PHOTOS: The Virgin of Guadalupe, Saint Juan Diego and their roots

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The modernist, minimalist Roman Catholic Cathedral of our Lady of Angels looks nothing like the basilica in Mexico City, built at the site where the Virgin is said to have first appeared back in 1531.

But the L.A. Cathedral is an important center of devotion to Mexico’s saint. It is a spiritual home to thousands of Mexican Catholics, and also to a little piece of their history.

Inside the little corner chapel dedicated to the Virgin, the walls are covered in gold, and there is a replica of a mosaic of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Ernesto Vega, the coordinator of Hispanic education for the LA Archdiocese, shines a light inside a small glass case that contains a piece of fabric - an  ayate - that’s almost 500 years old.
He examines a half-inch square piece of the famous tilma, or cloak, Juan Diego wore when he first saw the Virgin in 1531. The relic was a gift from the Archdiocese of Mexico to the L.A. Archdiocese in 1941.

Vega is an expert on the Virgin of Guadalupe. He's a native of Michoacan, Mexico who migrated to L.A. as a teenager. Back then, he was already obsessed with her story and its significance for Mexican identity.

“The more I learned about her, the more I fell in love with the Virgin of Guadalupe," Vega says. "I soon realized I had a huge amount of research ahead of me, which made me also fall in love with the indigenous roots of her story.”

The story goes like this:

On the early morning of Dec. 9, 1531, an peasant named Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin saw a vision of a 15-year-old girl surrounded by light. She asked him to have a church built in her honor at that site. Days later, on December 12th, Diego returned to the same place and the Virgin told him to gather some flowers nearby. She then arranged the flowers in his cloak. But when Juan Diego opened the cloak before his local bishop, the flowers fell to the floor, and in their place was the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, miraculously imprinted on the fabric.

But Vega says the Catholic Church didn’t always accept the story of Juan Diego and his cloak.

“When Juan Diego saw the Virgin, the dominant European culture overshadowed him, to the point that he was forgotten," he explains. "Some priests even tried to deny his significance and said he was demonic, or pagan, because he was an indigenous man. But the Virgin of Guadalupe’s impact on the indigenous identity in Mexico was so great, that it was impossible to overshadow the conscience of millions of people.”

Today, the Virgin of Guadalupe and Saint Juan Diego are perhaps the most important symbols of Mexican and Latino Catholics the world over.

They are also an important part of immigrant identity in Los Angeles, especially for people from Mexico’s diverse indigenous populations.

“You can see the love that Angelenos have for the Virgin of Guadalupe, especially our immigrant communities,” says Carolina Guevara, a spokeswoman with the L.A. Archdiocese.

“Not just Mexican-born or immigrants from Mexico — she really is the mother of the Americas now and has become the mother of all immigrants. You see people with amulets, pictures of the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe when they’re crossing the border, or when they come with their children, they always have a little image of the Lady of Guadalupe.”

Guevara points to one of the tapestries hanging from the cathedral walls. It depicts Saint Juan Diego as a man with indigenous features. That’s rare in most artistic representations of him.

This cathedral is hosting one of its biggest celebrations of the year — welcoming thousands of parishioners and pilgrims, most of them Latino, for more than a day of historical re-enactments, pre-Hispanic dances, and mariachi music, all in honor of the saint they call Our Lady of Guadalupe.

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