“Con todo mi alma … With all my soul,” sang the group of five sisters, dressed in the habits of their Guadalajara-based order, the Catechist Sisters of Jesus Crucified, ministering in Salinas, Calif., with a grant from the Catholic Extension Society. .
The song, a kind of suspect prayer – that is, a prayer of dedication to God, captured the feeling of the hundred or so people I prayed with recently in the California neighborhood. There was a tent set up between the apartment blocks where the attendees, mostly from Oaxaca in southern Mexico, lived. They were recent immigrants to this place, John Steinbeck’s home, lured like Steinbeck’s characters by the promise of work on nearby farms or factories. Many spoke Spanish; others spoke their native Náhuatl or mixteca; but all had come to recite the Rosary in community and bring their needs before God. Rarely have I witnessed such a deeply personal experience of common prayer.
The sisters performed a song written by a sister from their community, expressing their commitment as religious consecrated to the work of the Lord; but they also expressed the desires expressed throughout the community. The focal point of this gathering was a makeshift shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Juquila, a devotion that originated in Oaxaca in the 17th century. The morenitaas it is sometimes called — “the little brunette” — welcomes millions of pilgrims every year, although outside of Mexico it is less well known than the Virgin of Guadalupe.
The devotion had begun after a Spanish Dominican, Jordán de Santa Caterina, who brought the statue of the Virgin to southern Mexico, gave it to his servant upon his death. When a fire ravaged the small village of Amialtepec, the statue was spared, but its skin took on the same brown color as that of the local villagers – natives of Mayan descent. The servant guarded her with great respect, and the locals began to attribute miracles to her.
Later, a priest from the nearby town of Juquila wanted her installed in his church. The statue was brought there several times, but each time the Virgin reappeared in Amialtepec among her devotees. Years later, after the priest gave up, his successor petitioned the bishop, who organized an official procession of the image to the Church of Santa Caterina Juquila, where it remains to this day.
Many people make a pilgrimage with their requests to pediment (“place of request”), about 1 kilometer from the church. They bring written requests, or perhaps an image fashioned with local clay. Some speculate that the significance of the clay is that it represents the very ground where the Virgin sought to remain, until the priest of Juquila made a formal and dignified petition on behalf of the church.
Like the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Lady of Juquila has a heart for the people and their land; one can sense in the devotion a certain populism and even an anticlericalism, reflecting the desire of the Virgin to be at home with local peasants rather than shut up in a church. She feels for them, grants their requests and wants to be their mother. Even after the papal coronation of the devotion in 2014, the devotion remains deeply tied to a people and a place.
Hence the crowds that gathered there in Salinas, California this year. A community leader described to me how residents take turns tending the image, but this weekly rosary was a summons to the entire community of Oaxaquenõs to bring their prayers before Our Lady. They spoke their petitions aloud: “for safety in our streets”, “for our young people” and “for healing”. They named the mysteries, each spoken by a different person leading the prayer, and responded antiphonally. They recited the Fatima prayer after each decade as well as the prayer of Saint Michael. They ended with a beautiful litany of the Virgin. I followed my Spanish Rosary app, promising myself to memorize the prayers for the next occasion.
Subsequently, many came forward to receive a flower and brush it against the image of the Virgin, so that it would be a sign for a loved one of the mother’s protection. Looking at them, I remembered the words to the song the sisters were singing: “with all my soul.” Many of these people have no papers and fear deportation. They live amid violence – a nearby park is named after a child who was shot and killed – and economic uncertainty. Many have fled from places where there is even more violence, and they unveiled their souls to Our Lady in the hope that she would grant them security, consolation, perhaps even a little comfort.
Now, when I touch the rosary that I always carry with me, a rosary made by the women of Oaxaca, I join my prayer to theirs. Virgin of Juquila, “to you we send our sighs, weeping and crying in this vale of tears”.
[Tim Muldoon, adjunct professor at Boston College, is the director of mission education at the Catholic Extension Society, which supports and strengthens poor mission dioceses across the United States. All Soul Seeing columns can be found at NCRonline.org/blogs/soul-seeing.]