Earth Mother and Holy Mother: La Virgen de Guadalupe

For all her calm and gentle dignity, the Virgen de Guadalupe embodies the syncretic spirit of the Mexican people. She is the Catholic manifestation of the ancient Aztec fertility goddess Tonanzin. She is the outcome of a complex intertwining of religions and cultures during the time of the Spanish Conquest. I find no better way of retelling the awe felt in this collision of worlds than through the words of eye-witness Bernal Diaz del Castillo upon first seeing the Aztec capital city, Tenochtitlan :

We were amazed by that straight and level causeway going towards

Mexico, and it was like the enchantments they tell of in the legend

of Amadis, on account of the great towers and buildings raising

from the water. Some of the soldiers even asked whether the things

that we saw were not a dream…

The arrival of Hernan Cortes in 1519 was first believed to be the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy promising the return of the great plumed serpent god, Quetzalcoatl. When Cortes led his army into the heart of the far-flung Empire, Emperor Motecuhzoma celebrated his entry. However, driven by conquest and conversion, Cortes initiated a bloodthirsty massacre. After three years of unparalleled battles, Cuauhtemoc, the last Aztec ruler, surrendered to Cortés and his army of Spaniards and Indian allies in 1521 at Tlatelolco. The fall of the mighty Aztec Empire gave birth to New Spain and forever changed the indigenous way of life. As the New World was consumed by the Old, conquerors and conquered produced a faith capable of fusing two cosmological realms into the image of La Virgen de Guadalupe.

But the story of the “dark” virgin begins well before her appearance in New Spain. Legend tells us that the image of the Virgin was buried with Saint Luke in the first century CE, and later taken to Constantinople. In the 6th century, Cardinal Gregory, in search of these legendary images, travelled to Constantinople and upon return to Rome in 590 CE he had a small, wooden statue of the Virgin Mary which was particularly revered for her darkness. This statue became venerated as an early Christian relic since it was believed to have been carved by Saint Luke himself. Determined to be the Virgin’s greatest devotee, Pope Gregory Magnus gifted the statue to the Archbishop of Seville to provide holy relief from an epidemic that had desolated the city. As the Spanish National Library records it, the statue was hidden by a group of friars in 711 CE during the beginning of the Moorish invasion. It was later re-discovered buried in the slopes near the Guadalupe River in Estremadura during the period of the Spanish reconquest. It was at this time that the mysterious statuette was officially reinstated as the Virgin Maria of Guadalupe of Extremadura. However, the Romanesque style statue you see here before you is carved from cedar wood and dates to the eleventh century.

The conquest of Mexico was understood as a continuation of the reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula. Francisco López de Gómara, a Spanish historian of the 16th century, wrote in his Historia general de las Indias that “the Conquest of the Indians began when the conquest of the Moors had ended”. Thus, when the time came to venture to the so-called New World, Cortes and the Spaniards who set sail with him, - mostly natives of Extremadura - carried small veneration images of the Santa Maria de Guadalupe of Extremadura. Upon their arrival in the Americas, they became a quick and unstoppable force of brutal conquest that by 1620, twenty five million natives had perished. In the midst of despair and complete neglect from Spanish authority figures, Bartolome de las Casas - historian, social reformer and Dominican friar wrote that “these would be the most blessed people on earth if only they were given a chance to convert to Christianity.” On December 12th of 1531 the Mexican ‘Dark Virgin’ made her miraculous appearance.

The Virgin of Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, a Christianized Indian of commoner status at the hill of Tepeyac, site located in the outskirts of Tenochtitlan. During this encounter, ten years after the Spanish Conquest, the Virgin spoke to Juan Diego in Nahuatl, the Aztec mother tongue. She requested him to seek out the archbishop of Mexico, Juan Zumárraga to inform him of her desire to see a church built in her honor. Because Juan Diego was unable to prove to the archbishop the legitimacy of his quest, the Virgin provided three miracles as proof of her divine power. She first cured Juan Diego´s ill uncle. Then she made roses grow out of the sterile, desert soil of Tepeyac Hill. These flowers were then gathered by Juan Diego in his tilma, which is an indigenous agave fiber cloak, and presented them to the incredulous archbishop. When Juan Diego unfolded his tilma before the archbishop, the image of the Virgin was miraculously printed on it.

Tepeyac is a small hill that housed the former sanctuary of the Aztec deity Tonanzin, the earth and fertility goddess. Tonanzin, meaning “Our Sacred Mother,” was one of several Aztec deities who represented female energy. The Aztecs would call upon Tonanzin as a protectress figure as it was she who nourished them. However, she was also overwhelmingly conceived as a goddess of disease. Like Tonanzin, there are several Aztec female deities who served as mother figures. Among them is Coatlicue or “Snake Skirt”, a maternal earth goddess who gave birth to the moon, Coyolxauhqui, the stars, and Huichilopoztli, the sun. Coatlicue is perceived, like Tonanzin, as a creator and destroyer. In Aztec cosmology, life must be destroyed to be reborn. These dual principles are embodied in Tonanzin´s nature to act as both a spirit of death, as well as of birth and healing.

The Virgin of Guadalupe and the New World were born from Tonanzin and what she represented. Like Tonanzin, Guadalupe also embodied a sense of spiritual duality. Whatever nurturing and benevolent characteristic Guadalupe came to embody later for the indigenous peoples, at first she was overwhelmingly conceived to be La Conquistadora bearing death, destruction and humiliation. For the Spaniards, she represented the triumph of the Conquest. To the Indians she stood for despair and the destruction of the conquered. In a similar Conquistadora spirit, La Malinche was an Indian woman who served as Cortes’ translator, counselor, and mistress. It is believed that because of her knowledge, Cortes was able to overthrow the Aztec Empire. Octavio Paz argues that Malinche “gave herself voluntarily to the conquistador [...] she became a figure representing the Indian women who were seduced and violated by the Spaniards.” It was through her sexual transgression that she became the violated mother who symbolically gave birth to the illegitimate child - the Mexican people. She was the beginning of the mestizo nation that was later reigned over by a mestizo Virgin.

Initial native manifestations of Guadeloupean cults can be perceived as an expression of indigenous understanding of a sacred space and worship of female energy. Despite Spanish efforts to convert the indigenous population to Catholicism, the native peoples would not give up their entire metaphysics. When the Nahua spoke in Spanish they referred to Tonanzin as the Virgin of Guadalupe “for in their minds Tonanzin and the Virgin de Guadalupe were the same.” The story of the image´s miraculous appearance on Juan Diego´s cloak was passed on among the local Indians by way of art and song. The myth made the image uniquely native, for she had appeared to Juan Diego in the Nahua tongue, and was created out of the tilma, a native material, on native soil. She was not perceived as a Spanish image imported to Mexico.

In 1555, Archbishop Alonso de Montúfar initiated the construction of the Chapel that would house the Virgin de Guadalupe. With this gesture, the first step towards integrating indigenous spiritual cosmovision in New Spain had begun. Spanish friar Bernardino de Sahagún wrote fifty years after the Conquest: “Now that the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe has been built there, they call her Tonanzin too.” Guadalupe became important to Mexicans not only because she was their supernatural mother, but also because she embodied their major political and religious aspirations.

Guadalupe validated the indigenous right to legal defense, order in government, to citizenship, and to supernatural salvation. She could not have become a national symbol if she had not also spoken to the Spanish and the creoles of Mexico. If Guadalupe guaranteed a rightful place to the Indians in the new social system of New Spain, the myth also held appeal to the large group of disinherited who arose in New Spain as illegitimate offspring of Spanish fathers and indigenous mothers. To them, the Guadalupe myth came to represent not merely the guarantee of their assured place in heaven, but the guarantee of their place in society. Guadalupe ultimately became a way of talking about Mexico: a collective representation of Mexican-hood.

Following the Spanish tradition of towns selecting a patron saint, in 1773, an oath in name of the whole Mexican nation was taken by the municipal government which elected “as singular Patrona and the Sovereign Queen of the Angeles…. Solemnizing her annually on December 12 with a major feast, Mass and sermon.” Guadalupe was then proclaimed the “Patroness and Protectress of New Spain” by Pope Benedict XIV in the 18th century and later crowned as Queen of the Americas in 1895. During the independence, her image preceded the Insurgente army when Miguel Hidalgo gave El Grito de Dolores in 1810. Emiliano Zapata and his agrarian rebels fought under her emblem in the Mexican Revolution a century after.The image of Guadalupe had now risen from an obscure localized Indian cult to a supreme position among Hispanic Americans.

As her spiritual reign in Mexico endures, her myth provides a divine foundation for all aspects of Mexican cultural activity. Her shrine, at the Hill of Tepeyac today referred to as La Villa, is visited each year on December 12th by thousands of pilgrims ranging from various backgrounds. For example, the Concheros perform outside the Basilica a dancing tradition that derives from the Chichimecas, Mexicas and Aztecs. They represent a new indigenous expression of Catholic belief and ritual. During the colonial period, Concheros resided in small pueblos in the Bajio region within the boundaries of Central Mexico. At the turn of the past century, migration from the rural sectors increased and new groups of Concheros, whose name derives from playing the shell of an armadillo, began to form in Mexico City. They describe themselves as guerreros, warriors, and their battle is fueled by a search for indigenous autonomy. The “fight” takes the form of a sacred dance for which they dress in elaborate multicolored costumes topped by penachos, or a headdress of abundant feathers. Several of the Concheros today that reside within Mexico City claim to be creyentes, or believers in the Catholic Church. Their Catholic fervor can be better understood when Concheros strive to reassert a dying ethnicity by calling on cultural syncretism for the reinvention of their identity.

The power of the Virgin of Guadalupe for the Mexican people is unquestionable. She is “Our Lady,” the “Empress of the Americas,” the “Great Mother of Mexico”. Today, her image is a master symbol of Mexico adorning house fronts and interiors, churches and home altars, taxis and buses, streets and restaurants. She is the epitome of a spiritual Mexican community. She is the Catholic contemporary manifestation of the ancient female deity Tonanzin. It is the combined image of Guadalupe/Tonanzin that transforms and binds together the diverse cultural streams of Mexican society. She encompasses all within her earthly reign. The image of Guadalupe became a response to a cosmic conflict produced by the cataclysm of two worlds, Europe and America, and gave birth to a new world. The Virgin of Guadalupe established a spiritual democracy that continues to unite all Mexicans, indios, mestizos and creoles, into one nation.