Who is Our Lady of Guadalupe? She is much more than the Catholic patron saint of the southwestern state of New Mexico. Pope John Paul II named her the spiritual patroness of the Americas, and she has long been a cultural symbol of Mexico. Our Lady of Guadalupe is perhaps the most beloved version of the Virgin Mary ever to walk the earth. As every Catholic knows, Mary has appeared to people all over the world since the beginning of Christianity to bring succor, restore faith, and sometimes to instigate change. Our Lady of Guadalupe came to a hillside near Mexico City on December 9, 1531. She revealed herself to a man named Juan Diego, instructing him to build a church to her on that site.
Juan Diego was not one of the Spaniards who were the ruling class of Mexico at that time, but an indigenous man from a modest background. Significantly, the Lady spoke with him in Nahuatl, an old and widespread Mesoamerican language. She could have sought out a nobleman with whom to converse in aristocratic Castilian Spanish, but she chose a native man instead. This is point of great cultural significance to Mexicans in that it proves that European ethnicity and social class do not matter when it comes to spiritual worthiness.
However, Juan Diego’s humble status may have contributed to the uphill battle he faced when he tried to convey the Lady’s request to the Archbishop of Mexico City, who was Spanish. The Archbishop ordered Juan Diego to return to the hillside on December 12 to ask the Lady to prove herself with an appropriate miracle. She instructed Juan Diego to gather roses from the hilltop even though none would be expected to grow so late in December. To his surprise, he found roses that he had never seen before – Castilian roses, which were not native to the New World.
He gathered them in his cloak and returned to the Archbishop to present the evidence. When the roses (which were unusual enough right there) fell out of his cloak, everyone including the bishop saw the image of Our Lady imprinted upon the fabric. Today Juan Diego’s cloak with her image is on display at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, which is the most popular Marian shrine in the world. The cloak itself has survived in good shape despite 500 years having passed, which normally would have degraded the fabric beyond recognition. Over the centuries, it has even resisted a bad ammonia spill and a bomb blast that damaged the altar but left the holy relic untouched. All this is seen as a sign of divine protection.
Nevertheless, it has taken awhile for the Catholic Church to officially recognize the liturgical celebration days of December 9 for Juan Diego and December 12 for Our Lady. Juan Diego, who would become the first indigenous American saint, was not even beatified until 1990 or canonized until 2002 because there were some doubts as to his existence until new scholarly evidence came to light.
However, Mexicans have long embraced Our Lady of Guadalupe as a cultural symbol. You have only to look at her image to recognize her as a mestiza with brown skin, dark hair, and brown eyes. Her features are a blend of European (Spanish) and indigenous traits as is the case with Mexico and Mexicans in general. Also, if you look at the spiked rays that emanate from her form and within her golden halo, they resemble the agave plant that is ubiquitous throughout Mexico and the American southwest. Not only has Our Lady been appropriated as a symbol for various political and revolutionary movements in Mexico, but she has become a pop culture phenomenon not just for Mexicans but for New Mexicans and Hispanic people everywhere.
You can find her image on light-switch plates, pillows, in chintzy little figurines, and in plaster statuary to place in the garden. Young people flaunt her image in tattoos upon their bodies and in breathtaking art upon the hoods of their lowrider cars. She shows up on T-shirts and in murals upon city buildings. Countless people, Catholic or not, attach Guadalupe medallions upon their key-chains, charm bracelets, and rearview mirrors for good luck.
All of this may seem casual and familiar to the point of disrespect, but nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, it comes from a deep wellspring of affection and rapport that Mexicans, Hispanics, Catholics, and even your average Anglo inhabitant of the southwest feel toward Our Lady of Guadalupe. As you travel through the southwestern United States, especially through the states of Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado, which all are significantly influenced by the culture of Mexico, look for her image and remember her story.
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