I will never forget celebrating the 12-day Festival of the Lady of Guadalupe (Festvas Guadelupanas) in Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific Coast of Mexico. In 2023, the festival ran December 1-12.
This religious holiday commemorates when the Virgin Mary (Lady of Guadalupe) appeared twice to an indigenous man in 1531 in the hills of Tepeyac near Mexico City.
“No estoy yo qui soy tu madre? (Am I not here, I who am your mother?)”Our Lady of Guadalupe
Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatz witnessed this miraculous apparition of the brown-skinned (mestiza) dressed in royal blue robes. Some 20 million people visit the Basilica of Santa María de Guadalupe, the site of her apparitions, each year.
“Guadalupe’s famous image, a brown-skinned woman in a starry blue mantle, hands folded in prayer, is ubiquitous in Mexico.”Catholicssndculture.org
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Patron Saint of Mexico
The Lady of Guadalupe (Virgen de Guadalupe) is the patron saint of Mexico and and Patroness of the Americas. Catholics create mini altars in their homes featuring a statue or illustration of Our Lady of Guadalupe. She is surrounded by flowers and candles.
I also outdoor altars honoring the Virgin Mary in the small Pacific Coast towns which I visited in San Pancho, Sausalito, and San Sebastian, Mexico.
From the moment I arrived on December 7, I felt the electricity in the air. Catholics taped illustrations of the Virgin Mary on trees and lamp posts. I saw statues during my walks along the cobblestone streets of the Zona Romantica (old town).
Vendors set up food stalls in the central plaza for the 12-day festival. I often saw families sitting at a picnic table sharing a meal of tacos, tortas, and tosados. You could also purchase aqua fresca, horchata, fresh fruit cups, Mexican candies, and helado (ice cream) bars.
This large plaza is set one block from the Malecon (boardwalk) which runs along the Bay. So many people go to church, promenade on the Malecon, and then share a meal during the festival.
Our Lady of Guadalupe Church
The center of this celebration is Puerto Vallarta’s main church. Parroquia de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (Church of our Lady of Guadalupe) organizes a special mass to honor the Virgin Mary on December 12.
“Our Lady of Guadalupe Church with its famous crown is the focal point of the Vallarta skyline. It is a symbol of Puerto Vallarta known throughout the world. It is also the focal point for the famous Festival of Our Lady of Guadalupe.”Visit Puerto Vallarta
This historic church features a crown on its roof. Eight angels support it. The architectural style is Neoclassical. Since the church is perched on a hill that descends to the Bay, it dominates the city’s skyline.
December 12 is a national holiday in Mexico as well as the final day of the festival. Mexicans dress in their finest clothes. The traditional costume is a beige linen shirt or dress embroidered with flowers around the neckline. But I also saw many women dressed in long colonial gowns.
My favorite recollection is a mother and daughter posing at the cathedral. The little girl wore a full-length white dress, embroidered in flowers, with yellow ruffles and a bow tie.
I saw three-generation families, ranging from the grandmother and grandfather (abuela and abuelo) to the grandchildren (hijos), during the day.
People gathered throughout the day to visit the church, buy flowers, and share a meal. Parents treated children to balloons and spun sugar candies on a stick.
Vendors sprouted up on every corner for several blocks around the cathedral, hawking toys and food. I saw many people who purchased the 2024 edition of Our Lady of Guadalupe calendar.
At 5:30 pm, the Guadelupans began their procession toward the church. I saw both Christian and Aztec motifs incorporated in the festivities. The highlight was a procession of young women dancers. They wore a red dress adorned with jewels and symbols. Each carried a huge headdress that resembled the sun on fire. Their legs were bare. Each girl wore leather bracelets and stone bracelets around their ankles. They marched barefoot down the cobblestone street.
A dear friend and reader of my blog wrote me that “the young woman shown may be arrayed as Tonatiuh, the symbol of the sun’s power and life-giving help to people.”
At the sound of the musician’s drum roll, the women performed an intricate dance (described in some reports as a “warrior dance.”) You can see a video of this Guadalupe dance on my Instagram account if you click here. Pedestrians lined up on the curb to watch. Parents sat young children on their shoulders so they could see.
Our Lady of Guadalupe Parade
The evening parade featured decorated floats depicting Juan Garcia’s encounter with Our Lady of Guadalupe. Three women marched with a banner emblazoned with the words: “Tus Hijos Favorecidos Agradecemos tus Bndiciones.” (Translated, Your Favored Children We Appreciate your Blessings.)
But I was most touched by the ordinary people who participated in the parade. One parent dressed her daughter in an angelic white dress. Many women carried bouquets. The throngs surged toward the church where they would honor the Virgin Mary.
The sextants zealously rang the church bells 30 and 15 minutes before the evening mass. You could hear it on the beach as well as in surrounding neighborhoods.
“Several pilgrimages take places with decorated floats, festivities, chanting and dances all over the streets.”Visit Puerto Vallarta
Days later, I can still hear those loud bells calling the faithful to celebrate our Lady of Guadalupe’s love for her people. Approximately 80% of Mexicans are Catholic today. Their culture honors their Indigenous as well as religious roots. The families are so close. I will never forget those glowing faces as they marched toward the church.