Our Lady of Guadelupe. The story of The Virgin Mary of Guadalupe recounts fascinating events that occurred in Mexico nearly 500 years ago.
The story of Our Lady of Guadalupe recounts fascinating events that occurred in Mexico nearly 500 years ago that would change the shape and history of the country. The faithful celebrate the story as a miraculous manifestation of the Mother of God, and today, almost half a millennium later, Our Lady of Guadalupe is still one of the most important religious and cultural figures of Mexico and the Patroness of the Americas.
In 1531, a man named Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, one of the earliest Aztecs to convert to Christianity, walked through hills on his way to church in Tlatelolco when he beheld the apparition of a beautiful woman inside an orb of light. She spoke to Cuahtlatoatzin in his native Náhuatl language, referring to him as her dear little son, and then identifying herself as the Virgin Mary.
At the time, Christian converts were rare among the American indigenous people. After years of bloody wars between Spaniards and indigenous people including Aztecs, Spanish priests found promoting Christianity especially challenging. Indigenous people resisted embracing the religious faith of the Conquistadors, who had raped, enslaved, massacred and inflicted deadly plagues of small pocks on massive portions of their populations. From Hernando Cortés’ arrival to Mexico in 1519 up until the first apparition of The Virgin before Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin in 1531, a growing tidal wave of violent relations with the Spanish had reached a breaking point. The apparition of The Virgin Mary of Guadalupe marks a sudden and surprising change in indigenous attitudes toward Christianity.
The Virgin Mary went on to explain to Cuauhtlatoatzin that she loved him and that God is in all places. At her request, he attempted to explain (unsuccessfully) to the local bishop that she wished that a church be built upon the hill on which she appeared; a place where people could experience her compassion and know her Mother’s heart. Juan Diego felt dejected by his failure to fulfill the Virgin Mary’s wish, and when he encountered the apparition a second time, he suggested she send someone more important to speak with the bishop in his palace about founding a new church. Mary insisted that she had specifically chosen him for the task. On his second visit to the palace, the bishop told Cuauhtlatoatzin to ask Mary for a sign.
The hill on which Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared had important significance for the Aztecs. Known as Tepeyac Hill, Aztecs traditionally worshipped an important mother goddess here. The conquistadors destroyed and prohibited Aztec places of worship and the image of the Virgin Mary may have provided the basis of a harmonious agreement for Aztecs to continue worshipping a mother figure on the site while accepting Christian doctrine. The mother goddess and the Our Lady of Guadalupe share interesting similarities such as their power to heal. Today, a shrine commemorating the Virgin Mary built on Tepeyac Hill is also one of the most visited churches in the world.
Days after Mary’s second apparition, Juan Diego walked over Tepeyac Hill to look for a priest, because his uncle lay dying at home. Mary appeared again and assured him that his uncle was cured. Then she asked him to collect some flowers unseasonably blooming in cold weather on the desolate hill as a sign for the priest proving her and Juan Diego’s supernatural meeting. He filled his mantle made of cactus fiber with the flowers and took them to show the priest. When he opened the mantle before the priest, expecting flowers to fall to the floor, both were amazed to find that instead of flowers, a gorgeous image of The Virgin Mary, just as Juan Diego had seen her, decorated the mantle in colorful detail.
Today, the mantle hangs in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Tepeyac Hill. It has resisted wear over time and even survived a bomb explosion in 1921. The bomb exploded just below the mantle, which remained undamaged among destroyed stone and marble. Miraculously no people were harmed in the bombing either. The image has been a source of debate, as some claim that infrared studies of the paint and the mantle’s fibers do not show any brush strokes or any way a human could have created the picture.
News of Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin’s encounter with the apparition of The Virgin spread fast. Shortly after the event, priests reported baptizing thousands of people every day. Just seven years later, 8 million Aztecs had converted to Catholicism.
Our Lady of Guadalupe seems to have single handedly fused two violently opposed worlds and she has come to symbolize the rich and unique culture created by that fusion in Mexico and in the Americas.