MEXICO CITY — His mother was grievously ill, nearing death. So Jesús Vicuña, 17, made a deal with the heavens. In his prayers for her recovery, he vowed to make a certain painful sacrifice in exchange.
Which is how he found himself the other day walking on his knees, under the weight of a heavy backpack, along a crowded sidewalk in Mexico City.
He winced with each step, and every few paces he fell onto his arms with a groan, seeking a moment of relief that never came.
But more than 20 blocks after he began this ordeal — the last stage of a three-day journey — he knee-shuffled the last few yards into the New Basilica of Guadalupe, Mexico’s most important shrine, and collapsed face down on the cool stone floor, gasping for air. Mr. Vicuña had reached his goal.
Mr. Vicuña’s trial came as part of an enormous annual pilgrimage to honor the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Over the course of several days this month, an estimated nine million people visited the basilica, with some seven million of them filing through the building between Tuesday and Wednesday, to celebrate what believers say was the appearance of the Virgin Mary before an indigenous Mexican peasant named Juan Diego in 1531.
It is hard to overstate the singular importance of the Virgin of Guadalupe to the Mexican identity.
She serves as a binding force that transcends the country’s varied and dramatic sociodemographic divisions, and her image is ubiquitous — in portraits hanging on the walls of homes; in small shrines found in shops, gas stations and parking lots; and on objects as varied as kitchenware, jewelry, lamps, satchels, refrigerator magnets and bottle openers.
“She’s everywhere,” said Davíd Carrasco, a professor of Latin American studies at Harvard Divinity School. “She’s everybody’s mother in Mexico. My daughter calls her ‘the No. 1 Mother.’ ”
And even as Latin Americans have defected in enormous numbers from Catholicism to evangelical congregations, the deep devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe, also known as Our Lady of Guadalupe, has helped to slow this tendency in Mexico and throughout the Mexican migrant diaspora.
“The Virgin of Guadalupe is a symbol of hope and peace: Whatever happens, she’s going to be here,” said Gabriela Treviño, head of the basilica’s guided tour department. “The harder the situation, the stronger the devotion.”