On December 12th, 1531, the Virgin of Guadalupe is said to have appeared to Juan Diego on Tepeyac Hill, bridging two worlds, that of the Aztec who saw her and that of the Spanish conquerors who now ruled his land. She has since become the patron and symbol of Mexico, a country born of this fusion of cultures.

The conquest of Mexico was not only carried out in the military and political spheres, but was also a battle for cultural predominance and forms of worship. The Mexica did not require the peoples under their rule to adopt their religious or social beliefs; indeed, they frequently incorporated the rites practiced by peoples under their sway into their own belief system. But the Spanish conquistadors considered religious conversion one of their main tasks in the New World.

When Hernán Cortés and his soldiers conquered Tenochtitlan, the capital city of the Mexica, in 1521, they were accompanied by priests and followed closely by missionaries. These men of the cloth were amazed at the science, culture and religion of the native peoples, but they were also horrified by some of their deities and rites, especially by the practice of human sacrifice. The conquerors destroyed many temples and forbade the old ways, offering Catholicism as the only true religion. Their churches were often built on the foundations and with the very stones of the Mexica temples they destroyed; and their use of indigenous craftsmen to decorate them has resulted in a very real physical expression of the underlying syncretism which resulted.

One of the temples destroyed during the early years was that of the goddess Tonantzin, located on Tepeyac Hill. Tonantzin is believed to be a manifestation of the Earth Mother, known as Coatlicue, the mother of all living things, who conceived by immaculate and miraculous means. She was also the one to decide the length of life; to the Mexica, the earth was both mother and tomb, the giver of life and the devourer. Human sacrifice and harsh physical penance were used to appease this goddess. Tonantzin, or Little Mother, patron of childbirth, had a devout following; the Aztecs mourned their goddess and felt threatened and endangered by the profanation and razing of her temple by the Spaniards.

In 1525, only four years after the conquest, the Aztec Quauhtlatoatzin was baptized by a Franciscan priest, who named him Juan Diego. Six years later, on December 9th, Juan Diego witnessed the first appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe. She told him she wanted a church built on Tepeyac Hill and told him to communicate her wish to the authorities. Mexico's first Bishop, Juan de Zumárraga, didn't believe him. The Virgin appeared to Juan Diego again, asking him to go see the Bishop on Sunday. Juan Diego obeyed, but Zumárraga asked for some proof. The Virgin appeared to Juan Diego a third time and told him to return the next day. His uncle, with whom he lived, became very ill, and Juan Diego went to find a priest to give him the last rites. The Virgin appeared for the fourth and last time on December 12th, 1531, and spoke soothingly in Náhuatl. She told Juan Diego not to worry, that his uncle was well, that she was his mother and he need fear nothing. She asked him to go gather some flowers: roses, which had never grown there, much less in mid-winter. He wrapped them in his ayate or tilma, a sort of coarsely woven cape, and the Virgin told him not to open it until he was before the Bishop. When Juan Diego opened the tilma in front of Bishop Zumárraga, the roses cascaded out and they discovered the image of the Virgin imprinted upon it. This depiction of the Virgin of Guadalupe is on display in the Basilica.


Cover of a 1649 edition of the Nican Mopohua

The first written account still in existence is known as the Nican Mopohua; it was written in Náhuatl between 1558 and 1570 by Antonio Valeriano, perhaps with the collaboration of others, and is now in the Public Library of New York. The story is also told in a text dated 1573 by historian Juan de Tovar, who is believed to have transcribed it from the text by Friar Juan de Zumárraga's translator, which has not been found; this is now in the Mexican National Library. References to the apparitions appear on maps, codices and in various annals of the period.

The Virgin of Tepeyac, as she is also known, spoke to Juan Diego in Náhuatl. The similarities in sound and attributes between Guadalupe and Coatlicue have been pointed out repeatedly; and the Spanish Bishop may quite naturally have given her a more familiar name. In fact, there is a shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe near the Guadalupe mountains in Extremadura, Spain, from which many of the conquistadors and missionaries hailed. According to Friar Bernardo de Sahagún, one of the main Spanish missionary and historians of the period, the Indians continued to call her Tonantzin until around 1560, when the Spaniards baptized her with the sole name of Guadalupe.

Nonetheless, the Vatican accepted the news of the miracle from Friar Juan de Zumárraga and a sanctuary was erected in 1533; recent repairs have uncovered the pre-Hispanic foundations beneath the original construction. A second church was begun in 1556, and, in 1695, the first stone of a new sanctuary was laid. In 1976, the modern Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe was dedicated.



Photograph of the original image of the Virgin of Guadalupe

Ecclesiastic and lay researchers have studied the phenomenon from many angles. In 1666, a formal inquiry was carried out by the Catholic Church to validate the appearance; 1723 marked another such investigation. There have also been many examinations of the image of the Virgin imprinted on Juan Diego's ayate. The Virgin's eyes apparently not only contain the image of Juan Diego kneeling before her, but also the inner capillary structure; and the preservation for over 400 years of the crudely woven cloth and its image is astounding. In 1737, the Catholic Church declared Guadalupe Patron of Mexico; and in 1895, she was Crowned Queen of Mexico; Pope Pius X named her the Celestial Patron of Latin America in 1910; and Pius XII called her Empress of the Americas in 1945. Pope John Paul II beatified Juan Diego in 1990, and dedicated a Chapel to the "Mother of the Americas" in Saint Peter's Basilica in 1992.

Unquestionably, the widely-reported appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe to the Aztec Indian Juan Diego was a powerful unifying factor between the Spanish-Catholic and Pre-Hispanic strains. The native Mexicans identified the dark Virgin who spoke in Náhuatl with the goddess Tonantzin and celebrated her with indigenous rites within the framework of the Catholic Church. This incident was perhaps the most important single event to hasten the conversion of the Mexican indigenous peoples to Catholicism. And the soft-spoken Virgin became link and symbol of the fusion of these two cultures into our nation. It is no coincidence that, in 1810, when Don Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla called for an uprising which led to the Independence of Mexico from Spain, he adopted her pennant as the first Mexican flag. The Image of the Virgin of Guadalupe has repeatedly been taken as an unofficial national symbol, and a great many Mexicans proudly proclaim themselves "Mexicans and Guadalupans".

The Virgin of Guadalupe is celebrated every year on December 12th with a variety of rites ranging from the serenade with Mariachis the night before --which is televised nation-wide-- to the midnight ceremonies by concheros (named after the armadillo shells they use as stringed instruments, or the seeds of the ayoyote tree they wear on their ankles to complement the drum), who call upon nine spirit guides with pagan dances and Catholic chants all through the night, before dancing all day in front of the Basilica. Hers is one of the main religious shrines in the world, second in visitors only to the Vatican. Pilgrims from all over Mexico and abroad converge on Tepeyac Hill, seeking healing and favors, keeping vows, or simply paying homage to their beloved Little Mother, Queen of Mexico.