at St. Elizabeth’s for 14 years. “It’s like they are taking away our tradition of devotion to the virgin.”

But given the circumstances, she said she would join the celebrations online from home. She has elderly relatives she wants to protect from the virus, she said.

“It’s for my safety and that of my family,” said Silva, who for previous celebrations also joined a large pilgrimage on foot from East Oakland to the city’s cathedral. This year, the Diocese of Oakland told people to drive by in cars instead, which Bishop Michael Barber blessed from afar.

Fr. Antonio Galindo stands inside St. Elizabeth Church in Oakland on Dec. 10, 2020. He said the parish would abide by the pandemic restrictions currently in effect in Alameda County, which prohibit indoor mass and cap outdoor religious services to a maximum of 100 people. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Other parishioners at St. Elizabeth’s said they trusted the church’s preparations to honor Our Lady of Guadalupe – as well as social distancing and mask wearing – to keep them safe.

“I’ve always come in person,” said Guillermina Jimenez, 80, who has attended St. Elizabeth’s since 1976, when she first immigrated from Mexico to the US with her husband.

Jimenez said she would join the church festivities in person because of the day’s deep significance, which she has taught to her 15 children and 36 grandchildren.

“Us Mexicans have all one mother, and her name is Our Lady of Guadalupe,” she said.

Guillermina Jimenez, 80, stands by a mural at St. Elizabeth’s School. Outdoor mass is being held at the school’s large patio to comply with pandemic restrictions. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

The story of Guadalupe starts in 1531, near what is now Mexico City. At the time, the Mexica or Aztecs were facing devastation and despair.

Spanish conquistadores had killed millions of indigenous people after their arrival in the Americas, by both the sword and the new diseases they brought, including smallpox. The invaders destroyed many of the Aztecs’ sacred temples in their bid to Christianize indigenous people.

It was in that context that an indigenous man known as Juan Diego saw a beautiful woman standing on Mt. Tepeyac, a sacred hill for the prominent Aztec goddess Tonantzin, said Ana María Pineda, a religious studies professor at Santa Clara University.

During the encounter, which happened in the early hours of a December morning, everything about the way the lady looked meant something to Juan Diego, said Pineda. She was clothed in a turquoise mantle with stars – a sign of royalty and divinity. Her skin was brown, and she spoke to Juan Diego courteously and softly in the language of the Aztecs: Nahuatl.

“The conquistadores saw the indigenous people as counting for nothing,” said Pineda, a nun with the Sisters of Mercy. “And she’s telling him ‘You count for something. And all the peoples of this land are my beloved. I’m in solidarity with all of you. I care for you. Fear not.’”

Families are seated at least six feet apart in a tent for holding outdoor mass at St. Elizabeth Church in Oakland on Dec. 10, 2020. An altar for Our Lady of Guadalupe in the background was set up as a way for parishioners to be able to offer candles and flowers without entering the church. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Her presence blended Tonantzin, whose name means “venerable mother,” with Catholic Mary, offering the promise of two worlds merging together into something new, said Pineda.

“It’s a voice for compassion, but also justice,” she said. “And to dignify the peoples who had been so downtrodden, and to give them an opportunity to see in her a reflection of their understanding of the sacred.”

The message has resonated throughout Latin America and beyond, but especially in Mexico. On Dec 12, at the crack of dawn, people greet the Virgin of Guadalupe at churches and altars, and sing her a birthday song, “Las mañanitas,” because “not only is she born anew to us but we are born anew,” said Pineda.

With the pandemic and the near end of the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies, the day’s message of resilience and hope resonates deeply in California, said Father Jon Pedigo, who directs advocacy for Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County.

“Trump tried to make us disappear and go away, and he was not successful,” said Pedigo, who has worked for decades with Latino immigrants. “COVID-19 is taking our people in higher numbers than for any other race. So we have to recognize that we are not going to give in to COVID-19.”

Low-income Latinos and other minority communities have been hard hit by the pandemic, in part because they tend to live in overcrowded housing, and must go to work outside the home. Many lack health care insurance. An estimated 1.5 million undocumented immigrants, who because of their status are excluded from the Affordable Care Act, remain uninsured.

Latinos comprise nearly 60% of positive coronavirus cases in California, and about half of the deaths linked to the disease, according to figures from the California Department of Public Health.

Instead of gathering in large crowds at churches this year, Pedigo suggests people build shrines to Guadalupe in their front yards, akin to the ones many set up inside their homes, where they can sing and pray.

“Each house becomes that sacred Temple of Guadalupe,” said Pedigo. “You can experience unity by everyone kind of doing the same thing at their own house. You can experience connectedness not because we’re holding hands, but because we are singing the same songs, we are eating the same foods, we are celebrating in similar ways.”

At St. Elizabeth’s in Oakland, Leticia Campos said she’ll watch the festivities online, to be safe. She has already built an altar in honor of Guadalupe at home, with flowers and candles.

“The celebration has to be safe,” said Campos, 65. “And anyways, our faith, hope and affection for the Virgin is in our heart. We can manifest that anywhere.”

Copyright 2020 KQED