Dancers line up before performing in a Matachines and Aztecas procession… (Arkasha Stevenson, Los…)
Touted as the "largest celebration of the Virgin Mary in a generation," tens of thousands of believers filled the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Sunday afternoon to honor Our Lady of Guadalupe, the long-revered symbol of the Catholic Church.
Co-sponsored by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Knights of Columbus, the roughly three-hour long, bilingual "Guadalupe Celebration" featured prayer, music and dance, as well as remarks from Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles and other religious leaders.
More than 100,000 free tickets were distributed, organizers said, and although the 90,000-seat stadium was only about half full, the celebration drew attendees from throughout Southern California and beyond.
"We have people from all over the world, cultures, ways of life," Gomez said before the celebration's start. "We are very, very happy to celebrate today Our Lady of Guadalupe."
Catholics — particularly those of Mexican descent — have long cherished Our Lady of Guadalupe, whom they believe appeared before Juan Diego on a hillside outside Mexico City in the 1500s. According to the church, a dark-skinned Mary asked the poor Indian convert to tell the local bishop she wanted a chapel built for her people.
But the bishop was not convinced, and asked for a sign that the message was in fact from the Virgin mother.
Mary appeared again and told Juan Diego to gather roses and place them in his cloak. When he opened the tilma for the bishop, the roses fell out, revealing an image of Mary on the cloth.
Juan Diego was canonized by Pope John Paul II a decade ago, becoming the church's first indigenous American saint. His tilma, housed in Mexico City, has become an important symbol for the church.
A half-inch fragment of the cloak, known as the Tilma of Tepeyac, is enshrined at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles and believed to be the only piece in the United States.
"Every person on this continent shares a common mother, nuestra señora de Guadalupe," Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, told attendees Sunday. "We also have a shared future, a future of unity in our faith. The rosary which we say today and our love for Our Lady of Guadalupe can unite our city, unite our country."
Events honoring the tilma and the Virgin mother typically draw huge crowds. An estimated 140,000 people turned out to venerate the Tilma of Tepeyac during a 21-city tour before its arrival in Los Angeles in 2003. In 2009, 22,000 people attended the only other Guadalupe Celebration hosted by the Knights of Columbus at an Arizona arena.
When news spread about Sunday's celebration, Gomez said, the reaction was "unbelievable."
"It's an incredible response," he said. "As soon as we started talking about getting together for the festival for Our Lady of Guadalupe, people got really interested."
Reyna Camora, 41, came to the Coliseum from North Hollywood with three generations of her family. The group wore white T-shirts bearing a silver outline of the Virgin mother.
They waited in line for about two hours, Camora said, but they were glad to have the opportunity to celebrate the Virgin Mary at such a large event.
"We have faith in the Virgin," Camora said. "We're so joyful to be here."
"We have to honor our lady," said Maria Elena Martinez, 62, of Palmdale.
Live mariachi music filled the Coliseum as people made their way to the seats before the ceremony's start. Mexican flags and banners depicting Mary dotted the crowd, which cheered when traditional dancers opened the program.
The beloved relic of Juan Diego's tilma was then brought to the front of the stage, where Gomez led a rosary before addressing the crowd.
"Que viva la Virgen de Guadalupe!" he said. Long live the Virgin of Guadalupe.
The crowd roared.