Every summer up through my teenage years my family would take trips to Mexico. While there we’d make one- or multi-day pilgrimages to various Catholic holy sites: the Basilica of Nuestra Señora de San Juan de los Lagos (Our Lady of Saint John of the Lakes) near Guadalajara, Jalisco; the Sanctuary of the Santo Niño de Atocha (Holy Infant of Atocha) in Plateros, Zacatecas; and, of course, the Basilica of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in Mexico City. We were on a mission. My parents had made a manda, a promise, to carry out these visits in thanksgiving for prayers answered by Our Lady, the infant Jesus, or various saints.
At every location there were crowded outdoor markets. The enticing smell of street food filled the air. And there were the faithful entering into the places of worship, some walking, some on their knees, in pain and in prayer—a profound humbling before the divine. We’d go inside too, pray, and then exit through rooms filled with photographs, drawings, letters, children’s toys, crutches, and other offerings made in thanks for the miracles the pilgrims experienced. This communal experience of the pilgrimage and the offering of oneself to God were fully a part of the popular Catholicism I grew up with, as was the possibility of daily miracles.
I especially looked forward to visiting Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos, which was only an hour’s drive from the city of Aguascalientes, my parents’ hometown. Our Lady of San Juan was always present to us back home in California, but like an elder member of the family, she was also someone who we needed to visit, to pay our respects to, and to thank for how she had helped us throughout the year. To end the visit we’d always stop for the famous traditional cajeta—a confection similar to dulce de leche served in a container with the image of Our Lady printed on it—sold by the vendors surrounding the basilica. Enjoying the cajeta after the pilgrimage was like an extended reminder of the sweetness of Our Lady.