This woman is everywhere. She is more prevalent than the iconic images of Frida Khalo which show up on post cards, Tee-shirts and shopping bags. More prevalent than the ghostly images of Catrina . Even more prevalent than her Son. I know that this, the extreme reverence for the Virgin Mary, is one of the characteristics which distinguishes Catholicism from other forms of Christianity. Still, sitting here in Guanajuato, the love for Guadalupe seems extra appropriate. Mexicans have a cultural obsession with motherhood. If something is good, it’s “vale la madre”. If it’s bad, it’s a “desmadre”. Oedipus should have been an Aztec.
The Virgin Comes to America
On December 9th, 1531, we are told, a Mexican peasant named Juan Diego wandered up Tepeyac hill outside of Mexico City. There he had vision of teenage girl surrounded by light. She spoke to him in his native Nahuatl and said that a church should be built on the site.
The location was no coincidence. A temple to the Aztec mother-goddess had once existed at this very place, but had been destroyed by the conquering Spaniards.
Believing the young woman to be the Virgin Mary, Juan Diego told the Archbishop of his vision. He was instructed to return to Tepeyac Hill and ask the woman for a sign. He did, and per the Virgin’s instructions found roses (not native these parts) growing on the top of the hill. Diego returned to the Archbishop on December 12th and opened his cloak to release the flowers he had collected. When he did so, the roses fell to the floor and the image of the Virgin was miraculously imprinted on his cloak.
That image is now displayed in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe and is Mexico’s most beloved icon.
What Does It All Mean
It means a lot to Mexicans, and perhaps to all Catholic Latinos. In the city where I live, the church dedicated to Guadalupe is at the top of a hill. Every year on December 12th, families parade up to the church with their small children in costume- the little girls as the Virgin with her starry turquoise cape, and the boys as Juan Diego wearing straw hats and with mustaches drawn on their faces.
In Spanish classes I was taught that every detail of the image is symbolic: The aura surrounding her is shaped like the fruit of the nopál. Her two hands coming together in prayer represent the union of the two cultures (Hispanic and indigenous) and offer protection. Her blue star-studded shawl, as well as the crescent moon at her feet, evoke the heavens. The neckline of her dress is reminiscent of the vestments worn by church nobles, and her dress is tight across the belly indicating that she is already pregnant.
Traveling in Latin America provides many opportunities to reflect on how religions get layered on top of one another. One hears of statues of saints, that have statues of indigenous deities inside them. It always makes me wonder who is having the last laugh. Is it those clever Catholics usurping the beliefs of the natives? Or those clever natives finding a way to continue their rituals right under the Church’s nose? One thing is certain. Our Lady of Guadalupe would not be as beloved as she is, if she had made her appearance to a Spaniard, rather than the humble Juan Diego. Between the two of them, they converted a continent.Published in