Our Lady (The Virgin) of Guadalupe
By David Ellison
She is “La Morenita,” the brown lady.
According to Catholic lore, the Virgin Mary first appeared to a peasant in the small town of Guadalupe, Spain, in 1325 AD. She confided to him the location of a long-lost statue, unique in that it portrayed her with a dark face.
In 1531, Mary appeared again on a hill called Tepeyac just outside of Mexico City, this time to a Native named Juan Diego. Speaking to him in his native language, Nahuatl (Aztec), Mary asked him to instruct the bishop to build a church on the spot in her honor. The bishop disbelieved him, and demanded proof, some sort of divine sign.
Juan Diego returned to the bishop carrying roses Mary had given him which he’d protected in his cloak. When he let the roses tumble out, he revealed a miraculous image on the clock—the one featured on this page, replicated throughout Mexico and, in fact, the world. Significantly, her face was once again dark, that of a Native.
The bishop built a chapel to Mary, which is now a large, beautiful basilica. Perhaps not coincidentally, a shrine to a venerated Native goddess, Tonantzin, had been located on the very-same site—a fact that initially worried some clergy. Just whom would the Natives be worshiping? But the image of a brown-skinned Mother Mary proved crucial in their efforts to convert Natives to Catholicism.
Mexican revolutionaries Hidalgo, Morelos, and Zapata used the icon of Our Lady of Guadalupe as well—to lead their predominantly Native troops into battle.
More recently, the Catholic Church declared Juan Diego a saint, and Our Lady to be Patroness of the Americas, Empress of Latin America, and Protectress of Unborn Children. The Philippines made her its patron saint, too.
Our Lady’s significance in Mexican culture cannot be overstated. Author Judy King explained, “The Virgin of Guadalupe is the rubber band that binds this disparate nation into a whole.” Indeed, Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes insisted, “You cannot truly be considered a Mexican unless you believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe.”
Scholar Jeanette Rodriguez emphasized Our Lady’s radical influence on Catholic faith: “God always chooses the people the world rejects [such as peasants and Natives, the poor and people of color]. The Lady of Guadalupe...offered a different brand of faith. She didn’t say, go to church or say the rosary. She said ‘If you love me, trust me and believe in me, I will respond.’”
Our Lady of Guadalupe’s basilica at Tepeyac, Mexico City, housing Juan Diego’s cloak bearing Mary’s image, has become the most-visited Catholic pilgrimage site in the world.
This is a selection from David Ellison’s book-in-progress, Niños Héroes: The Fascinating Stories Behind Mexican Street Names.
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