It was Sunday, January 31. I was lying in bed, awake, around 6am. From somewhere far in the distance I could hear drums beating. First there were cannons, fireworks, and then drums. It was getting louder. Once it was clear it was very close to the house I ran up to the rooftop. Through the branches of the large ash and jacaranda trees in our backyard, I could see shadows in the street behind our house. There was some kind of procession with people marching and solemn music. Back down the spiral staircase, off the bedroom terrace, through the bedroom, downstairs, out the big iron patio doors, through the garden, and out the backdoor. Just in time to see a parade of pilgrims carrying a large glass box on their shoulders with a saint inside, Nuestra Senora San Juan de Los Lagos, waving Mexican flags, chanting, and a whole group of men beating on drums. I stood outside in the dawn in my bare feet, in my nightshirt, catching the start of an annual pilgrimage that takes place all over Mexico and lasts for nine days. The 80-year-old maid of our friends, Bill and Sue Dettering, takes off work to walk the full nine days to San Juan de Los Lagos in the state of Jalisco. (A landscaping team told us they couldn't start work in our yard until their guys returned from the pilgrimage in mid-February.) A few stragglers gave me a buenos dias: a group of teenage boys, then a grandmother in the typical outfit all older San Miguel working women: thin, printed house dress covered by a plaid apron with pockets and flat, black shoes, walking with her two granddaughters, in nylon parkas with fleece-lined hoods and blue jeans. I watched until they had gone down 20 de Enero, turned the corner at Pila Seca, and disappeared into the dawn.
Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos is located in the state of Jalisco, in central Mexico, 76 miles northeast of the city of Guadalajara. The small town of San Juan de los Lagos is the second most visited pilgrimage shrine in Mexico. The sanctuary's history begins in 1542 when Father Miguel de Bologna, a Spanish priest, brought a statue of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception to the village. The town was then called San Juan Mezquititlan Baptist but its name was changed to San Juan de Los Lagos in 1623. In that year the daughter of some local Indian peasants fell ill, her parents prayed for her health, and the young girl recovered. Following this miracle, the statue began to be venerated by an increasing number of pilgrims including Indians, Spanish and mestizo. During this period the statue acquired its own local identity as Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos. Between the early 17th century and the middle of the 19th century a pilgrimage fair was held each year on November 30 to celebrate the original installation of the statue in the shrine, today San Juanita de los Lagos is over 800 years old.
At the end of January and beginning of February each year a great pilgrimage occurs to the shrine and the city grows many times in size. This festival is attended by more than a million people, many of them walking, from all over Mexico. During a week of festivities there are hundreds of temporary stalls selling pilgrimage icons, multiple bands of musicians playing around the great basilica, fireworks demonstrations in the evenings, and a palpable feeling of spiritual joy descend on the town.
Pilgrimage Reasons: If a family member falls ill or undergoes a serious surgery for example, you can promise the Virgin to make the pilgrimage if that person makes it out okay.