Juventino Paz, far right, helps Lorenzo Paz carry an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe at a celebration in honor of the saint Thursday, Dec. 12 at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Vale. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)
VALE – Inside a glass case on the grounds of St. Patrick Catholic Church in Vale there stands an unlikely figure: a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico.
She’s draped in a garland of pink roses and angels, and stars radiate behind her. A Mexican flag cascades down her side and in Spanish, the ribbon at her feet reads: “Bendice este hogar” – “Bless this home.”
The statue has been there for about three years, put in place by a small but faithful Mexican community that’s lived in Vale for decades.
“We wanted to have our own little place,” explained Socorro Santos, a Vale resident and member of Mujeres del altar, or Women of the Altar. The group helps out at the church and finds ways to incorporate the local Hispanic community into the parish.
Last week, on Dec. 12, about 20 local Hispanic families gathered at the church to celebrate Guadalupe’s feast day, as they do every year.
“She’s like a mother to us,” said Santos.
Vale’s Hispanic population appears to be smaller than that of Nyssa or Ontario. There isn’t a multitude of taco trucks and mini markets stocked with products from Mexico that can be found in the downtown areas of the other two cities.
Hispanic students make up 23% of Vale school enrollment, compared to 62% in Ontario and 66% in Nyssa.
But there are many Hispanic families with deep roots in the community, said Father Cami Fernando. About 40 Hispanic families are active in his parish.
In Vale, Santos said, the Hispanic families tend to work in the fields, so they are not as visible as those in Ontario, where there are more jobs in processing plants with shorter hours.
Santos works in the onion fields, while her husband works on a ranch.
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Santos said her husband’s family began settling in the area in the early 1980s; she estimated they number near 100 when you count the constellation of cousins and siblings and in-laws. Her own son Yahir is a sophomore on the Vale wrestling team.
When she moved to Vale in 2000, Santos attended a church in Payette where there was a Spanish-speaking priest. Then she moved to a church in Ontario, before staying close to home in Vale when Father Cami carved out a space for the local Hispanic families.
Father Cami has led the parish in Vale for 12 years. A native of Sri Lanka, he doesn’t speak Spanish. But he learned to read it so that he could offer a Spanish mass once a month at the parish.
He writes his homilies in English and then uses Google to translate them into Spanish.
He’s found ways to incorporate the local Hispanic families into the church. Once a month he welcomes the families to be the eucharist leaders and greeters at the English mass. He holds bilingual masses every now and then, too, along with the monthly Spanish-only mass.
The yearly mass to celebrate the Virgin of Guadalupe is one of the most important events for the Hispanic parishioners.
Guadalupe – or Lupita, as she is affectionately called – is more than a mother figure. Men and women alike are named after her.
The story goes that in the 1500s Guadalupe appeared to a peasant in the outskirts of Mexico City. The peasant, Juan Diego, was a humble man who spoke Nahuatl – an indigenous language of Mexico.
She left her imprint on his cloak. The Basilica of Guadalupe was built there. Today it’s one of the most visited religious sites in the world, especially around Dec. 12.
The yearly celebration in her honor kicks off early at St. Patrick. Families meet at dawn to sing a birthday song, and at night, they make a procession into the altar, carrying an image of the virgin along with small statuettes.
Then comes the mass; Father Cami reads from the holy book in Spanish and parishioners take turns reading too. Up above, the choir sings.
For this occasion, not having enough people to make their own choir, the Vale church borrows Nyssa’s Spanish choir. Santos sings among them.
Last week, several non-Hispanic families sat in the pews during the mass. They stayed for the dinner afterwards, where, on the tables, Mexican tamales mingled with pies and fried chicken.
By Sunday, the statue was back inside her glass case – fresh flowers at her feet – in her own little place.
Lidia Flores is an active member of the group Mujeres del altar, or Women of the Altar – a group of Hispanic parishioners at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Vale. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)
Children play at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Vale, ahead of the celebration in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)
Families gathered at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Vale Thursday, Dec. 12 to honor the Virgin of Guadalupe with a procession leading to the church’s altar and culminating in a Spanish-language mass. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)
Legend has it that the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared to a peasant in the 1500s outside of Mexico City, leaving her imprint on his cloak. The virgin is an important symbol of Mexico. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez).
Hispanic parishioners helped install a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico, at the “Maiden Garden” on the grounds of the St. Patrick Catholic Church in Vale. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)
Father Cami Fernando has led the St. Patrick Catholic Church in Vale for 12 years. The Sri Lanka native learned to read Spanish so he could incorporate the Hispanic community in Vale into his parish. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)
Hispanic parishioners led a procession to honor the Virgin of Guadalupe Thursday, Dec. 12 at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Vale. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)
Read more stories about the Latino community in Malheur County:
WATCH: Ontario food truck sells wintry beverage from Mexico
Community brings Day of the Dead to life locally
When wildfires erupt, Malheur County farmworkers shift to fire team duty
PHOTO GALLERY: Faces from the field
Have a news tip? Reporter Yadira Lopez: [email protected] or 541-473-3377
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