For as long as he’s been alive, Pedro Salceda has needed miracles. Lots of them.

While still in his mother’s womb, doctors discovered he had gastroschisis, a condition where a hole in his abdomen caused his intestines to develop outside his body. As soon as he was born, surgeons worked to put his intestines back into his abdomen – only to find them riddled with small holes in some places and blocked in others.

They managed to save Pedro’s life, but doctors told his parents he wouldn’t live past his fourth birthday.

But early on a recent Saturday morning, 25 years and 10 surgeries later, Pedro put on his LA Football Club jersey and got in a car with his mother and father, Gerardo and Claudia, for the three-hour drive from San Diego to Santa Paula, California.

They came to pay tribute to Santo Niño de Atocha, a centuries-old statue of the child Jesus whose devotion in Mexico is almost comparable to that of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Santo Niño, they believe, is the reason Pedro is alive.

“We come here out of gratitude,” said Gerardo. “He suffered from this for 20 years, and there was no solution.”

Stories like the Salcedas’ were not hard to find among the more than 2,000 people who descended on Santa Paula on May 25, when Archbishop José Gomez kicked off the annual two-week pilgrimage of this replica statue of the child Jesus brought from the Santo Niño shrine in Zacatecas, Mexico.

Devotion to the Holy Child image began in medieval Spain and became popular among Spanish speakers in the New World, especially in Mexico and the Philippines.

For nearly twenty years now, the statue’s visit has drawn faithful from around the U.S. to this town in the scenic Santa Clara River Valley, transforming the little parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe into a scene resembling small-town Mexico, complete with a makeshift food court serving tamales and sugary buñuelos, pop-up shops selling religious items from Mexico, and Mariachi bands singing during Mass.

Before the Saturday vigil liturgy, a pick-up truck brought the Holy Child, sitting in a golden throne and canopy, in procession from a local park to the parish. In front and behind him followed a full marching band, folk dance troops from neighboring parishes in Ventura County, and children with feathered headdresses bearing the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Whether performing during the procession, trying out the different foods, or standing in line to get their Santo Niño statues blessed, everyone seemed to have something to do.

Farm workers make up the biggest contingent of worshippers at Our Lady of Guadalupe on Sundays: some Santa Paula longtime residents, others itinerant workers who spend a few months each year in the nearby fields before moving on to jobs in other parts of California.

One constant over the years is that many of these migrants to Santa Paula have hailed from Zacatecas, the North-Central Mexican state where the Santo Niño devotion started.

As the parish grew, so did a grassroots campaign to bring the Holy Child to faithful who, often due to their complicated legal status in the U.S., couldn’t return to the town of Plateros in Zacatecas, where the Santo Niño’s shrine is located. The pilgrim image made its first visit in 2007.

“The event was born from the parish itself,” explained Claudio Frias, a Zacatecas native and Guadalupe parishioner who’s lived in Santa Paula since 1970. “First they started coming from the counties nearby, then up from Fresno, Merced, Sacramento. Then Utah, Colorado, Texas.”

Apart from the Zacatecas connection, the statue also speaks to migrant workers for historical reasons.

Devotion to the Santo Niño dates to the 13th century, when parts of Spain were under Islamic rule. In the town of Atocha (located in present-day Madrid), Christian prisoners were refused food by their Muslim captors, but were allowed to be brought food by their children – a rule that meant starvation for childless prisoners.

Turning to a statue of the Virgin Mary holding her infant Son at the town’s church, the women of Atocha pleaded to the child on those prisoners’ behalf.

Soon after, the story goes, witnesses reported seeing a small child with a basket quietly slip past the prison guards to bring the hungry inmates food and water. Meanwhile, visitors to the Marian statue noticed the child’s sandals were showing signs of wear – generating the belief that it was the “Niño” himself who was making the nighttime visits….

By Pablo Kay in Angelus News