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A man carries a ceramic likeness of the Virgin Mary into La Placita Church in downtown Los Angeles for one of several Masses held in conjunction with El Dia de la Virgen de Guadalupe.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

Scores of Catholics of Mexican and Central American descent crowd into La Placita Church in downtown Los Angeles for one of several Masses.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

Worshipers kneel and bow before an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe at La Placita Church in downtown Los Angeles.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

Catholic congregants serve hot chocolate and food to homeless people and religious celebrants alike gathered outside La Placita Church.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

An image of Jesus with flashing lights is displayed by a vendor at a stand outside La Placita Church.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

A pair of young men help carry a large floral arrangement with a likeness of the Virgin Mary into La Placita Church in downtown Los Angeles.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

A child dresses as Juan Diego, a Mexican saint, during El Dia de la Virgen de Guadalupe.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

A Guatemalan woman carries her child and arranges a bouquet of roses before attending one of several Masses.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

Musicians belonging to a banda group play for throngs of people crowding Spring Street between La Placita Church and Olvera Plaza.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

A boy eats cookies after singing outside La Placita Church in downtown Los Angeles.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

A group of women and children sing hymns in Spanish outside La Placita Church.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

Young men wait to carry large, framed likenesses of the Virgin of Guadalupe into one of several Masses held in conjunction with El Dia De La Virgen De Guadalupe (The Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe) celebratuons at La Placita Church in Los Angeles.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

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Honoring the Virgin of Guadalupe

By Luis Sinco

In an annual ritual that draws thousands of people, Catholic faithful of Mexican and Central American descent swarmed La Placita Church and nearby Olvera Street Plaza to celebrate Dia De La Virgen De Guadalupe.

The crowded and colorful festivities are held in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe — the universal symbol for Mexican Catholics — who is said to have appeared in a vision before Mexican peasant Juan Diego about 500 years ago. La Placita celebrations included unbroken strings of worship services as well as offerings of flowers and votive candles that illuminated the darkness outside the church and kept the throngs of people coming throughout the long, chilly night.

According to popular Mexican lore, Juan Diego saw the Virgin Mary on Tepeyac Hill in what now is Mexico City, on Dec. 9, 1531. The Virgin is said to have told him to ask the bishop to build a church on the hill. However, the skeptical bishop instructed the peasant to provide proof of the encounter, and Diego reportedly saw the Virgin again Dec. 12, at a spot on the hill marked by roses and where only cacti had previously grown. The Virgin arranged the flowers inside the peasant’s cloak and when he opened the garment before the bishop, the flowers fell to the floor, revealing on the fabric the now iconic image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

For the faithful gathered at La Placita, the Virgin seemed to be as real as she is mythic — and they celebrated as fervently as Catholics south of the U.S.-Mexico border. Perhaps more than anything, the day brought a sense of comfort and home to many seeking some sense of familiarity and cultural confirmation ahead of the year-end holidays. Celebrations at the historic church continue through the weekend.

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