Traveling thousands of miles, a unique statue of the Virgin Mary appeared in Anchorage in early March.
Rooted in four centuries of Catholic devotion, the statue — La Virgen de La Defensa (Mother of Our Defense) — is the centerpiece of lively celebrations, prayers and the preservation of Catholic identity for the residents of two particular villages in Mexico, Atemajac de Brizuela and Juanacatlan.
A replica of the two-foot-tall statue, encased in glass and standing on a wooden platform, was taken to Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral on March 8. Father Alfonso Frias Ortega organized the arrival of the image. He is the uncle to parishioners of the Anchorage co-cathedral who are from Atemajac de Brizuela where the historical statue originates.
Father Ortega celebrated a special Mass at the Anchorage co-cathedral. This marks the eighth year it has traveled to Anchorage as part of a larger procession across many parts of the United States where former residents of Atemajac de Brizuela now reside.
“The goal or purpose of the visit is to come to Anchorage and give hope and love to all the people who are far from home,” said Lupe Ortega, who now lives in Anchorage but is originally from Atemajac de Brizuela.
From Anchorage the replica statue traveled across the Northwest of America. It will continue through much of the country where villagers from Atemajac De Brizuela now reside, and the statue will return to Mexico in September.
The history of the figure dates back nearly 370 years. It is said to have been a present to the people of Atemajac de Brizuela, Mexico from the Bishop of Puebla because Catholics in that region did not have their own image of the Virgin Mary. He gave it to be a defense and spiritual inspiration to the Catholic villagers.
Today, many small villages in Mexico celebrate annual fiestas for their local patron saints or in honor of one of the many manifestations of Christ or the Virgin Mary.
Atemajac de Brizuela is a small town of about 5,000 people. Its main fiesta occurs in September and is shared with the larger town of Tapalpa and the small village of Juanacatlan.
The original statue spends three months in Atemajac, three months in Tapalpa and six months in Juanacatlan while the replica travels the United States.
On Sept. 6 both the original and the replica enter Atemajac de Brizuela, spending two nights during which time a Mass is celebrated in honor of Mary. Afterwards the statues are carried out of the church, along the road out of town and accompanied by the townspeople, local dancers and a brass band.
The procession continues with speeches, dancing, feasting and fireworks.
This tradition has been occurring for nearly four centuries. Every year, many people from Atemajac travel back to their place of birth, from all over Mexico and the United States, to participate in the fiesta.