Always faithful to ‘la Virgen’

LEAVEN PHOTO BY ELAINA COCHRAN Members of los Matachines dance in front of Tortilleria San Antonio as a part of a novena in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Following the dance, the group and the store owner processed to All Saints Church in Kansas City, Kan.

LEAVEN PHOTO BY ELAINA COCHRAN Members of los Matachines dance in front of Tortilleria San Antonio as a part of a novena in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Following the dance, the group and the store owner processed to All Saints Church in Kansas City, Kan.

Hispanic Catholics hold annual novena to Our Lady of Guadalupe

by Joe Bollig

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe was lit up in the window and the hot dogs were set to boil.
Maria “Lucha” Hernandez, owner of La Preserida beauty salon in downtown Kansas City, Kan., was ready on Dec. 7 for the special visitors: los Matachines.

Los Matachines are religious dancers with roots in a tradition that reaches back to medieval Spain.

Every December, los Matachines take part in a novena in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe at All Saints Parish in Kansas City, Kan.  This year, the novena  — a much beloved tradition from Mexico — ran from Dec. 3 to 11.

Typically, los Matachines arrive at the sponsoring business at about 6 p.m. and dance for a while to the accompaniment of drums. Then the dancers escort the business owner, who carries a statue or image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and other participants in a procession to the church.

Traditionally, the business owner offers refreshments, such as the traditional “pan dolce”  (Mexican sweet bread) or thick, hearty Mexican-style hot chocolate. Last year, Hernandez made 60 pounds of tamales to give away, but this year gave herself a break, and went with hot dogs and nachos instead.

“There are three groups of dancers,” said Hernandez. “Each group represents a different part of Mexico, depending on where their family came from.”

The 20 or so dancers are costumed according to the region in Mexico where the dancer’s parents or ancestors came from, the design influenced by Indian culture. Usually they have colorful, feathered Aztec-looking headdresses. Their dance itself is a form of prayer, and thus approached with care and seriousness of purpose.

“We honor Our Lady by doing this,” said Hernandez. “We give testimony to our faith by the people walking in the street. I thank Our Lady for her intercessions as my heavenly mother, for my family and my business.”

The novena to Our Lady of Guadalupe and the dance of los Matachines is a beloved tradition in Mexican culture that has taken root in the United States. Ironically, challenges to the Hispanic devotion have come from other Hispanics here in the United States.

“We must keep our traditions wherever we are and not be embarrassed to show our faith,” said Hernandez. “Last year — there was a [small Hispanic storefront Protestant] church next to us — the preacher came out yelling at us, ‘You shouldn’t be doing this! It is idolatry!’”

The attraction of Our Lady of Guadalupe is very strong, however, said Angel Delfin, All Saints director of catechesis.

“There are [Hispanics] who aren’t even Catholic, but on [the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe] they go to the [Catholic] church because they are Guadalupanos. There is something missing if there is no Mary in their worship.”

A novena is a series of prayers of petition and thanksgiving that are said for nine straight days.

In the case of the novena to Our Lady of Guadalupe at All Saints, a different group leads the prayers each night. Everything is done in Spanish.

“The people, led by los Matachines, process to the church,” said All Saints pastor Father Dan Gardner. “[Los Matachines] take turns dancing, and the Legion of Mary leads a rosary and a litany. The parish youth perform a little skit about the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which happened near Mexico City.” (See sidebar.)

A Mass is celebrated at midnight and then again at 6 a.m. In between those two times, there are prayers and los Matachines dance periodically during the night, resting in the church basement between dances.

“The church is completely full every night [of the novena],” said Hernandez. “It’s very, very traditional. It’s something I want to keep alive for my kids —  that the Virgin Mary appeared to such humble people, and we must remain faithful whether here or there, because [Our Lady of Guadalupe] is our heavenly mother.”

The story of Our Lady of Guadalupe

Early on the morning of Dec. 9, 1531, the Indian peasant Juan Diego was walking a path of Tepayec Hill, which then was outside of Mexico City.

He was a convert to the Catholic faith, which had been brought to Mexico by the conquering Spanish overlords. And because it was associated with the Spanish, such converts like Juan Diego were few.

As Juan Diego walked along the hill, he heard beautiful music and a woman calling his name. He followed the voice and encountered a beautiful woman speaking in his native language, which was Nahuatl.

She identified herself as the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. She asked him to go to Bishop Zumarraga and tell him she wanted a church built on the site of the hill. Juan Diego did as he was told, but the bishop was skeptical.

Juan Diego went back to the lady, who told him to return later and receive a sign to give to the bishop. He did not return the next day, however, because he had to take care of a sick uncle. The next day, he passed the site again, while on his way to find a priest for his uncle. But he tried to avoid the Beautiful Lady because he was ashamed of his failure to return for the sign.

She found him, nevertheless, and gave him reassurance. She told him where to find some roses on the barren hill, and to pick them and take them to the bishop. Juan Diego did so, collecting them in his poncho-like tilma.

When Juan Diego came before the bishop again, he released his tilma and let the miraculous roses fall to the floor. But the roses were not the only miracle: Imprinted on his tilma was an image of the Beautiful Lady.

The bishop saw and believed.

Not only did the bishop believe, but so, too, did tens of thousands of Indians who were converted to the Catholic faith because of the image. Over time, the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe became a powerful symbol of Mexico. In 1999, the church proclaimed her Patroness of the Americas, the Empress of Latin America, and Protectress of Unborn Children.

Today, the church celebrates the feast day of St. Juan Diego on Dec. 9, and the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12.

About the author

Joe Bollig

Joe has been with The Leaven since 1993. He has a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s degree in journalism. Before entering print journalism he worked in commercial radio. He has worked for the St. Joseph (Mo.) News-Press and Sun Publications in Overland Park. During his journalistic career he has covered beats including police, fire, business, features, general assignment and religion. While at The Leaven he has been a writer, photographer and videographer. He has won or shared several Catholic Press Association awards, as well as Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara awards for mission coverage. He graduated with a certification in catechesis from a two-year distance learning program offered by the Maryvale Institute for Catechesis, Theology, Philosophy and Religious Education at Old Oscott, Great Barr, in Birmingham, England.

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