The Virgin of Zapopan and Migrants: Pilgrimage in Movement against U.S. Oppression

By Ellie Stone

They were burned nearly black, their lips huge and cracking, what paltry drool still available to them spuming from their mouths in a salty foam as they walked. Their hair was hard and stiffened by old sweat, standing in crowns from their scalps, old sweat because their bodies were no longer sweating. They were drunk from having their brains baked in the pan, they were seeing God and devils, and they were dizzy from drinking their own urine, the poisons clogging their systems.[1]

This is Luis Alberto Urrea’s vivid description of the physical state of five Mexican immigrants emerging from the desert in his book The Devil’s Highway. Every year hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants cross the United States-Mexico border in hopes of achieving a safer and more financially stable life, but the risk to attain that goal is great. Compare this fatal journey to the annual pilgrimage of the wooden figurine of the Virgin of Zapopan, who flies safely in a jet from her home in Mexico to East Los Angeles. The stark contrast between the two journeys is startling but much can be learned from their comparison.

The strange juxtaposition of the pilgrimage of Lady Zapopan and the journey of the undocumented Mexican migrants illuminates a complex relationship between the United States and Mexico, and it offers a window into the difficulties of Hispanic life in America. When studying immigration, most scholars and experts use economic and other rational models to understand migrant motivations. This paper aligns itself with the work of scholars like Luis D. León, Jacqueline Maria Hagan, Mary Louise Pratt, and others in its exploration of the role of religion in Mexican movement to and settlement in the United States. Religious movement across the U.S- Mexican border plays a key role in the establishment of Mexican identity in the face of an oppressive force.

To consider the significance of the figurine’s pilgrimage in the formation of the Mexican identity, one must first grasp the climate in which the pilgrimage was established and currently takes place. Looking foreword in the paper, this author will first establish historical events affecting the United States-Mexico relationship. The historical discussion will lead to the examination of the conflict between values of Catholicism and Protestantism, a clash that further ostracizes Hispanic communities. However, it is from their religion, Catholicism, that the members of Hispanic communities draw their strength. It is a reliance that stems back to life in their places of origin. After reflecting on this deep-rooted religiosity, this paper will then move to explain and analyze the annual pilgrimage of the wooden figure Lady Zapopan. By the conclusion, this author will have substantiated the claim that this border crossing pilgrimage plays a key role in the formation of a strong Hispanic identity in the face of the exclusive American society.

United States involvement in Mexican international and internal affairs have not helped and, in many cases, have actually hindered Mexican growth. Many theorists have asserted that American global agreements are actually instruments of power that work to further institutionalize United States dominance while oppressing other nations[2]. For example, in 1994 the NAFTA agreement made it so that collective landholdings were privatized. As a result there was an enormous amount of pressure on small farms to abandon their subsistence crops in favor of crops such as kiwi and snow peas. However, the shift proved impossible for most due to limited funds, and soon small-scale Mexican farmers could no longer compete[3]. Families were left struggling to survive on a day-to-day basis. In a CBS news article Armando Ibanez recounts his life in Mexico before traveling to the United States. “Not having food to eat every day and seeing your mother struggling — seeing your mother struggling to provide food, that’s one of the sad memories I have from Mexico”[4]. US citizens hold a general unawareness of this level of desperation in Mexico, and therefore there is a misconception or lack of understanding regarding the motivations of Mexican migrants. There is also little American consideration of push factors out of Mexico and into the United State by most Americans. The War on drugs has made many Mexican communities dangerous. Homicide rates are 10-14 for every 100,000 people per day while the global average is 10.9 for every 100,000[5]. People fleeing from their homes hold the hope that life will be safer and more stable in the U.S. Many Americans diminish the desperation in Mexico and accuse immigrants of stealing American jobs. In the case of the Narco War, Americans continue to regard themselves as heroes in a dire situation. Unfortunately, American views of the self dismiss negative consequences of United States policy concerning Mexico. As a result, historical events are positioned in American memory so that there are no victims of U.S. “progress” and international interventions. Therefore, Mexican immigrants are thought of as intruders rather than victims of American oppression.

Consider, again, Luis Urrea’s account of the five men stumbling through the desert to salvation. They represent a small fraction of the original twenty-six men who attempted to traverse the Arizona desert together. Their story is just one example out of hundreds of thousands who never realize a successful ending to their fatal journey across the United States-Mexico border. Those who do survive the migration, however, are not met with a happy ending. Immigrants must adjust to new hardships that come with living on the margins of society. According to a study conducted by NPR, undocumented immigrants are less educated than citizens of the US. In fact, 49 percent have not finished high school[6]. This leaves workers with little qualification for jobs other than manual labor and therefore are working for much lower incomes[7]. Not only are there continuous hardships for survival, families with undocumented members live in constant fear that their loved ones will be torn from them due to United States deportation programs[8]. In the face of all this, it is crucial to establish an identity and a tie to home. This identity is created by deploying religion, and creatively adapting traditional rituals to fit in their new environment.

Before considering these adapted rituals, it is first necessary to consider the hardships of a foreign Catholic reestablishing his or her self in the Protestant based culture of the United States. The clash of religious social values makes it yet harder for Mexican immigrants to immerse themselves and be excepted in American communities. One of the main places of this religious contention can be located in the work place. Mark Stoll effectively explains the Protestant work ethic, which “emerged as a salient component of Protestantism because work was ordained by God, it was associated with asceticism, and it was useful to society, whereas idleness offended God, tended toward vice, and burdened society with useless mouths to feed”[9]. When not being accused of stealing jobs, Mexican immigrants are often labeled “idle,” as many must wait on roadsides for someone to request their physical labor. In addition, many accuse illegal immigrants of benefitting from institutions supported by the tax payers’ dollar– for example, public education. From this view, Mexican immigrants are literally the burden to society of which Protestantism warns. This discrimination directly challenges the cultural values of the Catholic Mexican immigrants. In contrast to the philosophy of Protestantism, Catholics elevate the common good above the individual. The differentiation in social values further separates Mexican immigrants from American society. The seemingly irreconcilable separation of values is so great that many members of Hispanic communities are converting to Protestantism. The rise in popularity of Pentecostal Christianity in Latin American communities can often simply be attributed to the desire to make life easier[10]. The alignment with popular American culture is believed to help put immigrants in the game of attaining the American Dream. Despite the rise in conversion though, Hispanic communities still retain a fierce devotion to practice of some Catholic rituals. It is in this insistence to continue Catholic traditions that one can perceive the importance of religion when claiming the Mexican identity in a national community that excludes hispanic immigrants.

The importance of maintaining religious practices in the United States can be attributed to the prominence of religion in everyday life in Latin America. It is also particularly important in the preparation for and in the execution of border crossing. In her book, Migration Miracle: Faith, Hope, and Meaning, Jacqueline Maria Hagan describes the level of involvement a perish plays in an individual’s crossing. She explains first that once the decision to cross has been made, prayers become more specified. Those planning on crossing the border typically ask for assistance in four matters. Hagan presents the following list. “1) Completing travel arrangements; 2) caring for family members left behind; 3) protection on the journey; and 4) assistance during the initial settlement in the United States”[11]. In addition to the shift in prayer, those preparing to travel to the United States approach their perish and pastor for blessings and to request that they keep the individual in their prayers. On a few occasions, it has even been requested that the priest pass judgment on and bless the coyote hired to lead crossers through the desert[12].   Religious commitment does not fade once in the United States. Rather, a successful border crossing is accredited to the saint, so upon arrival, an immigrant must thank his or protector and remain devout to them. This affirmation of faith and the commitment to give thanks helps fuel the existence of Mexican Catholicism in the U.S.

In a new environment Catholic rituals once carried out in their places of origin cannot be practiced as they were traditionally, but adaptations of religious practices serve as a rallying point for members of Hispanic communities to come together and celebrate their home culture. The Virgin of Zapopan is a version of the Lady of Guadalupe– one of, if not the most, popular saints in the Hispanic Catholic tradition. Lady Zapopan was created in 1995 in response the demand from devotees in California. As discussed earlier, it is crucial that those who have asked for assistance thank the saint. Because of the nature of the border crossing, it is very hard, if not impossible, to return to their church to give thanks to the figurine. The demand for the Lady of Guadalupe in United States was motivated by this need, and soon the Lady of Zapopan was created to make the journey[13]. Every year since, on the heels the seasonal worker migration, Lady Zapopan flies on a luxury-class seat with Franciscan monks that ensure her safety all the way to East Los Angeles. To celebrate her arrival, devotees–many of whom are undocumented– shower the figurine with confetti, Mariachi bands serenade her, and performers dance in the traditional Aztec-style as she is led in a procession to her shrine[14].

The juxtaposition of the Virgin’s pilgrimage and that of the illegal migrants may at first seem strange, but the mode of transportation symbolizes the collective goal of a community. Mexican immigrants travel to the United States in search of financial stability. Lady Zapopan’s method of travel represents the way the immigrant hopes he or she can one day return home– financially secure and with the necessary papers to travel safely. In addition to the figurine’s journey, the aesthetics of the welcoming should not be ignored as it plays an important roll in the formation of a culture and identity. Sybil Vengas speaks about the influence of aesthetic rituals surrounding Dia de los Muertos on the Hispanic communities and their re-located culture. Her testimony is equally as applicable to the celebrations surrounding the tour of the Virgin of Zapopan. “It’s purpose over the past twenty years has been to define and unite a community divided by a history of oppression, exploitation and domination, and its strength and success as a community event has been its creativity in both performance and the visual arts, a creativity that has since formed the camino aesthetic”[15]. All members rally around these rituals of cultural expression even if, as addressed previously, member have converted out of the Catholic Church. Kathleen Sullivan carried out a study in a Houston barrio to see how Mexican immigrants identified religiously and culturally. “Many of the Mexican migrants in this study gave their allegiance first to the Virgin of Guadalupe, regardless of their formal religious affiliation, suggesting that in many cases religion and culture go hand in hand, while at other times the latter trumps the former”[16]. There are several layers in the pilgrimage of Lady Zapopan that helps unify the Hispanic community in a shared identity. First there is the affirmation of a shared goal and inherently a recognition of similar beginnings. Then there is also an affirmation of a shared devotion, and lastly there is celebration of a shared cultural aesthetic. All of these strengthen and unite the hispanic community, giving them an identity separate from native Americans.

Embedded in this discussion is the question of why the right to claim a Nationality. How could it be that a nation that identifies as a nation of immigrants won’t allow other immigrants to take on the American identity? In most parts of the world, the right to the claim a Nationality is determined by blood. A German is a German only if an individual has a German bloodline. However, this is problematized in the United States. No one has “American blood”, so the right to claim the American identity lies in contracts and papers. This is the one thing that sets Mexican immigrants apart and results in their marginalization and further oppression. Not being allowed to claim the American identity, Hispanic communities form their own by using one of the strongest cultural elements, religion. By celebrating the pilgrimage of the Virgin of Zapopan Hispanic communities are unified and strengthened, allowing members to claim an identity that provides the support and pride that Americans refuse to offer.

Work Sited

CBSnews. “‘You Have to Live in Fear’: One Undocumented Migrant’s Story,” accessed April 22, 2014,         


Geography AS Notes. “Mexico to Migration,” Accessed April 22, 2015. https://  

Hagan, “Migration Miracle: Faith, Hope, and Meaning,” Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2008.

Howlett, David. Paper comment on April 14, 2015.

León, Luis D. “Metaphor and Place: The U.S.-Mexico Border as Center and Periphery in           the Interpretation of Religion.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol        67, No 3 (1999): 541-571.

NPR. “Study Details Lives of Illegal Immigrants in U.S.” accessed April 28, 2015,

Pratt, Mary Louise. “Why the Virgin of Zapopan Went to Los Angeles: Reflections on      Mobility and Globality.” Paper presented at the Third Annual Encuentro, Lima,        Perú, July 8, 2002

Stoll, Mark. “Protestantism, Capitalism, and Nature in America,” Albuquerque, New         Mexico: University of New Mexico Press, 1997.

Urrea, Luís Alberto. “The Devil’s Highway:

[1] Urrea, The Devil’s Highway, 3.

[2] David Howlett, April 14, 2015

[3] Pratt, “Why The Virgin of Zapopan Went to Los Angeles: Reflection on Mobility and Globally.”

[4] “‘You Have to Live in Fear’: One Undocumented Migrant’s Story,” accessed April 22, 2014,

[5] “Mexico to USA Migration,” accessed April 22, 2015

[6] “Study Details Lives of Illegal Immigrants in U.S.” accessed April 28, 2015,

[7] “Study Details Lives of Illegal Immigrants in U.S.” accessed April 28, 2015,

[8] “‘You Have to Live in Fear’: One Undocumented Migrant’s Story,” accessed April 22, 2014,

[9] Stoll, Protestantism, Capitalism, and Nature in America, 32

[10] Why has Pentecostalism grown so Dramatically in Latin America?” accessed April 28, 2015,

[11] Hagan, Migration Miracle: Faith, Hope, and Meaning, 33

[12] Hagan, Migration Miracle: Faith, Hope, and Meaning, 35-36

[13] Hagan, Migration Miracle: Faith, Hope, and Meaning, 131-134.

[14] León, “Metaphor and Place: The U.S.-Mexico Border as Center and Periphery in the Interpretation of Religion,” 564

[15] León, “Metaphor and Place: The U.S.-Mexico Border as Center and Periphery in the Interpretation of Religion,” 565

[16] Hagan, Migration Miracle: Faith, Hope, and Meaning, 138

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