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Contact-Heavy Latino Traditions And Holidays See Changes As COVID-19 Cases Soar

Este artículo también está disponible en español en La Noticia.

It’s not often you see a mariachi band outside of just any church at midnight. But it is commonplace at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in east Charlotte, especially during "La Guadalupana."

The 24-hour celebration honors Mexico’s patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe. It begins the eve of Dec. 12 with tributes, prayers, masses and serenades like “Las Mañanitas,” a traditional Mexican ranchera, to greet the Virgin on her birthday.

For the last six years, César Díaz has celebrated at Our Lady of Guadalupe, and this year he helped with the festival setup.

“We believe our Mother — the Virgin Mary and Lady of Guadalupe — is an intercessor," Díaz said. "We give her our intentions, including the end of this pandemic, and she presents them to the newborn king.”

The church usually hosts the festival at Bojangles Coliseum to accommodate the large crowds. Díaz says that in the past, several hundred people have attended the festival each year. This year, attendance was down to about 200 because of the coronavirus pandemic, and the celebration was held at the church.

"We aren’t celebrating under the best circumstances because we know that where there are more people, there are more infections," Díaz said. "But we must live out our faith. We can’t always live in fear, so we take precautions.”

"La Guadalupana" festival at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Charlotte on Friday, Dec. 12.
Laura Brache
Every time guests left their chairs, a church volunteer cleaned them at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Charlotte on Friday, Dec. 12.

All participants had to wear a mask and take their temperature to enter the church. Those who didn’t enter watched the programming from television screens under tents with socially distant seating outside the church. Every time someone left their chair, a church volunteer cleaned it.

Attendance was up in other ways with about 11,000 views on Facebook.

Father Gregory Gay, known by his church members as Padre Gregorio, says the pandemic is a big reason why church members are clinging to their faith.

“Every year there are new needs for which the community wants to come to the foot of the altar and ask for the help of the Virgin," the church's pastor said. "This year, above all, I think, they are praying because of the pandemic.”

In the Catholic faith, this celebration is all part of the “Guadalupe-Reyes Marathon.” It’s the period between the day of the Virgin of Guadalupe until the day of the Three Wise Men on Jan. 6. Within that timeframe, there’s also the novena. It is a recognition of the nine days leading to Christmas Day where families and church members gather every day in prayer.
The "Misa de Gallo" or "Rooster's Mass" is also traditional and held at midnight at Christmas.

"La Guadalupana" festival at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Charlotte on Friday, Dec. 12.
Laura Brache
A young girl dressed in traditional Nahuatl clothing for "La Guadalupana" festival at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Charlotte on Friday, Dec. 12.

The Mexican and Central American takes on novenas are called "posadas." Guests sing Christmas carols and carry candles on their way to neighbors’ homes. There they are greeted with a dinner made up of traditional dishes such as pozole, tacos dorados, rice pudding, and ponche.

Then there are non-religious traditions. Mariamer Vargas is originally from Caracas, Venezuela. She says her New Year's traditions help her stay in touch with her roots.

“We eat twelve grapes, so you get twelve wishes for each," she said. "We would go outside with our luggage and then walk it around if we wanted to travel the following year.”

Vargas says she won’t be celebrating with her extended family, as usual.

“We don’t want to expose our parents to COVID or anything," she explains. "We’re gonna try to keep our traditions because, in these times, we need to keep our roots as much as we can and find joy in the little things, you know?”

Dr. Peter Casarella, a theology professor at Duke University School of Divinity, says these adjustments have come as a shock for Latinos. He specializes in religion in the Latino community and explains that many traditions have become standard in Latino neighborhoods and churches throughout the United States by way of migration from Latin America.

“There are many religious communities within the Latino community. I don't want to speak monolithically, but, generally, we see everything in relation to God and the relationship that we have as a family with God,” said Casarella, who is of Italian and Colombian descent.

Casarella noted that even though he cannot predict how religion will change in the long run post-pandemic, he recognizes how Latinos have adapted.

"La Guadalupana" festival at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Charlotte on Friday, Dec. 12.
Laura Brache
Father Gregory Gay serves communion for guests sitting outside Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Charlotte, during midday mass on Friday, Dec. 12.

“Everything's been accelerated in ways that what we were expecting to do in 10 years, we're now doing tomorrow afternoon," he said. "That doesn't mean that ... we're going to give up on in-person formation in the Latino community. That has great importance in our Latino community. It has great importance in all communities.”

Back at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Charlotte, César Díaz and others agreed that being able to celebrate, even at a smaller scale, gives them some normalcy in the pandemic.

"The only way we’ll be able to practice our faith in these times is by following the rules. Whether they’re from the government or our own church, there’s less risk,” he said.

With new COVID-19 vaccines, Díaz has high hopes that none of these precautions will have to take place in holiday traditions next year.

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Laura Brache works with WFAE and La Noticia, an independent Spanish-language news organization based in Charlotte, through Report for America to cover immigration and deportation issues facing the Latino community. She also reports on the Charlotte immigration court, one of the toughest in the nation with the second-highest deportation rate in the country in 2019.