In a shady hollow next to the parking lot of a West Chicago True Value Hardware, pineapples dangle from the trees and women in stretch pants bless themselves. At five o'clock on a recent Sunday evening dozens of people mill around the clearing. Many have come because they believe the Virgin of Guadalupe has appeared here, in the bark of the ash trees. They've also come because a mariachi band is supposed to perform at six.
The site has been attracting believers and curious onlookers since July 17, when Sebastian Cuaya, a local landscaper, reported that an unseen force had called him to this clearing and shown him images of the Virgin of Guadalupe on the tree trunks. Since then, he and others have spotted several more manifestations in knotholes and in bark.
In the weeks since the discovery, the long, narrow clearing has bloomed with ramshackle shrines and offerings to Guadalupe, who first appeared to an Aztec man, Juan Diego, in 1531. The pope canonized Juan Diego--the Catholic church's first Indian saint--July 31 in a ceremony in Mexico; many of the West Chicago faithful believe that Cuaya will follow him to sainthood. These same people believe that the Virgin is asking for a church to be constructed on this spot, which is currently up for sale or lease.
A Mexican flag strung across the clearing has been annotated with a black marker to proclaim that this site will soon house a basilica dedicated to Guadalupe. America Online CDs hang from the flag, glimmering and twisting in the breeze. There are about eight main shrines, built around the largest images and on trees that run with a sap rumored to have healing powers. Each altar is a riot of fake flowers, dog-eared letters, painted pieces of scrap wood, household tools, hundreds of candles, mementos of dead relatives, and plastic birds.
Some shapes in the trees do resemble the traditional icon of Guadalupe, a robed figure surrounded by concentric ovals. Once your eye can discern one Virgin, however, it's possible to see similar forms in any tree with highly textured bark. Based on the number of people gathered this Sunday, the hollow is either home to a miraculous forest of Virgins or the object of an overpowering expression of wishful thinking.
Around the trees, the mood is light. People stoop to examine the images in the bark, but most don't cross themselves or pray. Kids in shorts tear around the clearing, stopping to kiss the trees or to grab free hunks of watermelon out of a Tupperware container sitting on a rickety card table. Bells ring, and people look up to see if perhaps the mariachis have arrived, but the bells belong to a Popsicle vendor, pushing his cart over the uneven ground.
People feel peaceful here, says Larry, who doesn't want to give his last name but says he's been coming every day from his home in Warrenville since he read about the apparitions in the Sun-Times on July 20. His words are drowned out by the sound of boxcars rattling down the nearby train tracks. West Chicago is one of the busiest train interchanges in the country, in part because of traffic to and from the nearby General Mills factory, which suffuses the air with the scent of Boo Berry cereal.
"There's been so much going on," he says, citing previous apparitions in the area that he's visited, including a weeping icon in a Ukrainian Orthodox church in Cicero and another replica of Mary in the trees of a Hillsdale cemetery. Both were certified as true after diocesan investigations. Larry would like to see the diocese look into this one too, but the local churches have been largely silent. Another person mentions a tree in Graceland cemetery in Chicago, where it's rumored that you can see the gates of heaven by looking up into the foliage at a certain spot.
"No, that's not for me," Larry says. "I think I would freak out."
What's happened here is beautiful, he says, and it's not up to him to divine its meaning. "I don't see visions or any of that stuff," he says. "I just see the things in the trees."
At the back of the clearing, elderly men and women sit on benches and upturned buckets, praying the rosary. Nearby, men in shiny trousers and guayaberas smoke, fanning themselves with baseball caps. A rumor ripples through the crowd: the local radio station confirms that a mariachi band will be playing tonight.
Though deep in prayer, the worshippers perk up at the mention of music. Different groups have come to play for the last couple Sundays, but the quality of the bands has varied, depending on how much was collected from donations during the week.
The crowd agrees that it's a dubious proposition to have a mariachi play at your house. The bands are costly ($350 an hour for a low-end group, $500 for the best) and they're famous for eating hosts out of house and home--along with their fee, they are entitled to free food and drink. "How much they eat!" exclaims one woman. "And they get so drunk!" Everyone nods in agreement and looks around the clearing, apparently hoping to glimpse someone in a fancy sequined suit.
On the other side of the hollow, Sebastian Cuaya has returned in his minivan. Many people now call him Juan D, after Juan Diego. The crowd surges around him, not only because he's promised to tell the story of his vision--he's also been arranging the mariachi appearances.
He carries a Jewel bag containing Polaroid film and a giant bag of sour cream and onion potato chips. The bag never leaves his grasp, through several photo opportunities and retellings of his story. Cuaya, who's 37, is short and circular, with deeply tanned arms and bushy black hair with wisps of grey. Since the 17th he's slept here every night, building the benches, ramps, and shelves around the altars, keeping the site clean, and posing for photos with anyone who asks.
When he saw the vision in the tree, he says, he fell to his knees, not believing his eyes. As he tells this, he falls to his knees, bumping the potato chip bag, and asks everyone else to kneel too. As he gets back on his feet, he's interrupted by a man on a bicycle, who asks about the mariachi. Cuaya sighs.
It began at 9:30 on a Wednesday morning, when he was supposed to be at work. Someone asks him what he was doing there, and the man on the bicycle pipes up: "Drinking beer!" People titter and shout "Cerveza!" No, he says, he only drinks Tecate Limon.
The night before he'd been up late, painting his van until three in the morning. He'd overslept, and felt something pulling him toward the hardware store. When he got to the parking lot, he went to the clearing and began scooping peat and bark out of a knot in one of the trees. There was a strange aroma to the bark, and as he continued digging, up to his elbows in the knothole, he felt a current of electricity run through his arm.
"I've not had a drink for a month," Cuaya adds quickly.
He moved from tree to tree, searching for something he couldn't name. Near the end of the clearing, he says he felt suddenly overcome, and he saw the first image, a virgencita (little virgin) about 15 feet up. Then he saw another, and felt joyful, sure that he was being visited.
Now, he says, a church must be built on the site. "I have a responsibility. I cannot give this up." He's been a landscaper for 14 years; with donations, he guesses he can construct a roof before the first snowfall.
Before this, Cuaya was having a run of bad luck. He was working long hours for little pay, he was taking care of his mother, and his van had broken down, but for the last four months, he says, he'd had a feeling that perhaps he was being tested--that maybe he was going to be the Juan Diego of 2002. "My sister told me, 'Are you crazy? How are you going to be Juan Diego 2002 if you're such a bad person?'" At that, he cracks up.
Aurora resident Jose Aguirre, 39, has been coming regularly and staying late every night. He didn't know Cuaya before, but they are now close friends. Both of them, he says, have been touched by God. Aguirre, dressed entirely in white "because God told me to," tells the story of how he rose briefly into heaven while at a church retreat this spring. When he returned, he began healing people through massage. He smacks his lips as he talks, savoring his words. Jesus came to him "like a heart attack," he says, in a voice low and hushed and smooth as oil. He believes that the Virgin has visited Cuaya in the same way. The Virgin of Guadalupe has come to West Chicago because the people needed a miracle, he says.
As Aguirre talks, just behind him, two teenagers in the front seat of a minivan are enthusiastically making out.
As the sun sets, the crowd has thinned out to a couple dozen. Kids light glass pillar candles or zip around on Razor scooters. The mariachi never shows, but at eight o'clock women seated in a row in front of the main shrine begin singing in faltering unison, the watery alto opening the nightly rosary service. Together they murmur rapid-fire prayers, a nimble hum punctuated by the sound of hands swatting at mosquitoes. People stand and examine Polaroids of themselves with Cuaya and another train passes close by.
Cuaya is not saying the rosary. He's giving the tour to another group of people, falling to his knees with an "oof!" and popping back up again to tell the story.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Cynthia Howe.