By Lois Ellison

If you are lucky enough to be reading this here in Puerto Vallarta, you owe it to yourself to head to El Centro at least once and experience the Festival of the Virgin of Guadalupe (also known as the Guadalupana) before it ends on the 12th. I’m not going to tell you the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe, you can (and should) read that elsewhere. Instead, I’d like to share with you some of my best memories of this incredible event.

We first learned of the festival in the early 1990’s when a taxi driver asked us if we were here for “the parades by the Church”. We had no idea what he was talking about but who doesn’t love a parade? So off we went to find out what was going on. We soon learned these aren’t “parades” they are pilgrimages, or peragrinaciones. I still get chills down my spine when I think of that first experience.

Previously, we’d always come in October or November. In the mornings we could hear groups of school children practicing a drum and bugle marching routine. Often a little off key, but always enthusiastic. Now in December, suddenly, there they were, those wonderful school bands, girls on drums, boys on bugles, proudly marching down Calle Juarez en route to the Church. The piercing wail of the bugles mingled with the trombones and trumpets of traditional Mexican bandas and mariachi. Groups of pilgrims on foot, carried candles, their voices rising heavenward with songs that would haunt us into the night and long after we’d returned home.

At that time, we didn’t know the story of Guadalupe but by just standing and watching, the story began to reveal itself to us. Interspersed with the bands and singers, were floats depicting the miracle of Juan Diego. On many, young girls dressed as Guadalupe stood motionless, their eyes reflecting enormous pride at having been chosen for this honor. Most of the groups had banners declaring their faith and gratitude to the Virgin of Guadalupe. You didn’t have to be religious to appreciate the intensity of their emotions.

Outside the Church, a group of Aztec dancers enacted a story of worship and sacrifice to the ancient gods. This particular group was fantastic. They had it all: elaborate feather headdresses, tall drums, incense burners, a conch shell to trumpet, and, at the finale, a real baby presented to the gods. Hundreds of onlookers but not one person uttering a sound as we all watched breathlessly. I’ve seen dozens of Aztec groups each year since then, but none even comes close to that first experience.

Puerto Vallarta was smaller and less modern 20 years ago. Electric wires along the route had not yet been buried underground and formed a tangled mass over the street, often drooping low above the marchers heads. Many of the taller floats were accompanied by men with long notched polls that they used to push the wires up so the floats could proceed. Truly an amazing sight. After arriving at the Church, the groups wait for the bells to invite them inside. As the singers and Mariachi enter, the walls reverberate with their joyful sounds.

Along the parade route, there were only a handful of food vendors. All of their booths were connected by extension cords leading to a single electric outlet. Sometimes sparks would fly but no one seemed to care. On several cross streets, youngsters set off fireworks. The lack of injuries was a miracle of its own. There were no Christmas decorations or reindeer hats to be purchased. Those came years later as holiday customs from north of the border began to arrive.

The final day is reserved for Los Favorecidos (the favored ones). These are the families and individuals who didn’t come with the sponsored groups on the earlier days. Numbering in the tens of thousands, they fill the streets completely, for as far as the eye can see. Some carry candles, icons, or offerings of food and flowers. Children are dressed as Juan Diego or Guadalupe. Some are in wheelchairs or walk with canes. A few even crawl all the way to the Church. It is difficult to describe and impossible to forget.

There’s no better way to experience the culture of Mexico than to participate in one of her festivals. And the Guadalupana is the best of the best: a collage of food, song, dance, costumes, and music; all wrapped in a mantle of faith and hope. So what are you waiting for? Head to El Centro and immerse yourself in an incredible tradition. Oh yes, don’t forget your camera.

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Celebrating twenty years of publishing weekly in Puerto Vallarta! Since 1997.