Before the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors to the American continent, the residents of Tenochtitlan, modern-day Mexico City, had strong polytheistic beliefs that completely guided their lifestyle. Tenochtitlan was the center of religious worship for the Aztecs. According to their beliefs, they had to offer human blood to their god in order to keep the sun moving across the sky and preserve their very lives, otherwise the world would end.
The conquest and its impact
After the conquest, the Spanish imposed the Catholic religion, and over time, they changed the Aztecs’ lifestyle and traditions. However, the biggest challenge was to establish Christianity as the sole and dominant religion. The differences between indigenous advocates, the colonizers, and the rulers when trying to convert the indigenous, triggered conflicts within the Church and frequent confrontations.
Since they were often treated violently, many Aztecs didn’t trust the Spaniards and did not want anything from them. The situation was only getting worse. They were in the midst of a deep crisis and on the verge of despair: the world had not ended after the interruption of the human sacrifices as they believed, they had lost control of their land, they suffered from new illnesses and humiliations, and they felt betrayed by their gods.
San Juan Diego
Around 1524, the first indigenous families to receive baptism by the Franciscan missionaries emerged. Among these families was Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, who changed his native name to “Juan Diego” when he was baptized along with his wife María Lucía. They also received the sacrament of marriage.
Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin was born in 1474 in Cuauhtitlán. He was a macehual Indian, that is, of low social class, only above the slaves. After the death of his wife in 1529, Juan Diego turned his life to God attending Mass and catechism lessons at a Franciscan church in Tlatelolco. He lived with his uncle Juan Bernardino, an elderly man.
It was in this key context that the Virgin Mary chose Juan Diego as her messenger, thus changing the historical course of a land that was starting a new era.
The first religious congregations that arrived to the New Spain to convert the people, among them the Franciscans, were slowly introducing baptism, evangelizing natives, and even fighting for their dignity to be recognized. The Franciscans were concerned with educating the indigenous; they believed that no one could convert them in a more effective way and they saw them as future Christians and priests.
The morning of Saturday, December 9, 1531, something happened that turned the faith of both the Aztecs and the Spaniards around. Juan Diego was on his way to the Franciscan missionary’s church in Tlatelolco from his home in Tulpetlac, when the unexpected happened.
FIRST APPARITION: SATURDAY, DECEMBER 9, EARLY MORNING
At dawn, as he passed a hill named Tepeyac, he suddenly heard songbirds burst into harmony. Then, a sweet voice called him by name in Náhualt, his native language: “Juanito, my dear Juan Diego.” He followed the sweet voice, and then he saw a glowing figure on the hill. After identifying herself, she asked him to go to the Bishop and request the construction of a shrine in that same spot, in order for her to show and share her love and compassion with all those who believe.
“Know and understand well, you the most humble of my sons, that I am the virgin Holy Mary, Mother of the True God for whom we live, of the Creator of all things, Lord of Heaven and earth. I wish that a temple be erected here quickly, so I may therein exhibit and give all my love, compassion, help, and protection…”
Juan Diego immediately went to see Bishop Juan de Zumárraga to deliver the message from the lady from heaven. However, after hearing what happened at the hill, the Bishop was skeptical and politely invited him to come back another day.
SECOND APPEARANCE: SATURDAY, DECEMBER 9, AT APPROXIMATELY 5 P.M.
Dismayed, Juan Diego returned to the Tepeyac hill where our Lady was, and asked her to choose another noble messenger, someone more suitable to deliver her massage and whom the bishop would believe. But once again, the Virgin reaffirmed his mission and ordered him to go back to the Bishop and insist on the next day:
“Listen, my little son, be sure that I have many servants and messengers, to whom I must entrust the delivery of my message, and carry my wish, but it is of precise detail that you yourself solicit and assist and that through your mediation my wish be complied. I earnestly implore, my son the least, and with sternness I command that you again go tomorrow and see the bishop.”
THIRD APPEARANCE: SUNDAY, DECEMBER 10, AT ABOUT 3 P.M.
After delivering the message a second time, the bishop did not believe Juan Diego and ordered him to ask for a sign from the Lady. Juan Diego met the Virgin again at the top of the Tepeyac. After hearing his response, the Virgin asked him to return the following morning for a sign that he would take to the bishop.
“Well and good, my little dear, you will return here tomorrow, so you may take to the bishop the sign he has requested. With this he will believe you, and in this regard he will not doubt you nor will he be suspicious of you.”
When Juan Diego returned home, he found his uncle Juan Bernardino gravely ill. The next day, instead of going back to the Tepeyac, Juan Diego stayed home with his dying uncle.
FOURTH APPEARANCE: TUESDAY, DECEMBER 12, EARLY MORNING
On Tuesday morning, given the seriousness of his uncle’s health, Juan Diego went looking for a priest so that his uncle might receive the last rites. Instead of taking the usual route, he went around the hill to avoid the Virgin, but she descended from the hill and comforted him.
“Am I not here who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not the fountain of your joy? Are you not in the fold of my mantle, in the cradle of my arms? Do not grieve nor be disturbed by anything. Do not be afflicted by the illness of your uncle, who will not die now of it, be assured that he is now cured.”
She then sent him to the top of the hill to cut roses that would be a signal for the bishop. Immediately Juan Diego climbed the hill, and as he reached the summit, he was amazed that so many varieties of exquisite Castilian roses were blooming. He returned to Mary and she said to him:
“My son the least, this diversity of roses is the proof and sign which you will take to the bishop. You will tell him in my name that he will see in them my wish and that he will have to comply with it.”
Visit to the bishop
Juan Diego returned to Bishop Zumárraga’s house to deliver the message and give him the sign he had requested. When he finally managed to see the Bishop, he said:
“Sir, I did what you ordered, to go forth and tell the Lady from heaven, Holy Mary, precious Mother of God, that you asked for a sign so that you might believe me that you should build a temple where she asked it to be erected.”
Juan Diego then told him what he saw at the top of the hill when the Virgin sent him to cut the flowers as proof of his request:
“…She had told me that I should bring them to you, and so I do it, so that you may see in them the sign which you asked of me and comply with her wish; also, to make clear the veracity of my word and my message. Behold. Receive them.”
Then he unfolded a white cloth “tilma” where the roses were stored. Then, the precious roses fell to the ground and a sacred image of the Virgin Holy Mary appeared on the tilma. Seeing this, the bishop and everyone else in the room fell to their knees before the tilma. With sorrowful tears and sadness, the Bishop prayed and begged for forgiveness for not believing from the beginning.
Construction of the Shrine
After the Guadalupian miracle, Bishop Zumárraga immediately ordered the construction of a chapel, where Juan Diego spent the rest of his days guarding the image of the venerated Queen of Heaven. Indigenous people came from all over to see the Mother of Heaven embodied on the tilma of an Indian like them.
In 1622, the chapel was replaced by the first temple of the Virgin of Guadalupe, built in the same place where the apparitions took place. In 1709 the construction of the first Basilica of Guadalupe began, which functioned for several years, but its structure was affected by the construction of the neighboring convent of the Capuchins.
In 1976, a new and modern structure was built to meet the needs of the thousands of pilgrims who visit Our Lady of Guadalupe daily. The original image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was transferred to what we now know as the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, where it remains to this day. Its design was inspired by the miracle, as the blue-green ceiling represents the Virgin’s mantle who has her children under her protection.
Did you know…?
The Nican Mopohua is a historical document that accounts for the apparitions of the Virgin of Guadalupe to Saint Juan Diego. The story was written in the Nahuatl language by Antonio Valeriano, an indigenous scholar who is believed to have heard the story from Juan Diego himself before his death in 1548.