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Annual celebration honors Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

Mexicans celebrate the Virgin of Guadalupe today. More than 3 million Mexicans made a pilgrimage to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe to pay their homage. It was the first pilgrimage to be held without any restrictions after the pandemic. NPR's Eyder Peralta sent us this postcard.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: The pilgrims make their way to the basilica for miles on the promenade. It's an awe-inspiring display of humanity. Some pilgrims carry statues of the Virgin tied to their backs. Others, in groups, carry entire altars while they sing.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in non-English language).

PERALTA: Jasmine and Adolfo Gutierrez say they got up at 4 a.m. to begin their walk.

ADOLFO GUTIERREZ: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: "It's because of our faith," he says.

JASMINE GUTIERREZ: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: "And gratitude, gratitude above all else," says his wife. "They're alive," she says, "despite all the bad - a war, a pandemic, a bad economy. But they're alive."

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

PERALTA: This pilgrimage is one of the largest in the world. It dates back almost 500 years, when Catholics believed the Virgin Mary appeared before San Juan Diego, an Indigenous farmer. She left on his cloak an image of a brown-skinned Virgin of Guadalupe. Until this day, that cloak hangs inside the basilica, and worshipers trek for days, for weeks, sometimes from thousands of miles away, to get a glimpse of this relic in the hill where this apparition happened. Some of them get on their knees and crawl for miles. When I kneel to talk to Michele Perez Cornejo, she grimaces with pain. I ask her why she does this.

MICHELE PEREZ CORNEJO: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: Her kids got sick, and she promised the Virgin, if they got better, she would make the sacrifice. Her grandmother also died two years ago. And this year, her uncle died. Here on her knees, she could already see the hill that's brought her so much solace. I ask what she's feeling.

CORNEJO: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: Happiness and sadness, she says. Her uncle was a believer. For four years, they climbed to the top of Tepeyac Hill. In his honor, she will climb that hill on her knees.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PERALTA: The crowd moves from the promenade to the church. There's music and tears and joy and laughter and undying devotion. Engracia Martinez, who's 55, has made this trip for 25 years.

ENGRACIA MARTINEZ: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: "We have the material things," she says, "but sometimes what's missing is in the heart." That's when she prays to the Virgin, she says - when she doesn't understand her kids, when someone gets sick or when life just seems too hard. It's the virgin, she says, who gives her strength.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PERALTA: Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Mexico City.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA GUADALUPANA")

MIRIAM SOLIS: (Singing in Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.