Our Lady of Guadalupe: miraculous legend or convenient story?

Thursday, December 12th, Catholics all over Mexico, Central America and parts of the United States will be enjoying the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe in honor of La Virgen Morena (The Brown Virgin). The story behind this particular celebration varies greatly, depending on the source of information. The official version states that in 1531, a poor Indian peasant, Juan Diego, was approached by a dark-skinned apparition, claiming to be the Virgin Mary. 

The encounter happened on Tepeyac Hill, which is on the eastern edge of what is now Mexico City. The apparition spoke to him in his native Aztec language and told him to urge the bishop to build a temple in her honor on the spot where they stood. Juan Diego took the tale directly to the bishop of Mexico, who wasn’t convinced of its truth. The Virgin Mary apparition appeared three more times to Diego and once to his ailing uncle and asked that she be called Guadalupe. 

She performed several miracles to prove her true identity to them and the bishop, including imprinting her image on the inside of Juan Diego’s tilma (cloak) made of cactus fiber. Upon seeing this, the archbishop was satisfied, and the Basilica was built on the location she designated. According to historical records, upon hearing the story or viewing the tilma, eight million people in Mexico converted to Catholicism. To this day, the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City is the most popular Catholic pilgrimage site in the world. Inside, the tilma with the imprint or “Miraculous Portrait” is still on display. 

In modern times, there exists a culture of enormous devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe across Mexico. They put on an elaborate feast in her honor on 12/12, the last day in 1531 that she appeared to Juan Diego and imprinted her image on his cloak. 

There are quite a few historians and religious scholars, however, who debate the timing and basis of this story. Particularly in light of the fact that in the 1500’s, the Spanish conquerors were aggressively working to convert the indigenous people like the Aztecs from their native belief system to Catholicism. Oddly, the first written record of the historical event that has been found was dated in 1648, more than 100 years after it was purported to take place. 

Another point of interest has to do with Tepeyac Hill, the spot on which the Mary image insisted that a temple be built in her honor. Coincidentally, Tepeyac Hill was originally the site where a temple to the Aztec goddess Tonantzin stood. Tonantzin was the mother of all Aztec Gods, and by tearing down her temple and replacing with one for the mother of the Christian God, Jesus, some believe they were symbolically replacing her with Mary. 

The historical image of Juan Diego has also been questioned, as he originally appeared tall, light-skinned and bearded – more like a Spanish conqueror than a native Indian. Which begs the question, was it a Spanish man who originated the story rather than a native? And were the first devotees of Guadalupe not natives but rather Mexican Creoles (people born of Spanish descent in Mexico)?  

Lastly, there is debate surrounding the name that the vision wanted to be called. In the legend, the name “Guadalupe” is claimed to be of Nahuatl origins, the native Aztec language. But some point to the fact that, while the word was new to the Nahuatl speakers, the name Guadalupe already existed in Spain.

Whether the legend is a true religious miracle, or a myth invented to affect the conversion to Catholicism of millions of native Mexicans, Our Lady of Guadalupe is highly revered across the country today. The Virgin Mary is considered the patron of all things good and brings much joy and comfort to those who believe in and pay homage to her.

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