In our first Advent in California, I was looking for more.
Our Advent wreath was assembled on the dining room table. Our Christmas tree was up and decorated, a bit dry already. But I wanted practices, traditions, holidays beyond just the ones I knew. So I went hunting online.
Maybe that Catholic church downtown will have something interesting, I thought. I checked their website calendar, and there it was, next Tuesday, December 12th: Día de Guadalupe. I clicked the link.
Celebraciones del Día de Guadalupe
4:30 AM: Rosario
5:00 AM: Las Mañanitas
6:30 AM: La Misa
7:30 AM: Fiesta
I didn’t even hesitate. I’m going to this.
And so it was that I got myself up three hours before dawn on a Tuesday morning, brushed my teeth, and left the house as quietly as possible. I pulled out of the driveway before turning on the car’s headlights, hoping not to wake my neighbor, because I didn’t want to have to explain to anyone why I had been up so early. This was just between me and Our Lady.
At the top of Santa Cruz’s central hill, where only months later everything came flooding to the surface, I found Holy Cross Catholic Church. It was still well before dawn, but the parking lot was almost full. Floodlights illumined the white brick exterior, and I ascended the front steps and walked through the central door. The rosary was just finishing, and a mass of voices were speaking in unison, their voices smooth and deep, like the water of the baptismal font.
“A ti clamamos los desterrados hijos de Eva. A ti suspiramos gimiendo y llorando en este valle de lágrimas. Vuelve a nosotros esos tus ojos misericordiosos. Y después de este destierro, muéstranos a Jesús, fruto bendito de tu vientre. Oh clemente, oh piadosa, oh dulce Virgen María.”
I learned later how to say it in English:
To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve, to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears. Turn, then, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy towards us. And after this our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb Jesus. O clement, o loving, o sweet Virgin Mary.
I found an open pew near the back. The rosary was prayed mostly by las abuelas, who had somehow arrived at 4:30 to pray together, fully dressed and made up for the day. Raising my eyes to the front, I saw a copy of the image on Juan Diego’s tilma, to the right of the altar. She was crowned and adorned with hundreds of flowers, which cascaded from her feet all the way down to the toes of the abuelas in the frontmost pew.
As I took her in, I noticed that all around me, families were beginning to arrive. The parents were dressed for work, and the teenagers were in sweatpants and hoodies, and some of the little boys were in traditional costume as Juan Dieguito. The father in each family, almost without exception, carried a sleeping child in his arms. Everyone was coming for las mañanitas.
It was 5 AM.
The service was all flor y canto, flower and song, a work of popular devotion. A small band—two guitarists and a bassist—played toward her image. All of the Guadalupe songs were already in the hymnal, so I followed along. A sample, from my favorite, “A Tí, Virgencita“.
Qué viva la Reina de los Mexicanos / Long live the Queen of the Mexicans
La que con sus manos sembró rosas bellas / She who with her hands plants beautiful roses
Y puso en el cielo millones de estrellas / And puts into heaven thousands of stars!
The last line is my favorite; in it, the woman’s voice arcs up into the heaven like a rocket. I know it’s not theologically true—Mary putting stars into heaven—but dammit, it’s poetically true, at least, it is to me.
The songs went on like this for over an hour. A gentleman stood and gave a testimony about Our Lady’s intercession in his life as a young boy in the hospital. As he reached the conclusion of his story, a miraculous healing, tears fell from his eyes. His face trembled with emotion. I was moved, too.
After all this the priest said Mass in gringo Spanish, slurring the r’s. At the homily he grinned sleepily. “Buenos días, y yo quiero decirles, ustedes son locos!” (“Good morning, and I want to tell you, you guys are crazy!”) It wasn’t even 7 o’clock. We had all been here for two hours, and the abuelas for even longer.
Finally the Mass was over, we sang a final song, and were dismissed. There would be hot chocolate in the parish hall, but I slipped out into the parking lot. The sky above me still carried thousands of stars, but there on top of the hill I could see a rose-colored dawn blossoming over Monterey Bay. I thought of Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, going out from his casita in the dark on the same morning, December 12th, and discovering the Mother of God waiting for him atop a hill not unlike my own.
I breathed the fresh morning air, and felt her presence again.
She was still the mother of his people.