How Our Lady of Guadalupe became the ‘backbone’ of the Mexican people

Over 20 million people set foot on Tepeyac hill every year to witness the living miracle of the woman clothed with the sun and the stars, the woman who changed the course of history by leaving her image miraculously imprinted on the cloak of an indigenous man in 1531. With her apparition, the Virgin of Guadalupe became the hope and anchor of the rising Mexican nation and the whole American continent, a reality that is still visible in the fervent devotion with which she is celebrated today.

In dialogue with Dr. Arturo Rocha, Secretary of Colegio de Estudios Guadalupanos (College for Guadalupan Studies) in Mexico City, philosopher and instructor of a course on the “Guadalupan Event” in partnership with Denver’s Centro San Juan Diego, we set out to understand how the miraculous event of the Virgin Mary’s apparition influenced the culture and identity of the rising Mexican nation.

Dr. Rocha referenced some Mexican authors who have identified the role of Our Lady of Guadalupe in forming a “Mexican identity.”

One of them, the poet Ramón López Velarde, wrote in 1920 that one day, “with merely Mexican eyes,” he sat inside the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, where, upon observing the devotion of people of all ages and professions, he became convinced that “the backbone of this country is ‘Guadalupan.’”

Virgin Mary, pillar of the country

Nonetheless, in order to understand how the Virgin Mary became the backbone of the country of Mexico and a sign of identity, Dr. Rocha explained that it was her apparition as a mestiza (woman of mixed race), the sign of hope she provided as Mother and her words that would bring unity to a divided land and people, that had a significant impact.

“[Our Lady of Guadalupe] embodies, in her mestizo complexion, the races (Indigenous and Spanish) that gave rise to Mexican identity, races that at first could not tolerate, neither one nor the other, the new people that had been born orphan in the same land: the mestizo people,” Dr. Rocha said.

“[She] synthesizes the two people that gave rise to the Latin-American nations… Mary of Guadalupe, not entirely through her own merit but through the merit of the One whose heart beats in her womb, gives also to this mixed people… her compassionate gaze, her shadow and her shelter,” Dr. Rocha said.

There I will listen to your cry, your sadness, to alleviate, to cure all of your hurts, your miseries, your sufferings.”

The Virgin of Guadalupe’s apparition as a “Mother of Mercy” to the mestizo people and her promised protection over them and those who lived in that land would also contribute to a sense of identity that would manifest itself in the war of independence in 1810, Dr. Rocha said.

She gave St. Juan Diego her loving promise of motherly intercession and protection for the people and asked for a temple to be built on Tepeyac hill: “There I will listen to your cry, your sadness, to alleviate, to cure all of your hurts, your miseries, your sufferings. And to accomplish what my compassionate gaze seeks, go to the palace of the Bishop of Mexico, and you will tell him that I have sent you, so that you may show him how much I desire that he provide a house for me here.”

Furthermore, in her apparition as a Mother of Mercy for the people of that land, Dr. Rocha affirmed that “perhaps from the lips of the Virgin Mary rises the first affirmation of Mexican identity in the history of our nation, in a moment in which Mexico… did not even exist as such.”

The Virgin declared herself as the Mother of Mercy “of all who live together in this land.” When examined in náhuatl, the native language of St. Juan Diego and the language in which the Virgin spoke to him, the phrase takes on the meaning of “living together in ‘family,’” in “one house.”

“Perhaps this is why Carlos de Singüeza y Góngora, in 1680, already affirmed that Guadalupe was ‘our most given patriot.’ There is no better instance to talk about a ‘Mother Country,’ for Mary, at Tepeyac, speaks of an intimate unity and domestic sonship: The nation is the common house,” Dr. Rocha said.

Perhaps from the lips of the Virgin Mary rises the first affirmation of Mexican identity in the history of our nation, in a moment in which Mexico… did not even exist as such.”

Already in 1737, the Virgin of Guadalupe had been proclaimed Patroness of the New Spain, some 70 years before Mexico emerged as an independent nation.

“Moreover, during the war of independence, the Virgin of Guadalupe embodied the ideals and values of the ‘criollismo’ (the Spaniards born in New Spain), but also, evidently, of the mestizo nation — all in opposition to the ‘peninsulars’ (the Spaniards born in Europe) and of the ‘realists,’ who opposed the insurgents [and] instead identified themselves with Our Lady of Remedies,” Dr. Rocha explained.

A loving Mother

The Guadalupan miracle was of such importance to the mestizo nation that today many still hold a fervent devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe, even if they are no longer practicing Catholics.

“The loving maternity of Mary of Guadalupe makes some faithful forget about the Resurrected One, and this is something worth remedying, since she is a safe path… but to get to Christ,” Dr. Rocha pointed out.

He sees in this attitude a characteristic of Latin-American peoples to be greatly affectionate toward the motherly figure, an aspect also visible in the indigenous people of ancient Mexico.

“It is something very hard to understand from Western European reasoning, and even less from a protestant realm. But in Latin America, this maternal presence is very important, and it has a clear expression in the devotion to Mary, the Mother of God,” the professor said. “Nonetheless, this maternal omnipresence in the core of the piety of Latin-American people should not bypass other aspects of the practice of the Catholic faith.”

A universal Mother

Although the Virgin Mary chose to reveal herself as the Mother of Mercy of those who lived together in that chosen land, “the Guadalupan event transcends the Mexican nation,” Dr. Rocha assured, echoing St. John Paul II’s words. The Patroness of the American continent is not only the Mother of all the Latin-American people, but the Mother of all men and women.

Indeed, if the message of Our Lady of Guadalupe is Catholic… then it is universal and communicates something to men and women from the whole world.”

Our Lady of Guadalupe told St. Juan Diego that her relationship of loving motherhood would also be present to “the other varied lineages of men, those who love me, those who call on me, those who look for me, those who trust in me.”

“Indeed, if the message of Our Lady of Guadalupe is Catholic (not through her own merit but through the merit of the One whose heart beats in her virginal womb), then it is universal and communicates something to men and women from the whole world,” Dr Rocha said.

Specifically, the professor sees in the Guadalupan event an example of “a perfectly enculturated evangelization.” She is the “star of the first and new evangelization.

“The Virgin of Guadalupe… is the perfect example of this evangelization, new in its expression and its methods, methods that are effectively persuasive, that are made new every day, while remaining rooted in the immemorial tradition,” Dr. Rocha concluded. “The reach of this renewal is universal, Catholic in the fullest sense.”

COMING UP: Our Lady of Guadalupe by the numbers

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“From heaven, a beautiful morning light, the Guadalupan, came down to Tepeyac. Between the roses, on the tilma, she deigned to leave us her beloved image.”

This is a rendering of some of the lines from a popular song, “La Guadalupana,” a hymn intoned year after year in honor of our mother in heaven, Our Lady of Guadalupe. The song is popular not only at the Basilica in Mexico City where the original tilma with Our Lady’s image is kept, but also throughout the world, in celebration of the Empress of the Americas.

On the vigil of her feast, during the night of Dec. 11, thousands of faithful come to the shrine to sing to the Virgin. The plaza in front of the church is filled on this festive day with dancers in traditional, brightly-colored gowns, fervently dancing in honor of the Dark-skinned Virgin, as she is affectionately called.

Now in this month dedicated to her, we share with our readers some of the numerical curiosities associated with Our Lady.

4 – She appeared four times to Juan Diego.

12 – It was on Dec. 12, 1531, during her last apparition, that she left her image on Juan Diego’s tilma.

14 – Just two weeks — 14 days — after her last apparition, a simple hermitage in her honor was already completed.

8 – A tilma like Juan Diego’s will usually last for about eight years before it starts to fall apart. The tilma Our Lady used to give us her image has endured, still in excellent conditions, for 485 years!

116 – For 116 of these years, the tilma was on display without any protection and it was unharmed. (Now it is behind glass.)

1666 – The year in which a Spanish team of art scholars determined that a surface as coarse as that of the tilma could never serve for an image painted as perfectly as Our Lady is, and that the only possible explanation for the image of the Virgin “is God.”

1785 – The year that nitric acid was spilled on the tilma and the linen wasn’t damaged. An opaque stain on the image was the only result.

1921 – In November of 1921, a man named Luciano Pérez detonated a bomb below the tilma. The bomb destroyed the altar, the candlesticks, the crucifix of the church — but the tilma was not damaged.

46 – There are 46 stars on the Virgin’s mantle, with an extraordinary coincidence between the position of the stars and the constellations that were in the sky above Mexico City on the day Our Lady left her image on the tilma.

40 – Dr. Phillip Callahan took 40 infrared photos of the image in 1979, concluding that the image cannot be credited to a human hand.

13 – There are 13 people reflected in the Virgin’s eyes, as discovered through a computer digitalization. The minuscule size of the eyes mean it is impossible that the images could have been painted.

1 – One family at the center of her tender gaze — in the study of her eyes, it was found that among the 13 people reflected there, at the center of her pupils there is a family.

1950 – The year that the Virgin’s eyes were examined by various international eye doctors, who coincided in finding that the image has the characteristics of a living human eye, with images known as Purkinge-Sanson images.

40,000 – There were some 40,000 victims of the plague in Mexico City in the mid-18th century. When health care authorities could do nothing to stop the epidemic, Church and civil leaders decided, with a solemn declaration in 1737, to make Our Lady of Guadalupe the principal patroness of the city, asking her to take the dying population under her protection. Soon after, the plague ceased.

36.5 — 36.5 degrees Celsius (98 degrees Fahrenheit) is the temperature of the tilma, despite being hung on a metal sheet that ranges in temperature as much as 15 degrees celsius (~ 60 degrees Fahrenheit.) 36.5 degrees is, of course, the temperature of a healthy human body.

10 million – This is the number of faithful who come to the Basilica of Guadalupe every year, making it the most visited shrine in the world after St. Peter’s Basilica.

Mavi Barraza contributed to this report.