Colorful Aztec mascots, a brass band and folk dancers filled the streets of Prospect Heights on Sunday morning, Dec. 11, as the Mexican congregants of St. Joseph’s Church celebrated the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Nearly 500 worshipers celebrated the feast day with a Mass, a parade and a feast at the Roman Catholic Church. The participants traveled from all five boroughs and New Jersey.
Over the past two years, an increasing number of Mexican immigrants living in Brooklyn and Queens have flocked to St. Joseph’s. After hosting a feast last December that attracted a few hundred, church members raised funds throughout the fall to ensure this year’s celebration could be even larger.
“Guadalupe is the most important feast in Mexico besides Holy Week and Christmas,” said Rev. Jorge Ortiz-Garay, a native of Mexico City who has served St. Joseph’s since 2009.
The feast, officially observed Dec. 12, commemorates the apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1531 to Juan Diego, a poor native, at Tepeyac, Mexico. Dressed as a native peasant herself, Mary called on Juan Diego to build a church on the site of the apparition, and she performed signs to help Juan Diego and the local bishop to overcome their doubts. Prior to Juan Diego’s encounter, Spanish conquerors’ and missionaries’ efforts to convert the indigenous population met with failure, said Ortiz-Garay.
At 11 p.m. on Saturday night, the church held a rosary prayer service. At mid-night, the congregation celebrated what it considers the Virgin’s arrival to Mexico like a traditional Mexican birthday with music from three bands and refreshments, said Vincenzo Cardilicchia, a seminarian-in- residence at St. Joseph’s. The festivities lasted until 3:30 a.m.
Seven and a half hours later, worshipers filled the pews for a Spanish Mass with music provided by a mariachi band. On the altar, the faithful created a shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe with colored lights, candles, flowers, wreaths and images of the Virgin as she appeared to Juan Diego.
Following the Mass, Ortiz-Garay led a procession from St. Joseph’s down Washington Avenue, past the Brooklyn Museum on Eastern Parkway, and north up Vanderbilt Avenue back to the church on Pacific Street. Behind the priest in his purple vestments and his attendant altar servers followed a conspicuous train of celebrants.
Men in grotesque masks and costumes led the file.Cracking whips and yelping at pedestrians and each other, these mascots – dressed in dog, tiger, bull, jaguar, witch, and devil costumes – symbolize the gods worshiped by the Aztecs before Mary’s appearance to Juan Diego.
Then followed folk dancers, clad in all white “tilmas” and all black “charros,” representing the native Indians and Spanish colonizers, respectively. A brass band and images of the Virgin Mary – a symbol of comfort and protection to all cultures, explained Cardilicchia – brought up the rear.
During the precession, cars stopped, camera phones recorded, and pedestrians looked on quizzically. Many local shop owners and residents took in the parade, surprised by it since they knew neither that it was scheduled to take place nor what it commemorated.
When the procession arrived back at the church, it descended into a large, decorated basement and performed a traditional “tuanes” dance to flute and drum before a shrine. The dance is a symbol of the clash and mix of cultures that resulted from Spanish colonization, said Ortiz-Garay. It also portrays the triumph of the Virgin Mary over the Aztec gods.
After a brief blessing, the almost 500 men, women, and children ate heartily. The food, a mix of Italian and Hispanic dishes, was prepared for free by just one family working through the night with the help of some friends. About 10 families donated the ingredients, and most of the entertainment, the dancers, bands, and a DJ, also performed for free.
To Martín Ramos, 40, an active volunteer and leader in the parish, the feast’s popularity with families is an encouraging sign. He comes from Jamaica, Queens each Sunday to worship and has seen the church’s ranks swell over time.
“We’re trying to grow up the church,” he said when asked about the event’s importance to St. Joseph’s.
And pointing to the feast and dancing, Lorenzo Cesar said proudly that it dwarfed last year’s celebration, and that next year’s would prove even better.
In preparation for the feast, Mexican parishioners volunteered to cook and sell traditional Mexican food after Sunday Masses every week since mid-September. Part of the approximately $6,000 in proceeds they raised defrayed cost of the celebration
Of the festival’s success, said Ortiz-Garay, “The only link for some of these people to Mexico is Guadalupe.”