Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2011 | 2 a.m.
The celebration began Sunday night, when a procession of visitors converged on the Perez family home in North Las Vegas, placing dozens of bouquets on the front porch of the persimmon-colored stucco house while a mariachi band belted out Las Mañanitas, the traditional Mexican birthday song.
And it continued on Monday, with the faithful showing up at the house — children bundled up to protect them from a cold, persistent drizzle — to see religious dances performed.
More importantly, they gathered to view the weeping statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Monday was the official day to celebrate Our Lady of Guadalupe, as the Catholic patron saint of the Americas is also known.
The Perez family, founders of a troupe that performs the Danza del Carrizo, a special dance to celebrate the Virgin of Guadalupe, not only guards the statue, but also helps maintain important Mexican Catholic traditions in Las Vegas’ Hispanic community.
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In 1991 Pablo Covarrubias left Mexico City with his family and a 4-foot-tall, heavy plaster statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
At his home in North Las Vegas, tucked behind a 7-Eleven off Lake Mead Boulevard, he placed the statue on a stone pedestal in the backyard.
On May 31, 1993, Covarrubias’ daughter Martha saw tears on the face of the statue, and called the local television station with news of a miracle. A video crew filmed the statue crying. The story spread and before long people flocked to their home.
The family, who did not take money from visitors, collected the statue’s tears with cotton balls and gave them as gifts to the devoted. Later, stories spread that the tears had miraculous healing powers. In the following years other miracles were attributed to the statue. It was said that it wept on several other occasions, and, at one point, more than 30 people praying at the statue saw a vision of the virgin appear in the sky.
The Catholic Church has never officially weighed in on the statue, and, when it first gained fame, local Catholic officials expressed skepticism.
“I saw it cry,” said Adriana Perez, as several others nodded in agreement. “It cried when no one was around, when the TV wasn’t there. Many people in the community attribute other miracles to it as well.”
Regardless of the authenticity of the miracle, those who visited the home and knew Covarrubias say it changed his life.
Several people said that Covarrubias stopped drinking alcohol, something he struggled with, after seeing the statue weep.
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The first Perez family members came to Las Vegas in 1967 in search of work.
It was not until 1990, when the family had grown and was better established, that the Matachines of Ciudad Juárez formed with 15 members, most from the Perez family tree.
Matachines are groups of religious dancers who perform a traditional war dance that incorporates Catholic symbols and ideas into an indigenous American art form. The dance’s origins can be traced to pre-Columbian groups such as the Apaches.
“With the arrival of Catholicism during the colonization of the Americas, the church did a lot of playing with ideas that the natives already had,” said Irma Wynants, who works for the Winchester Cultural Center and studies Hispanic and Latino culture. “They took things they respected, but transform it a little bit to fit the Catholic religion. The indigenous people always danced for celebrations and so that remains.”
There is a line of four drummers, the “heartbeat,” and dancers of all ages who carry bow-and-arrows, including captains that lead the troupe.
“Where we come from in Mexico is a hard place, a difficult place to live,” said Luis Perez. “The dance reflects that. It shows the struggle we must go through. We used to return to Mexico every year to perform and also see what the Matachines there were doing — to keep us tied to our roots. But we haven’t gone back in three years because of the insecurity.”
The family members who are now in their 40s and 50s learned the dance from their grandfather, who was a matachine in Mexico. Today they teach the music and dance to their own children and grandchildren.
“The dance is about religion, but also about culture,” said Jesse Perez, whose 8-year-old daughter, Liliana, is now one of the youngest members of the group. “For me, it really is about family and community. Not only does it help keep our family together and close, but it also has turned neighbors into family.”
While they perform on the Day of the Dead and at funerals, weddings, baptisms and quinceañeras, the biggest day of the year for matachines is always Dec. 12.
Once the Las Vegas Catholic community started to honor the Virgin of Guadalupe by visiting Covarrubias’ home, the dance troupe performed there every year.
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Covarrubias knew that the Perez family, through their dance troupe, was especially dedicated to maintaining traditions and honoring Our Lady of Guadalupe.
So when he returned to Mexico in 1999, Covarrubias entrusted the statue to Ofelia, the matriarch of the family, and the Perez clan.
Today, the statue sits behind glass in one corner of the porch so it remains safe and visitors can see it any time of day without disturbing the family.
“We wanted to keep it safe, and also make sure that if it does cry, that it isn’t because of something someone did,” Hector Perez said.
It is in very good condition, with amber-colored eyes, a hand-painted bronze and turquoise-colored robe and a crown.
On Monday Ofelia dished out traditional holiday season Mexican fare — tamales, fruit salad and champurrado, a hot Mexican drink with chocolate and corn flour.
The Matachines, now 50 members strong and including three generations of Perezes, shrugged off the dreary weather and danced in the street wearing red outfits, sandals and, in some cases, elaborate headdresses.
At the beginning of the ceremony groups of dancers approach the statue and pay homage to the Virgin of Guadalupe.
A fiddle player repeated a riff over the thumping drumbeat that would have been at home in a traditional American folk or country song.
While the dancers performed several routines over the course of an hour, many visitors took time to approach the altar and whisper a prayer.
The statue has not cried since arriving at its new home.
“It is because she is happy here,” Ofelia said in Spanish, repeating a common joke among the family.
Yet, people continue to show up to see the weeping statue.
“We may have to get a bigger home soon,” Jesse Perez said. “You know, just to accommodate all the people that come here now and provide more space.”
They may have to make more room in the Matachines as well. As the dancers performed, numerous children watched with excitement.
Arnulfo Amigon, 12, watched with his mother, who has brought him to the Perez house the past four years for the celebration, with a wide smile on his face.
“I think the whole thing is amazing,” Amigon said. “I’ve wanted to be a drummer ever since I saw them the first year, and now I want to join for sure.”