PLANT CITY — Anselma Fernandez has lived most of her 46 years in the United States but on Tuesday night as St. Clement Catholic Church staged its Our Lady of Guadalupe festival, she couldn't help but feel a sentimental tug.
The flickering candles, the prayers, the folk dances, the smell of tacos and tortas reminded her of Matamoros in northern Mexico. Fernandez, now a St. Clement parishioner and Plant City resident, left Matamoros with her family when she was 12 years old.
"I get goose bumps," Fernandez said as about 100 children in red Aztec Matlachines costumes performed folk dances at Plant City Stadium. "I really do. Being here, seeing everything. I used to dance like that in school."
It seemed the same for the thousands of others who showed up, despite fears of rain, to participate in a religious procession, pray, celebrate midnight Mass, watch traditional dances and go on carnival rides.
Many knelt to light candles and offer prayers of thanks to the Virgin Mary or ask her intercession.
The annual event, the sixth one at the stadium, is "about our people and our faith," Fernandez said. "She is the mother of our Lord. It's also about bringing our people together."
The festival, a mix of religion and culture, is rooted in Mexican tradition. Children danced in elaborate costumes, vendors sold T-shirts, hats, rosaries and religious candles. Just outside the stadium, a midway offered carnival rides and sticky, fried foods.
But for many, the center of the action was a small, makeshift religious shrine inside the stadium behind third base. There, many knelt in the wet grass to place individual roses or bouquets. Some gazed at the statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Some hung their heads in prayer.
"It's a tradition for our family," said Martin Reynoso, 36, who came with his wife, Sandra Solis, and their children, Vanessa, 10, and Rogelio, 7. "This is about our religion and our culture. It's about everything. We want to be here to share a moment, to see Our Lady. It's very important to us."
The festival recalls the story of Mexican peasant Juan Diego. In 1531, Diego saw a girl of about 15 or 16 surrounded by light on a hillside, the Virgin Mary. The story goes that she asked him to tell the local bishop to build a church there. The bishop asked for a sign. So again, she appeared to Diego and instructed him to pick flowers along the hillside. Although December was too late for flowers to bloom, Diego found Castilian roses, not native to Mexico, in full bloom on the hill.
The story continues that when Diego showed the bishop the roses, unfurling his tunic, the image of the Virgin Mary appeared on the tunic. That image is on display at a church in Mexico City.
Each year on Dec. 12, Latin communities recall the story with a festival and a Catholic mass. Bishop Robert Lynch was set to preside at mass at the Plant City festival.
"Most people see her as uniquely Mexican, but she really is the patroness of the Americas," St. Clement Pastor Tom Anastasia said of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
For years, the festival was held on the grounds of St. Clement on Alexander Street. It was moved to accommodate growing crowds. Last year, about 3,500 showed up.
Anastasia hesitated to predict how many would attend this year's festival because of rain earlier in the day, but it seemed that by 9 p.m. the parking lot and most of the stadium was packed.
"We'll see. I'll say maybe 3,000 to 4,000," he said.
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2454.