Tomorrow, Dec. 12, is the annual celebration of the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. For Catholics worldwide she is the patroness of the Americas, from Barrow, Alaska to the southern point of South America. Hispanic Catholics, especially Mexicans and Mexican-Americans have a deep and abiding devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Just three years ago an estimated 6.1 million pilgrims visited her shrine on December 11-12, 2009, making it the most visited center of Catholic devotion in the world.
The Hispanic presence in Alaska and especially in our region goes back more than 200 years to the exploration of the Alexander Archipelago and Prince William Sound by Spanish explorers in the late 18th century. Although the Spanish never established settlements in Alaska, they left behind place names such as Valdez, Cordova, Revillagigedo Island and the Malaspiña Glacier.
Two centuries later, there are growing Hispanic communities throughout our state. Since 1980, Alaska’s Hispanic population has grown from 9,000 to 39,000. Hispanics now make up 5.5 percent of the Alaskan population, up from 3.2 percent three decades ago. In the United States, Hispanics are the largest minority group in the country: the estimated Hispanic population of the United States as of 2009 is 48.4 million people. It is projected that Hispanics will surpass the 132.8 million mark by the year 2050.
Many Hispanics first came to Alaska with the military or as migrant, seasonal workers. While there are still many Hispanic seasonal workers, especially in fish processing in Southeast, Kodiak and Dutch Harbor, increasing numbers of Hispanic people have found year round work and have settled in our state and in our community permanently. Although the majority of Hispanics in the United States and Alaska are either recent immigrants from Mexico or are Mexican-Americans, it’s important to remember that Hispanic communities across the country and in our state include individuals and families from Central and South America, the Caribbean and the Southwestern United States.
It’s no secret that the legal and illegal immigration of millions of Hispanics to the United States in the past three decades has aroused great controversy. But we must not forget that the goal of many immigrants is survival. This Christmas time we recall that Joseph took Mary and the child Jesus from Bethlehem into Egypt after Herod had sought to destroy the child (Mt. 2:13). While it is urgent for our nation to find a just and compassionate way to reform our immigration system, we should remember that these new immigrants, like the Holy Family, who migrated to Egypt seeking shelter, safety and work, come in search of employment and a better life for their families. Many are seeking to escape from abject poverty, unemployment or, like Jesus, Mary and Joseph, from the threat of violence.
From my perspective, our society has a duty to welcome the foreigner out of charity and respect for the human person, especially within a prosperous nation like the US. At the same time, for the sake of the common good, our government has a duty to secure one’s border and enforce the law. Nations have the right to enforce their just laws and all persons must respect the legitimate exercise of this right.
With all this in mind, the Hispanic community as a whole brings to our society great gifts: a devotion to family, a strong work ethic and a richness of culture and faith. Tomorrow’s celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe marks the beginning of evangelization of the people of Mexico and the continued celebration of this feast helps strengthen the faith. The image of the Virgin of Guadalupe and her message of hope and consolation led the native and mestizo peoples of Mexico to the Christian faith. Since the 16th century, devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe has spread throughout the entire Spanish-speaking Catholic world, as well as the Philippines, Europe and the United States.
As we prepare to celebrate this feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, I am grateful for the contribution of the Hispanic people to our region and our nation. During the Christmas season, I am reminded of the difficult journey so many Hispanic immigrants have made coming to this country. We remember not only the birth of Jesus but also how Joseph and Mary sought to protect their infant son by leaving their homeland and settling in a foreign land in search of safety and a better life. Today is no different, like the Holy Family, new immigrants are trying to do what is best for their family.
• Burns is a Catholic bishop.