BUENOS AIRES, Argentina - Latin Americans burst into tears and cheers today at news that an Argentine cardinal has become the first pope from the hemisphere, expressing hope that he will better understand the region that is home to more Catholics than any other.
Cars honked their horns through the streets of Argentina's capital and television announcers screamed with elation at the news that the cardinal they knew as Jorge Mario Bergoglio had become Pope Francis.
"It's incredible!" said Martha Ruiz, 60, who was weeping tears of emotion after learning that the cardinal she knew as Jorge Mario Bergoglio will now be Pope Francis.
She said she had been in many meetings with the cardinal and said, "He is a man who transmits great serenity."
Cars honked their horns as the news spread and television announcers screamed with elation and surprise and Catholics began flooding toward the cathedral, where Ana Maria Perez and a few dozen other women had been waiting for the announcement.
"He is going to be the pope of the street," she said, referring to Bergoglio's habit of taking the subways alongside working class Argentines.
"It's a huge gift for all of Latin America. We waited 20 centuries. It was worth the wait," said Jose Antonio Cruz, a Franciscan friar at the church of St. Francis of Assisi in the colonial Old San Juan district in Puerto Rico.
"Everyone from Canada down to Patagonia is going to feel blessed," he said after exchanging high-fives with church secretary Antonia Veloz.
Bergoglio's former spokesman, Guillermo Marco, told Argentina's TN television station that the new 76-year-old pope - who is also the first from the Jesuit order - "has enormous pastoral experience" with a humble bearing.
"You can count the occasions when he used a car with a chauffeur," Marco said. "His choices of life as cardinal have been to have a normal, common life."
That common touch, as the new pope issued his first words to the crowd, also drew the attention of Bishop Eugenio Lira, secretary-general of the Mexican Conference of Bishops.
"I couldn't believe what I was seeing, when he started saying, 'Good afternoon,' just like someone saying hello to a friend," Lira said. "He will certainly be the pope who is closest to the people of Latin America. He knows the problems of Latin America very well."
Soledad Loaeza, a political science professor at the Colegio de Mexico who studies the church, said an Argentine pope was the logical choice. "First, Latin America is the most important region in the world for the church," but one where evangelical churches have been making inroads. "So it may also be an attempt to stop the decline in the number of Catholics."
For church leaders seeking growth, instead of the aging, declining congregations in Europe or the United States, "there are only two regions," Loaeza said: Africa and Latin America.
In Cuba, parish priest Gregorio Alvarez said he believes Pope Francis' background could lead the church to focus more on the ills afflicting humanity, and less on internal issues.
"One hopes that the church will be closer to the problems of humankind and not only the problems of the church," Alvarez said at the Jesus of Miramar Church in a leafy western suburb of Havana, where bells pealed following the announcement.
"Being Latin American gives him an advantage. He understands the problems of poverty, of violence, of manipulation of the masses," Alvarez said. "All that gives him experience for the job. ... He's one of the family."
For Marvin Cruz, a Catholic at the Parish of the Miraculous in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, the pope's "main challenge will be the fight against economic inequality, which is very strong here, and his training as a Jesuit will allow him to take it head on."
He also noted the erosion of church membership in the face of Protestant denominations and secularism. "I hope he calls those who have left and those without faith to the bosom of the church," he said.
The bishop at the head of Venezuela's church, the Rev. Diego Padron, remarked, "All of Latin America is dropping to its knees to pray, to thank God for this extraordinary gift that he has given us."
"I am convinced this pope will make extraordinary changes, beginning with his gestures today," Padron said, referring to Francis' bowing to the crowd at St. Peter's Square, "asking for a prayer, showing great humility and at the same time displaying a great change."
"Never has a pope been seen to ask for the blessing of the faithful and today, well, that's what the pope did."
For some of the poor, the choice has already brought benefits. Juan Carlos Alarcon, a 58-year-old street vendor, came to the Buenos Aires cathedral with a load of Argentine flags to sell.
"I have to take advantage of this historic moment to feed my family," he said.
But there was a tinge of regret for some who had been hoping for a Brazilian pope.
Bruno Scherer, the brother of Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Scherer, sat by himself in a square behind the main Catholic church in the Scherer family's hometown of Toledo in southern Brazil.
"I think Odilo must be happy. He must have the feeling that he was left off the hook," Bruno Scherer told The Associated Press.
"I think that because of his age - he's still quite young - he wouldn't want to lose his liberty. He wants to keep traveling, taking photos, and doing his thing. ... Well, let's at least think that."
Contributors to this report include Mark Stevenson in Mexico City; Jenny Barchfield in Toledo, Brazil; Fabiola Sanchez in Caracas, Venezuela; and Luis Henao in Santiago, Chile.