Today is the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Queen of Mexico and Empress of the Americas, Patroness of the Americas, and most recently Patroness of the Unborn. An image of her preserved on cloth in a Mexico City Basilica is the object of almost universal adoration in Mexico and among the large Mexican diaspora in the United States. She has been called the “rubber band which binds this disparate nation into a whole.” Mexican literary icons have attested to her importance. Carlos Fuentes said that “you cannot truly be considered a Mexican unless you believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe” and Nobel Literature laureate Octavio Paz that “the Mexican people, after more than two centuries of experiments, have faith only in the Virgin of Guadalupe and the National Lottery.”
The origin story goes like this.
On December 9, 1531, just ten years after the conquest of Mexico by Hernando Cortez, Juan Diego, an Indian peasant and particularly pious convert to Catholicism, was walking by the Hill of Tepeyac then outside of the capital city. A temple to Tonantzin, the Aztec goddess of love and fertility, had surmounted the hill but been razed in the Church’s campaign to obliterate traditional worship. When he glanced up the hill he beheld a maiden who bade him in his native Nahuatl language to build a church on the site in her name. He surmised that she must be that she must be the Virgin Mary although she did not identify herself.
|The Indio peon Juan Diego presents his tilma with the image of the Virgin to Fray Juan de Zumarraga, Archbishop of Mexico.|
Juan Diego hurried to Fray Juan de Zumárraga, the Archbishop of Mexico with his tale. The Franciscan was impressed with his piety but skeptical of the story. He instructed Juan Diego to return to the hill and ask the apparition for proof of her identity. The peon returned three more times to the hill over the next two days and the Virgin spoke to him each time.
He first asked for a miraculous sign. When he returned home he found that his uncle, who had been dying, was healed.
On his final trip to the Hill the virgin commanded him to gather flowers at the summit. These were not native flower, but red Castilian roses blooming out of season. Juan Diego gathered them in his tilma or cloak and took the bundle to the Archbishop Zumárraga. When he opened his cloak December 12, the flowers fell to the floor, and on the fabric was the image of the Virgin.
This was enough to convince Archbishop who ordered a chapel be built at the base of the hill where the cloak would be displayed. Juan Diego, his wife, and his uncle were given leave to build a hovel next to the hermitage of Franciscan fathers sent to attend the shrine and to act as their servant. He reportedly died there in 1548.
The revered image has been altered over the years, although not the central image of the Virgin on the tilma. The figure of a dark skinned virgin is four foot eight inches high. Her gown is a tawny rose tinted color said to recall the Mexican landscape. She is girded by a thin black sash which is taken as a sign of pregnancy. She wears a blue mantle traditionally associated with Mary. Sharp beams radiate from her suggesting that she is “brighter than the Sun.” One foot rests on the Moon and the other on a snake’s head. This has been interpreted as her victory over darkness and triumph over the pagan Aztec feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl and/or the serpent of temptation from the Garden of Eden.
She may have originally had a crown on her head or that might have been added later. Still later the crown was decorated with gold which deteriorated over the years. In 1899 the crown was erased either because of the deterioration or to bring the image more into line with the republican sentiments of the people. The tilma was reframed with the top being brought down just above the Virgin’s head to disguise damage in the process of the erasure. Other additions over time included stars painted on the inside of her mantle representing the constellations of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, a supporting angel below her, and silver decoration which has also deteriorated. Despite being centuries old on an unstable medium, however that central image remains remarkably bright.
|The peasant army called to arms by Father Miguel Hidalgo and El Grito de Delores marched behind this banner depicting Our Lady of Guadalupe.|
Aside from its singular religious significance the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe has become a rallying point for the national aspirations of the Mexican people, particularly for the Indios and mestizos. The peon army of Father Miguel Hidalgo after El Grito de Delores marched behind a banner painted with a representation of Our Lady and many soldiers of the Mexican War of Independence in 1810 fought with printed cards of her image stuck in their sombreros.
Although anti-clericism ran deep among many in the 20th Century Mexican Revolution, Emilio Zapata’s army of southern presents and Indians entered Mexico City in triumph behind a Guadeloupian banner. More recently, the contemporary Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) also in the south named their mobile city Guadalupe Tepeyac in honor of the Virgin.
In the United States banners of Our Lady appeared in the marches and during the strikes of the United Farm Workers, whose leader Cesar Chavez was deeply religious. More recently it has been carried in demonstrations in support of immigration reform.
|Veneration at the National Shine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Des Plaines, Illinois.|
As I type these final sentences in the wee small hours of the morning an all-night vigil continues in Des Plaines at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. More than 200,000 are expected to visit the Shrine over two days for the largest such veneration in the U. S.
Today we celebrate with the Song to Our Lady of Guadalupe performed in English by Marilyn Bouvier.