Every December, rain or shine, a shrine in Des Plaines, a suburb outside of Chicago, attracts hundreds of thousands of Guadalupanos from all over the region. This year, the faithful returned in full force after the site was closed down in 2020 in an unprecedented move as a response to COVID-19.
Known in Spanish as el Cerrito de Des Plaines, the shrine was redesigned five years ago as a bronze replica of the Mexico City sacred grounds where it is said that La Virgen de Guadalupe made an appearance before an Indigenous man named Juan Diego on top of a hill five centuries ago. This legend is believed to have facilitated the conversion of other Native peoples post-conquest.
Before the imposition of the Catholic Church, anthropologists believe that the hill, commonly known as el Cerrito del Tepeyac, was a worship site for the Indigenous feminine deity, Tonantzin, and that upon their conversion, Mexicans continued to carry on the ancient ritual of visiting the site.
The story behind the Des Plaines shrine is much more recent. In 1987, Joaquín Martínez, a Mexican immigrant living and working in Des Plaines, received an image of La Virgen de Guadalupe that was shipped to him from La Basilica in Mexico City, according to his own account. He loaned it to friends, parishes, hospitals, and orphanages—with mixed reactions from local clergy—until finally, he began garnering support and fundraising to build her an altar. The rest is history.
It is the only shrine to La Virgen outside of Mexico City that is authorized by the Mexican Archdiocese, drawing multitudes of people every year on foot, on horseback, in semi-trailers, and various other ways, in order to make a religious request, repay their mandas, or serenade her.
The pilgrimage on horseback, called a cabalgata—depicted here—kicks off the celebrations to La Virgen, consisting of ten consecutive days of masses and visits to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe at 1170 North River Rd. It is organized by the Club Los Vaqueros Unidos (United Cowboys Club) in Wadsworth, Illinois, and it begins with hundreds of horse riders making a three-hour trek through the forest preserve in Lincolnshire before arriving at el cerrito.
Upon arrival, and with banda de viento or mariachi playing in the background, each horseman or horsewoman takes turns riding up to the altar and dropping a bouquet or a single red rose as an offering. They make the sign of the cross, and a priest sprinkles holy water on the horse and the rider before sending them on their way.
While it is not the oldest Catholic procession for the Virgen de Guadalupe in the United States (Los Angeles claims it), el Cerrito de Des Plaines is the most attended religious meeting-point in the country year after year.
Correction, December 14, 2021: This story incorrectly stated the distance between the city and Des Plaines, which is about twenty miles from the Loop.
Jacqueline Serrato is the editor-in-chief of the Weekly. She last wrote about La Villita’s Guadalupe mural. Jason Schumer is the managing director of the Weekly.