1,000-plus dancers, supporters celebrate Houston’s 50th Virgen de Guadalupe festival

December 13, 2022

Processing in 1988 during some of the first Virgen de Guadalupe Festival celebrations in Houston, a group of Guadalupanas from Holy Family Catholic Church in Missouri City marched the route from Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church on Navigation to the original Sacred Heart Co-Cathedral through downtown Houston. From left to right, Priscilla Reyes, Carmen Tristan, Hilda Ramon, one of the first presidents of Holy Family, Missouri City Guadalupanas, banner carrier John Tristan and Father Ted Valencia, CSB. The group was part of 16 parishes in the procession through downtown Houston that first started in 1972 to celebrate “La Virgen de Guadalupe” on her Feast day, annually, Dec. 12. The 50th-anniversary celebration has grown to more than 1,000 participants from at least 20 parishes today. (Photo courtesy of John Tristan)

PHOTOS: Houston's Our Lady of Guadalupe 50th anniversary celebration dances on in style

HOUSTON — Mercedes Juarez came to Houston 52 years ago, moving from Mexico to the newly built Galleria area while Post Oak was still mostly pastures.

Only two Catholic churches in Houston offered Mass in Spanish then, so she had to take two city buses, transferring from downtown to another bus and traveling to the East End to attend Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on Navigation and Jensen.

“We as immigrants leave behind our mother, father, brothers and sisters, but we do not leave behind our faith,” Juarez said. She and her husband, Daniel Juarez, were among about 1,000 others celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Virgen de Guadalupe Festival in downtown Houston on Dec. 4.

In that spirit, Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in 1972 first began what has grown to become an Archdiocesan-wide celebration of La Virgen de Guadalupe Festival. The 50-year-old local event now draws more than 1,000 mostly Hispanic families and their dancers dressed in colorful costumes, including feathered regalia and rattling beads. They swirl to indigenous routines dancing to strong drumbeats and haunting calls blown from conch shells.

No matter what the origin, whether traditionally Chichimecas, Aztecas or Mexicas, the dancers are paying respect to Jesus and His mother Mary given as “the Mother of us all,” said Auxiliary Bishop Italo Dell’Oro, CRS, praying over and blessing the procession.

The tradition honors the time on Dec. 9, 1531, on a hill of Tepeyac near a village in what is now Mexico City. Juan Diego was stopped on his way to Mass by the appearance of a brown-skinned woman bathed in light and speaking in his indigenous tongue of Nahautl. She requested a church be built on that site to manifest the love of Jesus and hear the petitions of the faithful.

At her bidding, he visited Bishop Juan de Zumarraga, who doubted the story. But Juan Diego saw the Virgin Mary again on Dec. 12, now the official feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe. She arranged roses within his cloak picked from the hill where only cactus had been growing before. She told him to present the flowers as a gift to the bishop.

When Juan Diego returned to the bishop and opened his cloak or tilma, the roses tumbled out, and surprisingly, the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was miraculously traced on the coat, which still exists today on display at the Basilica of Guadalupe on that hill in Mexico City.

Realizing Juan Diego, now canonized as a saint, was telling him the truth, the bishop began constructing the basilica, which led to massive conversions of indigenous to Catholicism. The shrine in Mexico City remains one of the most visited Catholic pilgrimage sites in the world.

As the local celebration has grown, the procession route was changed from the co-cathedral to the George R. Brown Convention Center starting in 1997, said Juarez, who at one time served as president of the Association of Guadalupanas organizing the procession.

Participants celebrated Mass with Daniel Cardinal DiNardo and Bishop Dell’Oro upon arriving at the convention center.

Priscella Marquez, current president of the association, said at least two of the dance groups Sunday had 150 dancers each and about 20 churches participating.

“The celebration for the 50th anniversary was so beautiful to return to downtown and see all the families coming together after COVID-19 caused it to be canceled in 2020,” Marquez said.

Now the association works in conjunction with the Archdiocesan Office of Hispanic Ministry, whose current director, Lazaro Contreras, said the event epitomizes both the diversity of all the Latin American countries and the unity of the local Hispanic community.

“As the Patroness of the Americas, Our Lady of Guadalupe is a symbol of love and understanding, a unifying presence for all of us in the Americas,” Contreras said. “This event helps families pass on the faith and cultural values to their young.”

Even nine years before the 500th anniversary of the 1531 vision of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Houston Catholics are already planning how to celebrate even bigger and better, coordinating with officials in Mexico City, whose Basilica events are televised worldwide.