Two years ago, Andrea Soto's breathless voice was the faintest in the choir.
She wore a wig to hide her scalp — bare from months of chemotherapy — and forced herself to smile and keep up with the lyrics.
After all, this was a time to say thank you.
For many Latino Catholics across Los Angeles, the second week of December is about paying tribute to the mother of God, La Virgen de Guadalupe. They set up altars with lights and roses in their homes, parade in colorful street processions and awake before sunrise each Dec. 12 to serenade the virgin at local churches.
Downtown, at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, another tradition has taken root in the last nine years: a two-day musical production by the L.A.–based Latino Theater Company, drawing nearly 3,500 people for each performance. The play brings to life the story of how in 1531, the virgin appeared four times to Indian peasant Juan Diego, a Roman Catholic convert, in the hills above Mexico City.
Soto joined the choir eight years ago and hasn't missed a single rehearsal, even after the 64-year-old was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007 and given two years to live. This year, when she proudly took her place in the choir, her signature salt-and-pepper locks again reached past her shoulders.
"Coming here is something that I feel in my heart I have to do," she said. "I have to thank her for each day of life I have."
Others in the 150-person cast of mostly amateur actors — grandmothers, teenagers and children with little or no acting experience — drive from as far away as Cerritos and Oxnard to be in the play. Just before Thanksgiving each year, they set aside everything, including soccer practice, soap operas, homework and family dinners, to battle traffic and sit through four-hour rehearsals.
Many participants see it as a tribute to a woman they have prayed to and revered as a mother all their lives. The Virgin of Guadalupe is widely venerated by Latin American Catholics, especially Mexicans, who consider her the queen — and patron saint — of their homeland.
On Thursday and Friday, all the hard work paid off as the cathedral was packed with parishioners fascinated by a 90-minute show of feathered Aztec dancers, traditional songs and the age-old story of how the virgin once helped Juan Diego, who was canonized in 2002, build a shrine in her honor.
Some teenagers in the play have been involved since they were in preschool. They know every line, every cue, every tweak that's been made to the script, which is brought to life in Spanish and the Aztec language of Nahuatl by director Jose Luis Valenzuela.
Each year, as if at camp, they return to see familiar faces they have known for years.
"It's comforting to me," said Alicia Coca, 13, of Burbank, who began playing a village child in the production when she was 5. "I'd feel bad if I didn't do it, and I see myself being a part of it for as long as it keeps going."
For Chris Garcia, who plays indigenous instruments such as turtle shells and clay flutes in the production, the show is about passing along his late father's love of the Virgin Mary.
Garcia said he's not the devout Catholic his father was, but he enjoys the family connection he feels in keeping the annual tradition alive.
"Every year my father would take part in a procession in her honor," Garcia said. "He did it until he couldn't' walk anymore. Now I do this in honor of my pop, my folks and their faith."
The East L.A. native travels the world with different bands but said he clears his calendar each December to take part in the cathedral's musical. A few years ago, his daughter also joined the choir.
The cast's oldest member is 95-year-old Domitila Arzaluz of Boyle Heights. She sits in the choir with women who range from their 40s to their 70s. Unlike many, she rarely bothers with Mass on Sunday. She'd rather pray quietly at home.
But the musical production is something that can't be missed, she said.
To sing for the virgin is to take back the childhood she never had growing up in Mexico City in the 1920s, when she went to work, far too young, as a housekeeper and seamstress.
"I know I am an old woman," Arzaluz said. "But here I feel like I can finally play."