By Kirk Semple
Jesús Vicuña, 17, walking on his knees, made a three-day pilgrimage in honor of his seriously ill mother. (Ryan Christopher Jones for The New York Times)
MEXICO CITY — His mother was grievously ill, nearing death. So Jesús Vicuña, 17, made a deal with the heavens. He vowed to make a painful sacrifice in exchange for her recovery.
Which is how he found himself walking on his knees, under the weight of a heavy backpack, along a sidewalk in Mexico City.
Every few paces he fell with a groan. But more than 20 blocks after he began this ordeal — the last stage of a three-day journey — he knee-shuffled the last few meters into the New Basilica of Guadalupe, Mexico’s most important shrine, and collapsed on the floor. Mr. Vicuña had reached his goal. “It was a promise,” he said, a little delirious from emotion and fatigue.
Mr. Vicuña’s trial came as part of an annual pilgrimage to honor the Virgin of Guadalupe. Over the course of several days this month, an estimated nine million people visited the basilica, with some seven million of them filing through the building between December 11 and 12, to celebrate what believers say was the appearance of the Virgin Mary before an indigenous Mexican peasant named Juan Diego in 1531.
The Virgin of Guadalupe serves as a binding force that transcends the country’s sociodemographic divisions, and her image is ubiquitous — in portraits on the walls of homes; in small shrines found in shops and gas stations; and on objects as varied as kitchenware, jewelry, lamps, satchels and refrigerator magnets.
“She’s everywhere,” said Davíd Carrasco, a professor at Harvard Divinity School. “She’s everybody’s mother in Mexico. My daughter calls her ‘the Number 1 Mother.’ ”
Even as Latin Americans have defected in enormous numbers from Catholicism to evangelical congregations, the deep devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe, also known as Our Lady of Guadalupe, has slowed this trend in Mexico.
“The Virgin of Guadalupe is a symbol of hope and peace,” said Gabriela Treviño, a basilica official. “The harder the situation, the stronger the devotion.”
There is no greater expression of this devotion than the annual pilgrimage to the basilica, which culminates in a series of Masses and celebrations on December 12, the date on which the Virgin is said to have made the last of several appearances to Juan Diego.
To reach the basilica, many trekked on foot from their homes across Mexico, some traveling many days.
The pilgrims came bearing treasured objects from their homes — statuettes and wall hangings of the Virgin — which they held aloft as they entered the crowded basilica.
A framed image hanging behind the chancel is said to be the agave-fiber cloak of Juan Diego, on which the Virgin imprinted her likeness during their final encounter.
“We’re so thankful to have gotten here,” Orlando Munive, 35, said on December 11.
He and others had walked three days from their homes in the state of Puebla. A portrait of the Virgin, usually hanging in his house, was lashed to his backpack with string.
Asked how he felt to finally lay eyes on the basilica, he began weeping. “It’s something incredible,” he said. “Everything happens in front of her.”