NARANJA, Fla. (AP) — Martin Monjaraz takes special pride in helping to organize the Guadalupe festival on the grounds of St. Ann Mission, where he first embraced the Catholic faith as a teen after moving from Mexico to work in the surrounding farmland decades ago.
"Here there's a way to welcome that it's always like we've known one another forever," Monjaraz said by the large tent where hundreds of people had been streaming in since well before dawn Sunday to bring roses, poinsettias, candles and prayers to a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The feast draws millions of pilgrims to the main basilica in Mexico City and to churches big and small across the Americas around Dec. 12, which marks the anniversary of one of several apparitions of the Virgin Mary witnessed by an Indigenous Mexican man named Juan Diego in 1531.
For St. Ann mission church, where Miami's urban sprawl fades into farmland and the Everglades' swampy wilderness, it's the most important event of the year — both culturally and for fundraising to sustain a ministry for migrant farmworkers that dates back to 1961.
Dressed in a bright huipil dress, parishioner Noemi Lopez had been busy all day emceeing first the pre-dawn testimonials and then the folkloric dances that followed the solemn Mass celebrated by Miami's auxiliary bishop.
She said the raffle and food sales of Mexican specialties at the festival — always held on weekends, so more workers can attend — help keep the lights on yearlong in the main mission church and the three chapels it runs in the housing projects where farmworkers still live, often without transportation.
"This is what made me stay here. It's a family that doesn't abandon you," she added, recalling when the church helped her raise funds to beat a 24-hour eviction notice more than a decade ago, when she had recently arrived from Mexico with her children.
To the hundreds of workers in the camps and the 450 registered member families at the main mission, St. Ann provides everything from sacraments to social assistance — children's dental health, marriage counseling, food distribution and legal immigration advice.
"In this country, immigration is fostered, but immigrants are neglected," said the Rev. Rafael Cos, who has run the mission for five years.
A larger sanctuary is being built to accommodate the growing number of families, most from Mexico but with newer arrivals from across Latin America. Parishioners say that many migrants left earlier this year, scared by Florida's new immigration law. But many more are constantly arriving, as record numbers of migrants cross the U.S. southern border, and hundreds of thousands of them head to the Miami area.
A big festival like the Virgin of Guadalupe's is a crucial way to integrate newcomers and make them feel at home, said Margarita Garza, who had been at Sunday's celebration since the traditional 5 a.m. serenade to the Virgin.
She was 10 when her parents moved to Florida in the 1980s, following the seasonal crops up the state. On the farm in Mexico where she was raised, there was no church, so her grandmother taught her to pray the rosary to the Virgin of Guadalupe.
"When we arrived at St. Ann, it was a big honor to come sing to her," she said. "The Virgin of Guadalupe always has had a focal place in each home."
Carlos Resendiz also learned to pray the rosary with his grandmother, and devoutly kneeled on the mission's rocky grounds during Sunday's Mass with his new wife. The Mexican construction worker said he hopes to transmit the same values to his future children.
To attract U.S.-born children to the church, its mission and its culture might entail adding English-language Masses and programs, said Garza's husband.
"Youth are leaving us because they don't understand" enough Spanish for homilies especially, said Refugio Garza, who came to the area with his parents in the 1980s to pick tomatoes. He remembers the hardships of that life – but also the joy that came with community and faith.
"What's needed is to value yourself. That's why it's important to have this big festival," he said in Spanish before switching flawlessly to English. "This grounds you."
The eight youth ministry group members who performed special dances to the Virgin on Sunday afternoon – the girls decked in huipiles and boys sporting brightly woven ponchos and hats made with palm fronds from Michoacan — said English is their first language, so they try to make all activities bilingual.
But they want to keep up their parents' traditions and faith, and make sure to welcome newcomers, regardless of where they're from.
"We want them to feel comfortable. I don't see it anywhere else," said Adiel Alvarado, 16, as he came off the stage that had served for both Mass and dances. "It's like, wow. A lot of people care about the Virgin Mary."