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Love songs for a dark lady

"Que viva la Virgen!"

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A mariachi with his violin is crossing the cold, dark parking lot as I arrive at the Immaculata. It's 3 a.m. on a Monday, but today is Dec. 12. Las Mananitas for the Virgin of Guadalupe are about to begin, and a hundred or so parishioners are already here. Opening with the traditional Mexican birthday aubade, the strolling troubadours in black and jingling silver trajes de charro lead us through the main sanctuary to an alcove where a giant likeness of Mexico's "dark mother" is ready to receive the day's offerings. "They are songs especially for the Virgin," says violinista Fernando of Mariachi Universal about the music they are to play this hour. In the songs, the virgin has many names: Morena Linda, Madre Morada, Virgen Morena, Morenita Mia. All of them celebrate the apparition of Mary as an indigenous woman to the Aztec Juan Diego in 1531.

As confirmation of the miracle, Mary caused a rosebush to bloom in the dead of winter. So it is that streams of worshippers, especially young women, kneel to place vase upon vase of roses at her altar. As the huge sanctuary nears capacity, music and fragrance fill the senses.

By 4 a.m., some 2,000 people have arrived. A young man standing near the shrine decides: It's time to sing Las Mananitas again, now that more people are here. Everybody sings along now with Fernando's full lead voice, the warm, wide vibrato of trumpets, the fat plucked bass of the guitarron and the strummed ukelele-like vihuela. As silence after the last verse falls, a bracing cry spontaneously rises: "Que viva la Virgen!"

The congregation responds as one: "Que viva!" and just as suddenly, it's exeunt mariachis, as priests, choirs and Aztec dancers assemble at the gate, and ushers circulate handing out programs.

Outside the church, latecomers with bouquets continue to file in past the musicians as they trundle off to their van. By the time mass is said, the mariachis are already on the way to their next gig. It will be a long day of venerations.

To hear recordings from the ceremony visit the Music & More page on Scan, our music blog at www.indyweekblogs.com/scan/music-more.

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