Sociedades Guadalupanas (Guadalupe Societies) are religious associations organized by Mexican-American Catholic women to provide leadership in social concerns and perform works of charity. The organization's name derives from Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, Patroness of the Americas. Sociedades Guadalupanas have helped fostering female development and leadership in the Catholic Church. Women may establish sociedades in a parish by gaining the approval of the pastor, and they often recruit members on an informal basis. However, individuals may also join by approaching the group to ask for admission. Still others become members due to a familial devotion to Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, including a tradition of familial involvement in a sociedad that has been passed from one generation to the next. Working-class and poor women have often made up the bulk of membership in Sociedades Guadalupanas; recently, however, younger and more educated members have joined. Despite the preponderance of women in the sociedades, a small number of men, teenagers, a few Anglos, and entire families also belong. Indeed, a male parishioner, José Navarro, was the first president of the first known sociedad in San Antonio, which was started around 1912 by Fr. Juan Maiztegui, the first chaplain at Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel, which later became Our Lady of Guadalupe Church.
Though no precise date for the founding of Guadalupe Societies in the state is known, the devotion of Mexicans to Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe dates to her reported apparition in Mexico in the sixteenth century. The cult (or devotion) of guadalupanismo soon arose in response to this event and likely evolved into the sociedades. In San Antonio the sociedades were formed in direct response to the need to build a school for the parishioners at Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel, which served the poor Mexicans of the archdiocese. As the groups developed, they focused more attention on both the secular and religious educational needs of the people by teaching their members English, reading, and writing and by providing religious education to children in the parish. The Guadalupanas in San Antonio have helped develop and maintain Hispanic membership in the Catholic Church. Fr. Virgilio Elizondo, rector of San Fernando Cathedral, claimed, "Had it not been for the Guadalupanas, Hispanics would not be Catholic today." In establishing a base for Mexican Americans in the Church, the women also learned and applied new leadership and organizational skills; many participated in the grassroots group Communities Organized for Public Service. In time, the sociedades' overwhelmingly large female membership evolved into a support system for Mexican-American women, who value gathering with other women to pray, to converse, and to provide one another emotional support during illnesses or other difficulties. Many women also consider the growth in their own spirituality directly related to their participation in a sociedad. In particular, they believe that miracles are wrought in their lives by Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe as a result of their faith, which has been deepened through the affiliation.
Requirements for participation vary from one sociedad to another. In some cases, members must be at least sixteen years old. In addition, if they are married, they must have been married in the church; if they are single, they must have received the sacraments of initiation (baptism and confirmation). Other sociedades permit much younger individuals to enter, considering their devotion to the Virgin as the most important attribute for membership. Overall, sociedades accept women of good standing within the community. Entering a sociedad also entails attending a few preliminary meetings of the group and going through a formal ceremony performed by the priest during Mass. At one time this ceremony, known as recibiendose (being received into the sociedad), was an elaborate ritual during which specific prayers were recited. Today, although simplified, the event has retained elements that are common to all groups. For example, individuals publicly acknowledge their commitment to Our Lady of Guadalupe, and they are presented with the Guadalupe Medal, which is adorned with the image of the Virgin on the front and other religious emblems on the back. Later, the member also receives the sociedad's official rose-colored capa (cape), which is used on special occasions. Once in the organization, a member is known as a socia (associate) and maintains her religious participation in a variety of ways. Attendance at regular monthly meetings, praying the Rosary, involvement in the sociedad's monthly Holy Communion, and other acts of religious devotion are normal requirements. As part of their Rosary recitations some sociedades acquire an image of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, known in this context as the Virgen Peregrina (Pilgrim Virgin), and set it up at a member's home for the gathering. After the event, the image is taken to another member's house for a similar religious ritual, her journey from one member's house to another's suggesting that her pilgrimage through the neighborhood lends protection to its residents. A special book of prayers accompanies the image for use in the Rosary. Many members also maintain home altars dedicated to Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. For many members, participation in Sociedades Guadalupanas ends only at death. To acknowledge a deceased member's longtime devotion to the group, her sociedad attends a special Mass and recitation of the rosary, as well as the singing of hymns, for the repose of her soul.
Just as important as their spiritual practices are the society's works of charity, which further demonstrate the members' devotion to the Virgin, who represents all-encompassing love. Guadalupanas have set up diabetes-detection campaigns, volunteered at battered-women's shelters and nursing homes, ministered to prisoners, organized social activities for church youth, and served on parish councils. One of the most significant events that they sponsor is the annual celebration of the memorial of Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12. In cities with a strong Guadalupana tradition such as San Antonio, this event, often referred to as La Serenata a la Virgen Morena (the Serenade to the Brown Virgin), is a major citywide celebration. Besides the traditional Mass in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, other Mexican-American cultural expressions-mariachi music and matachines, for instance-are also part of the commemoration.
Although Sociedades Guadalupanas can be found throughout the state, no statewide organization exists; however, the Federation of Guadalupanas was organized in the archdiocese of San Antonio in 1981 with the endorsement of Archbishop Patricio Flores to give Hispanic women in the archdiocese their own base. Previously, no similar organization that took in such a large geographic area existed for Hispanic Catholics in Texas. Since its founding, the federation has established guidelines for society activities in the region, and it has also carried out state-level activities that have benefited groups outside the area. The presidents of the region's sociedades make up the federation, with officers selected from among the members. Margaret Nieto, who headed the group at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Seguin, was the first federation president. The group held the first of its regular archdiocesan conferences in August 1981 and has since sponsored state conventions, at which more than 1,000 delegates representing societies in various regions of the state have participated. Besides spiritual topics, the conferences have also addressed social and economic problems of Mexican Americans.