In a flash, Guadalupe appears

The second Sunday in November, a gray, rain-sputtering day, brought a couple hundred fireworks craftsmen to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. It was the annual pilgrimage for the pirotécnicos who come to pay homage to the Virgin with the chemistry and architecture of their trade: 80-foot wooden scaffolds bearing the weight of hundreds of handcrafted rockets.

Image:Luz Montero

Don José's personal gift to Guadalupe was this "castillo" full of stars.

This year marks the 475th anniversary of the Virgin of Guadalupe’s apparition on the hill of Tepeyac, where an Aztec-turned-Catholic named Juan Diego saw her hovering above the snow. A shrine was built on what had been the site of an Aztec virgin goddess.

Today the Basilica’s schedule is packed year round. Three to five thousand pilgrims from all walks of life -- balloon vendors, mariachis, clowns and motorcyclists, entire unions, neighborhoods and churches, street vendors and Sabritas employees -- visit each day of the year. But on December 11th and the 12th which is the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, six to seven million devoted peregrinos arrive from all over the country on foot, riding bicycles, and by the busload.

A national as much as a religious symbol, soldiers brandished her image in both Mexican revolutions. Popes have called her the “Queen of Mexico” and “Mother of the Americas.” As one Mexican friend put it, for many people “there’s Jesus, then God, then,” raising his hand as high as he could, “there’s Guadalupe.”

Her earthbound incarnations watch over street corners, parking lots, bus stations, living rooms, office lobbies and elevators. She adorns purses, key chains, earrings, bracelets and t-shirts. A moving walkway in the Basilica shuttles visitors past San Juan Diego’s mantel emblazoned, miraculously, with the turquoise-robed archetype.

But nowhere does she look more heaven sent than when the pirotécnicos tack her likeness, sketched with cardboard tubes full of gunpowder, to a lofty castillo and light a fuse. Then, for a few moments, she glows, brilliant.

On December 12, all the pirotécnicos will be working; for them, it’s one of the busiest days of the year. So the second Sunday in November is their moment to celebrate, to venerate, to say thank you, to ask her -- Lupita Reina, Empatriz, Virgencita -- for another year of protection as they make the stuff that explodes in the sky.