Seven hundred years ago, Aztec runners held fiery torches aloft as they delivered messages to far-flung corners of their Mesoamerican empire.
On Sunday, Carlos Morales, a 17-year-old with braces from Salesian High School, wielded a modern-day version of the flame as he marked one of the final legs of a 2,700-mile torch relay that spanned two countries and ended on the football field of East Los Angeles College.
Wearing black slacks and a powder blue letterman sweater, the gifted runner jogged through the stadium with flame in hand as the crowd of 20,000 Roman Catholics roared and applauded as if at the Olympics. The relay was an addition to L.A.'s 77th annual Guadalupe Procession, an event to honor the Virgin Mary.
"It symbolizes hope for the poor," Morales said of the flame. "It shows the light to the people."
For generations, Mexicans have celebrated similar torch runs, ferrying fire from the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, an ancient Aztec site in Mexico City where Guadalupe -- Jesus' mother -- is said to have appeared before Saint Juan Diego in 1531.
The flame's odyssey, patterned after a similar torch relay that originated in New York six years ago, began at the Mexican basilica. Parishioners ran in organized relays through nine Mexican states, crossed the U.S. border at Brownsville, Texas, then passed on the flame to a delegation from Los Angeles.
Once it arrived in the United States in late October, the flame was transferred to another torch -- a 6-pound metal one.
Members of the Guadalupe Committee of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles drove the flame to Guadalupe, a small farming town in northwest Santa Barbara County, then launched a series of relay runs, walks and, in one case, a mile-long human chain, carrying it to more than a dozen Southern California churches bearing the virgin's name.
The torch reached parishes in Pasadena, Hermosa Beach and El Monte, among other places. Several thousand churchgoers greeted it at each stop, lining the streets in jogging shoes and exercise pants, and sporting the Virgin Mary's picture on T-shirts, bandannas and banners. Passing cars honked and yelled as the convoy passed, with parishioners running and praying on the sidewalk next to an old white truck hauling a 7-foot framed replica of the virgin's image.
On Thursday evening, runners who accompanied the torch shook off their shivers in front of a Washington Boulevard laundromat in South Los Angeles before setting off in the dark. As they ran, they prayed to Guadalupe to heal ailing family members, help them find work and get better grades, and in some cases, to aid President-elect Barack Obama.
Anabela Ponce was among those in South L.A. who got an opportunity to carry the torch.
"She signifies faith," Ponce, 17, said of Guadalupe, as she laced up her Converse tennis shoes for a portion of the relay coordinated by St. Paul's church. "She's like a second mother to us."
At some churches, demand to carry the torch was so high that priests organized raffles.
Maria Rodriguez of Lawndale lucked out. The 38-year-old mother of two was asked to step in without notice for a segment of the relay late last month after another runner dropped out. Rodriguez had not run in 14 years because of cysticercosis, a parasitic infestation that attacks the central nervous system. She feared her body would give up midway through her two-mile leg in Hermosa Beach, but she pushed herself to finish.
"I felt like my heart was rejoicing when the torch was in my hands," said Rodriguez, who had longed to one day see the flame at the famous basilica in her native Mexico.
Finally, after more than two months of relays through California, the torch arrived at the East Los Angeles College stadium. Many in the crowd had never set eyes on the fire that originated at the far-away basilica.
They pointed from afar, held their hands to their mouths in prayer and snapped photos of the smoke rising from the glowing torch.
"Look, son, that's the light of hope," Cristina Santiago, 26, whispered to her year-old son, Emanuel, who was dressed in plain Indian garb like Juan Diego.
Morales, the high school torchbearer, finished his leg of the race, passed off the torch to the next runner, then stepped to the side of the track and watched the crowd shout in praise.
He thought of his grandmother, who had first taught him the meaning of the fire when he was a child.
"It feels good," he said, "to keep passing along the message."