By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published December 10, 2021 | En Español
MARIETTA–Each dancer sashayed behind the shoulders of their partner. Then together, the pairs twirled between two lines of dancers following Adriana Murillo’s lead.
In the cold night air, Murillo, in a mask and wearing cowboy boots, guided the troupe of a dozen men and women through the steps, as a recording broadcast from a speaker.
Tonight, they rehearsed in the empty rodeo arena filled with the noise of workmen preparing the stage sets. In a few days’ time on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, believers were expected to crowd the 3,500 seats of the metal bleachers to celebrate an apparition that took place nearly 500 years ago on a hill outside Mexico City.
Devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe felt in the heart
Jesus Bañuelos has long been entranced by the story and the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
As a teenager in Mexico, a friend’s father invited him to dance. He remembered the community group drawing a large crowd.
“They would dance to live music with the violin. I was very passionate about dancing,” he said.
Banuelos has on dusty boots, khaki pants and work gloves. He and his family worship at St. Thomas the Apostle Church, in Smyrna, like most of the other dancers here. The 47-year-old works as a stonemason. Oftentime now he’s the oldest or the veteran in the troupe.
“It’s something you can’t explain because you feel it in your heart,” he said.
His six children and wife have also taken up the tradition.
“It’s a really pretty event. There’s not one year I didn’t dance,” said his 18-year-old daughter Arisdelsy Banuelos, who is studying at a dental assistant school. “The dance is really hard. I remember it is for the Virgin Mary.”
Mexican identity tied to apparition
According to tradition, the Virgin Mary appeared in December 1531 before an Indigenous farmer named Juan Diego Cuautlatoatzin. The dark-skinned apparition told Juan Diego that she was the mother of Jesus and she wanted a church built on Tepeyac Hill, the site of a former Aztec temple.
The Virgin of Guadalupe is revered, especially by Mexicans. Pope John Paul II, declared the Virgin as “Patroness of all America.” Juan Diego in 2002 was recognized as a saint.
The image of the Virgin of Guadalupe is in a place of honor in parishes around the archdiocese. Parishes with large Mexican communities observe the feast, many celebrating for 24 hours starting on Dec. 11 with prayers, traditional folk dancing and songs played by Mariachi bands through the early morning hours.
This rehearsal is part of the celebration at St. Thomas the Apostle Church, Smyrna. The event is put on by the nonprofit Teotl Foundation.
Large stage sets replicate Tepeyac Hill
Workers touched up the three sets that trace Mexican history and Catholicism, starting with pre-Christian times. Workers spray painted the towering stepped pyramid where a teenage dancer would be a sacrifice killed by Aztec warriors. Beside it was Tepeyac Hill, where the Virgin Mary would appear. The final piece was a replica of a church facade, representing the 1709 shrine built on the place of the apparition.
For Daniella Cruz, 16, this is the first time being a solo dancer as the sacrificial girl.
“I feel honored, honored. I’m doing it from the heart for the Virgin Mary. I’m not doing it for me. I’m doing it for her,” said Cruz.
Murillo started rehearsals for dancers in late October. These rehearsals moved to the arena at Jim Miller Park because Murillo, 24, a mother of two, wanted the dancers to become familiar with the size of the ring.
Murillo was sent by her parish, St. Thomas the Apostle Church, to attend a traditional folk dancing school in Mexico. COVID-19 put most of the program online.
“It was really intensive but a really awesome experience,” she said.
Murillo is a first-generation Mexican American. She graduated from Georgia State University in May with a bachelor’s in anthropology. She started dancing during the festival as a high schooler, became an aide to the instructor and is now the lead teacher for about 50 dancers, youth and adults.
Traditional Mexican honors the Virgin
The dancing style is called “Concheros,” which is popular in Hispanic areas of the country, such as Arizona and California, but not initially familiar in the East Coast. It is a hybrid of Indigenous and Spanish influences. The dances begin by processions with feathered regalia, and invocations with the blowing of a conch shell.
“I hope they’re able to just appreciate our culture, but also I always tell them dancing specifically on this day is an offering for the Virgin of Guadalupe,” she said “I hope they are able to consider that, and it’s going to be really cold outside and barefoot, but I hope that that’s like a spiritual experience for them too.”
Late nights prepare for hundreds of believers
It’s another late night for Antonio Leija, 51, who works as a stonemason, and the dozen other men. They spend hours here from dusk to late, after putting in a day’s work.
Leija, 51, is the president of the nonprofit that organizes the event.
Growing up in Texas, the celebration was not part of his family life. Some 20 years ago, in Georgia, a card was tucked underneath his windshield inviting him to the parish event, he said.
From that discovery, his faith life had a before and after. He’s not looked back. For his faith, it’s a strong draw and a moment of evangelization.
“I just love it,” he said. “That’s what got me close to the church and the festival. I love the festival.”