Opinion

10 things to know about the Virgin of Guadalupe

A pilgrim holds up an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe at the Basilica of Guadalupe during an annual pilgrimage in honor of the Virgin, the patron saint of Mexican Catholics, in Mexico City on Dec. 12, 2015. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Henry Romero *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-CHESNUT-OPED, originally published on Dec. 9, 2016.

(RNS) Mexicans will tell you that 90 percent of them are Catholic but 100 percent are Guadalupan.

While the proportion of Catholics in Mexico isn’t accurate anymore, the Virgin of Guadalupe remains a cherished part of Mexican national identity, reflected in the fact that millions of women and men are named Guadalupe, many going by the nickname “Lupe.”

As a specialist in Latin American religion, I’ve always been fascinated by the number of devotees to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The Virgin purportedly appeared to an Aztec peasant, Juan Diego, for the first time on a hill called Tepeyac on Dec. 9, 1531, and told the Christian convert, in his native language of Nahuatl, that she wanted a church built in her honor on the site of her apparition.

Diego sought out the archbishop of Mexico City to share news of the miraculous apparition but was met with skepticism. The brown-skinned Virgin appeared to the Aztec peasant a second time, in which Diego recounted what she already knew, that he’d been rebuked by the archbishop. Determined to have her church built and named Guadalupe, the Virgin instructed the middle-aged Aztec to try again with the top prelate in Mexico.

The dubious bishop asked for a sign of the Marian apparition at Tepeyac. During her third apparition, Guadalupe told Diego to gather some Spanish roses that had miraculously bloomed in his “tilma,” or cactus-fiber cloak. The determined convert returned to the bishop and unfurled his tilma revealing not only the unseasonable roses but a miraculous image of the Virgin imprinted on the cloak, which can be seen today at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.

La Virgen Morena (the Brown Virgin) is not only patroness of Mexico but also Empress of the Americas, from Chile to Canada. While other manifestations of Mary claim at most a region or country, Guadalupe is the only one to reign over two continents. And if that’s not enough, for a brief period in the mid-20th century she was also declared patroness of the Philippines, home to the world’s third-largest Catholic population.

Before Mexican folk saint Santa Muerte caught my scholarly attention in 2009, I had conducted two years of research on the Mestiza Virgin for a book project that was put on hold. On the eve of her feast day, Dec. 12, I thought I’d share 10 fascinating facts about the Virgin who led Mexicans to independence from Spain:

1. Many Mexicans aren’t aware that the original Guadalupe is from Extremadura, Spain.

In fact, Christopher Columbus was a devotee and even named the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe in her honor, after she purportedly saved his fleet from a storm at sea. The Spanish Guadalupe is one of several black European virgins, so in her Mexican incarnation she actually became lighter-complexioned as the Virgen Morena.

2. Prior to Guadalupe’s alleged appearance in 1531, an Aztec goddess had been worshipped at the same site.

The Aztec goddess’s name, Tonantzin, means “Our Mother” in the Aztec language of Nahuatl, so some skeptics contend that the Spanish colonial church concocted the story of Guadalupe appearing to Juan Diego as a way to convert his fellow Aztecs and other indigenous groups to Christianity.

3. Despite his canonization in 2002, there is no hard evidence St. Juan Diego ever existed.

In fact, at the time of the controversial canonization the abbot of the basilica, Guillermo Schulenberg, resigned, claiming that Juan Diego had never existed and “is only a symbol.” The Aztec peasant was canonized, nonetheless, as part of a strategy to retain indigenous Catholics in Mexico and across Latin America who have been defecting in droves to Protestantism, especially Pentecostalism.

4. Art historians have discovered that depictions of the Virgin’s skin color have become progressively darker.

Studies on her historical development, such as those by historian Stafford Poole, demonstrate that contrary to legend, it was Mexican creoles (people of Spanish descent born in Mexico), and not indigenous converts, who were the first devotees of Guadalupe and the primary propagators of her cult.

Artistic renditions of Guadalupe became noticeably darker on the heels of the Mexican Revolution (1910-20), which led to the exaltation of the mixed-race mestizo as the new model of Mexicanness.

5. Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1810 transformed her into the national patroness.

Independence leader Father Miguel Hidalgo launched the campaign for independence with the battle cry “Death to the Spaniards and long live the Virgin of Guadalupe!” The image of the Mexican Virgin emblazoned on flags, banners and peasant sombreros became the insignia of the armed rebellion against Spanish rule. Spanish troops, on the other hand, were led by the Virgin of Remedies, who was the pre-eminent advocation of Mary in Mexico until eclipsed by Guadalupe.

6. La Morena remained relatively unchanged in artistic renditions until as recently as the 1980s.

The first artists to experiment with novel depictions of the Empress of the Americas were Mexican-Americans who didn’t feel as culturally and religiously constrained as their Mexican counterparts in exploring new ways of representing her, using all kinds of media.

A bare-breasted Guadalupe created by artist Paz Winshtein was the object of considerable controversy when it was displayed at a gallery in Santa Fe, N.M., in 2014.

7. The etymology of her name is the subject of considerable debate.

Some linguists and historians point to Nahuatl origins while others, more convincingly, remind us that the name “Guadalupe” already existed in Spain, and thus we should look there for its etymological genesis. There is little doubt that the prefix “Guada” comes from the Arabic “wadi,” or river valley. The jury, however, remains out on “lupe,” which many assert comes from the Spanish “lobo” (“lupus” in Latin), or wolf.

8. Guadalupe was an integral part of the Mexican Revolution (1910-20).

Fighting under the slogan “land and liberty,” revolutionary peasant leader Emiliano Zapata and his fighters carried the Mestiza Virgin on banners into battle against Mexican oligarchs. Some Zapatista guerrillas carried on the tradition during their uprising in 1994 in the southern state of Chiapas.

9. In 1929 the official photographer of the basilica discovered an image of a bearded man in her right eye.

Two decades later another “expert” not only confirmed the presence of the original bearded man but also claimed to see it in both her eyes. Since then, the “secret of her eyes” has expanded to include images of an entire family supposedly visible in both of her pupils. For believers, the images are reflections of what Guadalupe saw when she appeared almost five centuries ago to St. Juan Diego.

10. The tilma upon which the Virgin’s image is imprinted is held to be miraculous by devotees.

Some scientists claim an absence of brush strokes on the cloak while others report that the coloration contains no animal or mineral elements. Perhaps the most spectacular miracle, according to devotees, is the tilma emerging unscathed from a bomb blast.

In 1921 an anti-clerical radical detonated 29 sticks of dynamite in a pot of roses beneath the cloak. The blast destroyed a marble rail, twisted a metal crucifix and shattered windows throughout the old basilica but the tilma itself was untouched.

(Andrew Chesnut is a professor of religious studies and holds the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University)

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  • 11. It is basically a fairy tale, like so many other virgins in Latin America they have appeared in secret places, to indigenous people and with no witnesses

  • For all you skeptics, you should look up the facts about the tilma that have stumped scientists/researchers. It is clearly a miraculous image when you know ALL the facts and not just the “factoids” listed here in this article (and I use that term loosely). As for Patricks remarks about artistic style, it is not done in an artistic style of the period. Clearly not an art historian.

  • Pharoah’s magicians enacted miraculous events…
    Doesn’t mean they’re from God. Something to think about.

  • “By its fruits you shall know it”. The conversion of almost all of Mexico from human sacrificing pagans to Christianity isnt enough?

  • From an author who writes in other venues about “Santa Muerte”……how sad…… and who purports to be a professor of Catholic studies. The message is one of doubt and subtle attacks on Our Blessed Mother, who under the title of Our Lady of Guadalupe came to change the hearts of those who would still cling to human sacrifice and pagan/demonic ways. This is another example of the “intellectual elite”, in positions of “influence” who craftily undermine and destroy the Body of Christ and His Blessed Mother. Religious Studies? Really? More like destruction of the Faith by one who would be “like God”.

  • Given the horrendous nature of the violence that continuously plagues Mexico(violence endemic to drug trafficking and against the female population of that nation), one is forced to ask: What “christianity” are you referring to, Kirry? From my perspective, the human sacrifice seems to have been repackaged under another paradigm,to wit: Roman Catholicism.Certainly the supposed prescence of this virgin has served no practical purpose…mull and reflect, my friend.Peace.?.

  • If Juan Diego did not exist, as is suggested by the author, whose tilma is this, exactly? The tilma, constructed in the historical time of cactus fibers, should have decayed centuries ago. It has not- which itself is inexplicable. The tilma maintains a temperature of 98.6 degrees F- the temperature of a human body. Moreover, scientific studies of the image on the tilma indicate that it cannot be explained as the work of an artist for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that the image actually “hovers” 1/100th of an inch over the tilma rather than directly on the tilma itself.

    But, there are never enough reasons to believe for those who would rather put faith in humanity rather than in God where it belongs.

  • For the faithful, it’s hard to discern the real story of Guadalupe. Politically the Roman Catholic Church latched onto it, as a way of appealing to their brown-skinned subjects, and they either attempted to separate these from their pagan beliefs and icons, or cleverly integrate them. Talk about successful early PR and marketing by a religious entity!

    Tremendous good has come from the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe, but it has also engendered tremendous excesses. I’ve visited Mexico numerous times and watched indigenous people with bloody knees, with tears streaming down their faces, inching along the cobblestone path for several hundred yards toward the entrance to the chapel. The clergy makes no attempt to stop them, or update their belief system! One would think that by now the church had successfully pointed them to the God and Christ of the Bible, and the abundant forgiveness available through the Gospel message of forgiveness and restoration. The church hasn’t even attempted that. As a colonial entity they still allow these heavy burdens of guilt and fear to keep their subjects down. The Pentecostals and evangelicals are making serious inroads into the Mexican population by simply announcing the abundance of grace and forgiveness found in the Gospel.

  • In case you havent done an in depth study of the faith: wherever holiness is, there also is great evil trying to eradicate the influence of holiness. Just look at the Garden of Eden story. The devil tries all the more to overshadow and minimize God’s fruits. The holiest people to ever live were always plagued by the enemy of their salvation. There are many holy and good people in Mexico but all you ever hear about is the bad stuff. That doesnt send up a red flag? The devil is always trying to delegitimize the influence of God so that people ask “where is God” and lose sight of the miracles happening in their midst. Romans 5:20 “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more”.

  • The Cathoic church does not have a requirement that anyone believe in private revelation – aka: messages or apparitions to private individuals as opposed to public relevation which refers to the that made known by Jesus to the Apostles and their subsequent ministries. BUT, I have found that people who do not want to believe in the church approved revelations such as Guadalupe and Fatima, would rather remain ignorant of the facts than actually do the research themselves. Doing so would mean they had to make hard choices about what they believe if what they inevitably found ran contrary to their current beliefs, especially for “anything but Catholic” Christians. It reminds me of the story of Lazarus and the rich man from Luke, “if they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should raise from the dead.” There’s just no convincing those who do not wish to be convinced. As a side note, the Church does not approve these things lightly. They play devils advocate and approach them with scepticism because if they were to approve any of these occurrences and someone else was to disprove them, it would FOREVER taint Her future credibility and call into question all the past judgements. It’s an issue addressed with the utmost caution and seriousness. Thats why the Church takes soooo long to make decisions on such issues. Just food for thought.

  • “The Aztec peasant was canonized, nonetheless, as part of a strategy to retain indigenous Catholics in Mexico and across Latin America who have been defecting in droves to Protestantism,”

    Roman Catholic Inc. has had centuries to refine their marketing skills and they are perhaps the best in the world. Religion is probably the most effective selling point on the planet and RCI has the best world wide empire of all. The pres-elect must be so jealous.

  • Who wrote this? It’s obviously not from a legitimate source. Do the real research on this and you’ll find the true story. Good grief. Catholic bashing is at an all time high and this proves it.

  • http://shoebat.com/2016/08/13/the-key-to-unlocking-the-secret-image-of-guadalupe-a-first-of-its-kind-research-in-history-revealing-hidden-code-in-the-image-that-will-end-islam/ How is he (Shoebat) not on Catholic speaking circuit? Aside from that, the Spaniards really weren’t treating the people well, though they treated themselves barbarically. I don’t think they thought up this image with all that symbolism in it and the image in the eyes only modern technology could make visible. It’s not like even the peaceful Spaniards were like the anthropologists of the 18th century: living amongst the natives. Also, it is fascinating pretty close to the number that left after Luther and the other types of the anti-christs’ non-atheistic communist-like revolution converted in Mexico starting that year or very close to it!

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