Scores of Latino garment workers who spend their days putting sequins on $1,500 evening gowns stood in the company cafeteria Tuesday morning and wiped tears from their eyes as they sang songs they had known since childhood about the Virgin of Guadalupe.
They had arrived at the makeshift Catholic chapel at St. John Knits in Irvine two hours before their 7 a.m. shift to celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
"For Latinos, especially Mexicans, the holiday is like the Fourth of July and Christmas rolled into a single day. It's both a national and religious celebration," said Father Rafael Luevano, who presided over the early morning Mass at the designer clothing company in Irvine. "They're crying because they love the Virgin. And they also get homesick."
More than a decade ago, garment worker Maria Guadalupe Femat asked St. John executives to allow the annual service as long as employees held it during non-working hours. The early shift meant that employees could not attend regular church services before work.
The company agreed.
"This is a very, very important day at work," Femat said. "Today, we have one heart."
The feast commemorates the day in 1531 when, the story goes, a dark-skinned Virgin Mary--speaking in Nahuatl, the Aztec tongue--appeared to a poor Indian named Juan Diego in what's now Mexico City and left her image on his cloak. The original image lies inside the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.
While the company allows the use of its space, the celebration is planned and put on by the employees. For Tuesday's service, St. John workers from various departments pitched in to buy huge bouquets of roses to decorate the temporary altar, which was surrounded by seven framed pictures of the Virgin. Red, green and white ribbons--the colors of Mexico--were draped across the cafeteria. And many employees brought their children, many of whom were dressed in festive costumes.
"It's very important to them spiritually," said Rick Richards, vice president of manufacturing in charge of 1,500 workers. "Employees are pretty much what makes this company--it's a labor-intensive business."
The company has never had a complaint about the service, he said. Many workers describe it as the best work day of the year.
On Tuesday, a 10-piece mariachi band led workers in song for 45 minutes before Luevano conducted a service in Spanish.
As a youth, Luevano recalled, the traditional Anglo representation of the Virgin Mary did not move him as did the woman with Indian eyes and dark skin.
"I had an intuitive and instinctual attraction to her," Luevano said. "I had a sense of pride that she was family."