Mexicans in New York celebrate Guadalupe

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BY PAULA NEUDORF

In Corona, Queens, florist Sabina Dominguez has booked orders for 3,000 roses. Up the block, at Our Lady of Sorrows Church, Father James Kuroly has settled for the first shift on Dec. 11, agreeing to hear confessions for five hours until 4 a.m. And a few miles away in Elmhurst, Jesus Huerta is working up a sweat along with the two dozen or so other members of his dance troupe, getting their steps down for a marathon weekend of performances.

On Dec. 12, thousands of Mexicans will abandon their daily routines to visit images of Guadalupe in dozens of churches around the city. Though various Catholic holidays are fervently celebrated within the Hispanic community, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe is uniquely Mexican. Like the religious festivals of other immigrant communities, Guadalupe is a moment for the Mexicans here to revel in their heritage and be transported, however briefly, to life back home.

A religious and cultural celebration, the event also offers some of the year’s biggest paydays for the florists and mariachis who cater to Guadalupe’s worshippers.

“Guadalupe is more important than Valentine’s,” said florist Hernando Solis, the owner of Latino Flores in Corona.

For the nearly 300,000 Mexicans who live in New York, celebrating the festival puts them in touch with a broader Mexican tradition that has spread to Latin American countries worldwide. It marks the day in 1531 when Juan Diego, an indigenous Mexican, is believed to have seen an apparition of Guadalupe, another name for the Virgin Mary. The apparition told him to ask the Spanish archbishop to build her a church on a nearby hill in Tepeyac, Mexico.

As the story goes, the archbishop refused and Guadalupe provided Diego with roses, which were then out of season. He gathered the flowers in his cloak and took them to the archbishop as proof of the miracle. Diego opened his cloak and the roses fell out, leaving behind an image of the Virgin imprinted on the cloth.

For many Mexicans, the fest is like “celebrating her birthday,” according to Cesar Rodriquez, a representative from Tepeyac, an organization which offers cultural events and classes for New York’s Mexican immigrants.

New York City has the country’s second largest Mexican population in the Eastern United States, behind Chicago. Over half of the Mexicans here were born in Mexico, comprising the city’s fastest growing foreign-born group according to the U.S. Census. Overall, the Mexican population in New York more than doubled in size between 2000 and 2007, according to a study by CUNY researchers.

Though there will be festivals at churches around the country and in Mexico, New York’s festival is particularly large, according to Rodriguez. “In New York City … most of the Mexican community comes from the center of the country, in Mexico. Our Lady of Guadalupe has a big presence in those states, like Puebla.”

At Our Lady of Sorrows, one of the largest Catholic Mexican parishes in Queens, 5,000 to 6,000 people – more than six times the seating capacity – are expected to flock to the church. And in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, another 2,500 Mexicans are projected to attend its Guadalupe festivities.

Father Frank Mulvaney, one of the clergy at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, said that for New York Mexicans who may be struggling or looked down upon, “there’s a special identification with (Guadalupe).” It is believed by many Mexicans that the Virgin Mary specifically favored Juan Diego, a poor peasant, to symbolize her particular empathy for the downtrodden and overlooked.

According to priests and participants, the festival in New York is less traditional and lacks the religious fervor it commands in Mexico. At the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City, worshippers often fall to their knees and crawl almost two miles before reaching the church itself. Such acts of penitence are rare in New York, Mulvaney said.

At Corona’s Our Lady of Sorrows, Kuroly and his staff are readying themselves for the weekend. Charo Jiminez, who is in charge of the church’s volunteers, said they prepared 5,000 tamales, coffee and champorado, a chocolate drink, to be offered to worshippers.

When Dec. 12 arrives, the priests themselves will be sleep-deprived. Kuroly explained that he and other priests will hear confessions for seven hours overnight, until 6 a.m. on the feast day. “I’ll take the first shift,” Kuroly said. “I can’t get up early, but I can stay up late,” he added with a laugh.

Confession is not integral to the ceremony, but Kuroly views the Feast of Guadalupe as a chance to reach out to his flock. “We look at it as an evangelization point,” he said.

As with all the ceremonies around the city, a roster of mariachi bands will play and dance groups will perform through the night, as worshippers, clamoring to offer their flowers to Guadalupe, form a line that could stretch for blocks.

This will be Jesus Huerta’s third Feast of Guadalupe as a member of the dance troupe Juventud Azteca. Huerta, 14, dances alongside his sisters Esmerelda, 18, and Aducena, 11.

Between Dec. 11 and 13, the Huerta children will dance with their troupe, accompanied by their father’s mariachi band, in three churches in Brooklyn and New Jersey. “It’s pretty tiring,” Huerta said of the three-day grind.

The dance group meets three nights a week at Intermediate School 5 in Elmhurst, and began practicing Jalisco, the traditional dance of Guadalupe, over a month ago.

At Our Lady of Perpetual Help, the Huertas will perform in front of crowds of thousands. Stacey Becepril, 18, Huerta’s cousin and a member of the troupe, admitted that the crowds have made her nervous in the past. “But you get a sense of excitement at the same time,” she added.

The dance troupe is not paid for its efforts, but Huerta’s father, Jesus Sr., will be, highlighting how lucrative the Mexican festival can be.

A mariachi musician with 32 years of experience, Jesus Huerta Sr.’s five-person band has four gigs lined up in different churches during the Guadalupe weekend. The band, called Mariachi Mexico Lindo, will also play seven private serenatas, also known as mañanitas. These are “birthday” songs performed in a person’s home or business, to honor the Virgin.

All told, Huerta’s father said he stands to earn $1,500 during the three-day period, the amount the full-time musician usually makes in one month.

For bands like his, there is no time during the festival to actually worship Guadalupe alongside the community. But the elder Huerta is accustomed to it. Born in Puebla, Mexico, to a mariachi trumpeter, he was 7 when he performed his first Guadalupe, playing the vihuela, a lute-like, stringed instrument that is commonly heard in mariachi music.

Now Jesus Huerta Sr. plays the violin and has been performing at Guadalupe ceremonies in New York for eight years. The main song for the fest is the misa grande, performed inside the church. He said the festival can be tiring.

“Sometimes they end up sleeping in the car, because they don’t have time to go home,” Huerta said of his father’s band.

Along with mariachi music and Mass, roses are an important part of the fest. At Atlixco de las Flores, a block from Our Lady of Sorrows in Corona, owner Sabina Dominguez said she planned on staying open 29 hours straight during the event. She expected to sell 3,000 red and white roses to last-minute worshippers on their way to the church.

Her competitor, Latino Flores, a larger store around the corner on 103rd Street, is equally busy. Solis, its owner, anticipated that 70 percent of his revenues for the year would be made during the fest. He has ordered 10,000 bouquets of roses for Guadalupe, worth $100,000. His store will be open for six straight days.

One of Latino Flores’s potential customers is Manuel Martinez, a Mexican resident of Queens who was born in the U.S. He doesn’t consider himself religious, but still celebrates Guadalupe with his family each year “I wouldn’t say I’m Catholic, but I’m a believer,” Martinez said. “Guadalupe performs miracles.”

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