Growing up as an only child, my status as sole offspring led me into a preoccupation with stories about what it’s like to be raised in a huge, too-many-siblings-to-count families: The Sound of Music with the seven Von Trapp children singing and dancing their way through the days; The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, which chronicles the ways in which four sister and an elder brother work to care for one another and their widowed mother; and around Christmas time, I would always light up at the thought of rereading my favorite picture book celebrating the raucous, mischievous, more-love-to-go-around nature of cousins in Too Many Tamales by Gary Soto.
Too Many Tamales is about cousins, yes, but it’s also about — you guessed it — tamales: specifically, the Mexican-American tradition of gathering extended family around the table each Christmas Eve to assemble an enormous batch of tamales for dozens of aunts, uncles and everyone in-between to enjoy. While each family has their own steeped-in-tradition means of crafting tamales (particularly the filling, which can range from spiced ground beef to a melange of vegetables), Soto’s narration takes a classic, step-by-step approach to explaining classic tamale preparations: splaying out the corn husks, spreading them with masa (corn dough), adding filling, and then steaming them over the stove in batches. The twist? Our young tamale-making hero, Maria, decides to play with her mother’s diamond ring while kneading the masa, and when she can’t find the piece of jewelry after the tamales drop to cook, worries that she’s left it inside a tamale, resulting in the inspired (if a little rascally) choice to force her cousins to eat through all 24 tamales in an attempt to find the ring. (Spoiler alert: The ring was fine, and the family gladly worked together to make 24 more tamales — a true win-win.)
The book captures not only a sense of gathering and commitment to tradition through cooking, but the ways in which the process of creation and ceremony build a bridge between past, present, and future. Another tradition that remains central to linking future generations to the rituals of home for Mexican Americans is the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, celebrated each Dec. 12. The Patron Saint of the Americas, Our Lady of Guadalupe (sometimes simply called “Our Lady”) refers to the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, with her annual feast day marking the moment when she revealed herself through an apparition in present-day Mexico that led to Christianity becoming widely embraced across the country.
“December 12, 1531, was when the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe happened for [recently converted Catholic] Juan Diego during a time when the Franciscan missionaries in Mexico were having a lot of trouble evangelizing to the Indigenous people. The Indigenous cultures there were in the middle of a depression, because their hopes were failing, and in their minds, they were thinking that it was almost the end of the world: something big is going to happen about this time. But even during this depression, when [Our Lady] expressed herself in the apparition, they recognized her because all the symbols that are in her image represent that she brings the truly living God to them,” explains Angélica Malmberg, Administrative Assistant for the Hispanic Ministry at the Diocese of Lafayette.
The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe had appeared several times before to Juan Diego (who was, himself, Indigenous) in previous visions, but on Dec. 12, the apparition of Our Lady he witnessed was so filled with rich, identifiable symbolism it moved the hearts of a population toward conversion. Malmberg notes that conversions to Christianity were so widespread across what is now Mexico in the wake of Our Lady’s apparition that it’s said 300,000 people were once baptized in a single day.
“All the elements of the apparition were symbolic to the [Indigenous people] in the sense that they could understand what she meant with her clothes and the gestures. There’s a kind of radiance behind her, like the sun, which for the Indigenous community was God, yet this image was saying to them, ‘This woman is not God, but God is behind her.’ Her hands appear to be in what we call prayer, but for the Indigenous, that position of the hands means offering. And what was she offering? Well, she was offering her son. And how do they know that? Because she was wearing a sash on her waist which was an indication for the Indigenous that this a pregnant woman,” says Deacon Juan Pagán, Coordinator for Hispanic Ministry in the Diocese of Lafayette. “She appears to be a mixture of both Spaniard and Indigenous — kind of like what we say here, Creole, a mixture of races — so it’s another way of saying that she belongs to everyone. These little symbolisms appearing in the image spoke to them about Mary and the message of salvation through Jesus Christ…and that’s when a humongous number of conversions began. The Mexican people, their love for her, it’s just outstanding.”
While not all feast day festivities for Our Lady of Guadalupe are the same — some people honor her for 46 days, others begin their ceremonies on the day of Juan Diego’s first apparition, Dec. 9 — the sacred celebration is becoming a more widespread, and well-known, part of the holiday tapestry across the United States as Hispanic populations continue to grow. The National Study of Catholic Parishes with Hispanic Ministry released by Boston College in 2014 found that Hispanic Catholics make up roughly 40 percent of the approximately 78 million Catholics in the United States today, and that 25 percent of all Catholic parishes now provide Hispanic ministries, including mass in Spanish. What’s more, the vast majority of these Hispanic ministries inside Catholic churches, 38 percent, are located in the Southeast. Pagán notes that approximately 90 percent of the ever-growing number of Hispanic congregants he serves in Lafayette are from Mexico, so while they might come with small differences in tradition based on where in the country that they’re from, all have a deep love for Our Lady of Guadalupe and her feast day.
“Here in Lafayette, the kind of celebrations that we do reflect the traditions that are in Mexico. We have a diocesan-wide celebration on December 12, on the official Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and historically, it was just that celebration. But as the Hispanic community has grown in size across our area, now we’re beginning to see the different parishes doing their own celebrations in addition to the one that we do in the diocese.”
The ceremony honoring Our Lady is a thing of profound, grassroots-led beauty, and from the delicate, multi-colored paper garlands that adorn the cathedral’s exterior, known as papel picado, to the traditional dancers, known as danza Guadalupana, a sense of community and cooperation shines during the feast day.
“What the celebration entails is a procession around the cathedral, which includes several groups of Indigenous dancers who honor Our Lady through their dance, and then the choir, the people, go singing through the entrance of the cathedral and bring the image, the statue of Our Lady, with them. The children are encouraged to dress up as little Juan Diegos and the girls to dress like little Our Lady of Guadalupes. It’s the cutest thing. They bring flowers to Our Lady, symbolic of the miracle that happened when the bishop was requesting proof from Juan Diego that these apparitions were real, and Our Lady did the miracle of making flowers bloom in the middle of winter. We try to have a choir that is combined with the different people from different parishes to have a sense of unity. Then after the bilingual Mass, we have a celebration that’s just a big old Mexican feast: good food, dancing and music.”
And the one food Pagán and Malmberg raced to answer is the most popular dish during the Feast Day? Homemade tamales, of course.
“One thing that had always impressed me as we go through the process of preparation for the feast is the amazing and beautiful love and devotion that everyone has for Our Lady. They get so excited to decorate the outside the cathedral. Last year, it was raining, it was cold, but it’s a great honor make the decorations for the Feast Day, so they were so happy to do it no matter what. I mean, sometimes it brings me to tears to see the efforts and the generosity of bringing things to the table. Whether it’s money that is needed, or food, or decorations — I mean, you name it — if it’s for Our Lady, they’ve got it,” says Pagán, who also notes that posole (which he describes as “a Mexican gumbo”), horchata and moles are also popular Feast Day dishes.
Generosity sits at the heart of Our Lady’s Feast Day, and speaks to just how important capturing the revolutionary, heart-changing nature of her apparition is for Hispanic communities each year.
“The dancers are also so interesting because it’s not something that we coordinate. These are people who love Our Lady so much that they come together in their communities to dance for her. They make their own costumes, and they not only come to our celebration, but they also actually visit different homes and honor Our Lady in the particular home of a family who requests it,” Pagán explains. “You have adults and children dancing, and these are people who work late, so they get together really late to rehearse, and sometimes they will be in a parking lot practicing until 2:00 in the morning. And what always impresses me is the fact that they do this at no cost. They never say, ‘Hey, we’ll go to your celebration and dance for you. It will just cost you this and that.’ No, everything is at no cost. This is something that they do in honor of Our Lady.”
Continuing this overflowing of generosity, Hispanic members of Our Lady of Sacred Heart in the nearby small town of Church Point spent their leftover fundraising money from last year’s festivities on a singularly precious gift for Feast Day: a new statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe specifically made for the ceremony, her radiance all aglow, which Malmberg traveled to pick up in Mexico earlier this year. This holiday season, the deeply held connection to home felt by Mexican immigrants in Lafayette will be even more meaningful when the new statue graces the doors of the cathedral for her first official celebration: a homecoming that will certainly be felt by all from first vigil to final tamale.
“For immigrants, celebrating Our Lady of Guadalupe is a way of going back home because it just brings that reality back to where they are and what matters to them,” Pagán reflects. “It’s a feeling that they’re at home.”