PANORAMA CITY — A year ago Sunday, on the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, about 250 residents of Blythe Street implored the Virgin to rid their notorious neighborhood of gangs, drugs and poverty.
This year, on what has been called the worst block in the San Fernando Valley, residents once again gathered for the feast day, which pays homage to the protector of the downtrodden and the oppressed.
Problems in the neighborhood remain. But some who live on Blythe feel their prayers are being answered.
"Since last year, the Virgin has shown us a lot of love," Father Samuel Arellano said during a special Mass on Sunday, in which about 40 youngsters celebrated their first Communion.
"The Virgin is to thank for this celebration, for this music. She is to thank for everything."
Speaking from a makeshift altar adorned with rose petals, poinsettias and pictures of the Virgin, Arellano also appealed to the crowd--which was about the same size as last year's--to continue to turn to Mary for hope.
"We need to ask the Virgin for peace and love and understanding in the family," the priest said. "She will keep us free of all danger." The children, dressed in formal white gowns and tuxedos and clutching special candles and prayer books, sat remarkably still during the three-hour ceremony.
"We want to do this because we believe in God," said 11-year-old Johnny Lopez, who along with the others studied at night for six months to receive the sacrament. "And also it's for the Virgin. This is her special day."
The day was also important for adult residents of the street, many of whom helped in the months-long process of organizing the ceremony. In addition to the Communion ceremony, there were performances by a mariachi band and an Aztec dance troupe.
"This is a big event for us Mexicans," said Michoacan native Margarita Soriano, who lives in an apartment building that was decorated with gleaming white balloons and crepe paper for the ceremony. She spoke in Spanish.
"She is the patron saint of Mexico," Soriano said. "We love her."
Genny Alberts, who owns a building on the street and founded a nonprofit group to help revitalize the neighborhood, agreed.
"It's a cultural thing," the Yucatan native said. "This day is helping the residents to regain their identity."
Unlike last year's celebration, which was the first to be held on Blythe Street, Alberts said that this year nearly everyone in the community joined together to organize the event.
"We even had gang members out there cleaning the streets last night," she said.
Historically, Blythe Street has provided cheap housing for immigrants, but in recent years, it has become infamous for its gang members brazenly dealing drugs on the street.
Problems became so bad that in April, the Los Angeles city attorney's office won a court injunction prohibiting gang members from taking part in legal activities, including standing on rooftops, having pagers or being on private property without written permission from the owner.
"When we first came out to this street, the prognosis was that it is too dangerous," said Margaret Welch of the Blythe Street Project, a community outreach organization. "But there are some natural leaders out here. Things are getting better."
One of those leaders is Federico Gallegos, who taught the youngsters catechism at night for six months so they could receive their first Communion.
Gallegos called upon the Virgin to make life better for his students. "I want her to do something for the kids in the street," he said. "We are hoping that they can have a better future."
A far larger celebration of the feast day took place in East Los Angeles, where nearly 7,000 people marched down Brooklyn Avenue.
Young and old parishioners, some in baby strollers and wheelchairs, came from more than 100 churches in the Los Angeles Archdiocese to stroll with mariachi bands and parochial school cheerleaders down a mile-long stretch of the avenue, waving Mexican flags and carrying pictures of the Virgin.
The annual procession commemorates Dec. 12, 1531, the day Catholicism holds that the Virgin Mary appeared to a poor pagan farmer near Mexico City, thus solidifying Catholicism in the Spanish-conquered territories that would become Mexico.
On Sunday, a little girl re-creating the scene of Mary's appearance stood in blue silk robes in the bed of a pickup truck that rolled along the route. Kneeling in front of the girl was a young boy playing Juan Diego, the Indian farmer who saw the Virgin in the countryside more than 450 years ago and was converted to Catholicism.
"We come to pay homage to Our Lady of Guadalupe, who gives us strength," said Vicky Carrera of East Los Angeles. "I feel good coming. You receive blessings when you're here."