This story originally appeared on Texas Public Radio.
Every December, many Catholics honor the Virgin of Guadalupe. People native to Mexico and the Southwest celebrate in a variety of ways. Some traditional groups sing ancient Aztec songs all through the night, and dance throughout the next day as a way to honor the Virgin, which they interpret as Mother Earth. One San Antonio family and their community members held their ceremony last Friday night.
Hundreds of people were in and out of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church that night.
“I mean some people who never come to church, and they’ll come tonight because they feel very moved by the songs,” Xelina Flores says. “It’s very special.”
Flores’ group sang ancient songs until four in the morning, and after a rest, offered traditional dances throughout the day Saturday. Her family is native to this area. While she doesn’t usually attend this church, she says it was built by her people. This land is sacred. So this night she joins others from all walks of life, to honor something deeply rooted in their culture.
“A lot of different groups come and give their offerings through flowers and song and dance and prayers,” Flores says.
They’re honoring la Virgen de Guadalupe, or Tonantzin for Flores’ group which follows ancient Aztec traditions. The story is of the virgin’s appearance to the native peasant Juan Diego. She brought messages to him, and when he revealed his tapestry with an image of her, it was considered a miracle.
“This is always a message of peace, and people coming together,” Flores says. “She’s a mother.”
That’s Mother Earth for Flores’ group, which represents love, nurturing, and the birth of so many things.
Xelina’s father, José Flores, is a leader in the community. He says tonight is the end of their cycle of ceremonies for the year.
“We are honoring our Mother Earth,” Flores says, “although we should do it every day but this is the special time of the year when all Mexicanos celebrate the day for La Madre Tonantzin or Mother Earth. Right now, tonight there will be millions of people doing the ceremony.”
While this group is more traditional, other native people have grown closer to Catholicism, and there’s everything in between. That’s a result of the Spanish coming and imposing their traditions. Native people were forced to change their worship, giving up drums, language and clothing.
“Our ancestors had to find a way to adapt to maintain the same spirituality, spiritual identity, mixing it with Christian symbols,” José Flores says.
Xelina Flores says that was a difficult transition for her ancestors, but they were able to make sense of it. “It was like oh, well there’s a lot of similarities here, we understand this symbol of Virgin de Guadalupe, for us it’s Tonantzin,” Flores says. “We know those colors, the cross.”
José Flores’ journey to these practices was long. Decades ago, he and his wife wanted to connect to their roots. Through friends in the Chicano movement, they made many trips to Mexico to meet an elder, and learn these ways. Flores’ connection to the faith is clear.
“Because that’s the one that is more like me, mestizo,” he says. “Part European, and part Azteca.”
Xelina was born into these practices, and says the process of learning along with other families was warm. “Like if we were singing the songs incorrectly and just humming along. That was still seen as a vibration going in the right direction,” Flores says. “Or I remember when I would dance maybe accidentally going in the wrong direction. Eventually you start to learn just from being around it”.
Now she’s teaching the third generation, at least in her contemporary family. Her oldest son is 15 and very involved in the traditions. He plays the drums. But she worries interest in the community isn’t as strong as when her parents were young. She says that might just be a reflection of her own fears with her own children – maybe they’d rather be doing something else.
“It’s the children that become such a very important part of what we do, because they are the ones that will continue it on,” Xelina Flores says.
José Flores isn’t worried about it.
He says he doesn’t worry that these traditions will eventually be lost to time. “They won’t,” he says. “Any true form of worship may transform perhaps, but it won’t disappear. It won’t.”
For now, this ceremony is the start of the holidays for this family – the colors, the family, and of course the food, including tamales – another example of the native and Aztec ways infusing with the Spanish.
Another fusion is happening in Xelina’s own family. Her younger boys’ father is Jewish, so they’re learning those practices, too.
“It all comes down to love and family and traditions,” Xelina Flores says. “There hasn’t been anything that has conflicted.”