D.H. Lawrence wrote a novel about Mexico in 1926, a time of severe persecution of the Church in that country. In his book, The Plumed Serpent, he recounts the words of Dona Carlota to her friend, Kate. Doña Carlota’s husband, Ramon, is the leader of a group dedicated to Quetzelcoatl, the Aztec serpent god:
‘Ah, Señora!’ said Carlota, sitting down tense at the table. ‘Could you follow Ramón? Could you give up the Blessed Virgin?–I could sooner die!’
When Kate reveals to Carlota that she was educated in a convent, the latter replies:
“Ah, Señora, as if a woman who had ever known the Blessed Virgin could ever part from her again.
Although these words were written almost a century ago, they could well apply to Mexico’s love for the Virgin Mary at the present time, particularly in their passion for Our Lady of Guadalupe. The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is everywhere in Mexico. In taxicabs. Buses. Restaurants. Store fronts. And roadside shrines. Renowned Mexican novelist, Carlos Fuentes, speaks of this phenomenon: He states that “Our Lady of Guadalupe is the central unifying force of the Mexican people.”
Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared in Mexico in 1531 to a ravaged and distraught nation. The once proud, mighty Aztecs suffered an ignominious defeat at the hands of a miniscule Spanish army in 1521. Soon their ubiquitous practice of human sacrifice was abolished and they were fearful that their pagan gods would exact revenge, causing immeasurable chaos in the cosmos. Carl Anderson and Eduardo Chavez, authors of Our Lady of Guadalupe: Mother of the Civilization of Love said that “the collective depression from this crisis of faith was so great that some of the natives committed suicide.”
And the small group of Spaniards in the country were in a desperate position as well. Because of the cruel and tyrannical behavior of The First Audencia (the secular, governing group sent over from Spain) bitter animosity erupted between the two cultures. Outnumbered six hundred to one, the Spaniards were terrified for their very lives. Bishop Zumarraga, the first bishop of Mexico City, feared that a massacre was imminent. He prayed urgently to Our Lady and asked for a very specific sign that a miracle would be forthcoming. Soon, the kindly Bishop (whose title would become “Defender of the Indians”) began hearing stories from a newly converted Chichimeca Indian about appearances of the Virgin Mary.
On Dec. 9, 1531, Juan Diego was walking to Tlalteloloco (a distance of nine miles) to attend the Saturday morning Mass in honour of the Blessed Virgin. On his way he encountered a most “beautiful Lady” at the top of Tepeyac Hill. She appeared as a mestiza woman (a woman of mixed race) and spoke to him in his native Nahuatl language. “She is one of us!” he said. And she called him “son.” What is striking is that Our Lady appeared as a mestiza woman. At this time in the New World the only mestizo people were children, most of whom would be under ten years old. And these poor children! They were “despised” and often left to “search the animal stalls for food left for pigs and dogs.” And Our Lady came as one of them, the most lowly and ostracized group in society. And she came as their Mother. She came as family.
And what words of love she spoke to Juan! “Listen, my son, to what I tell you now. Do not let anything worry or afflict you; do not fear illness nor any troublesome happening nor pain. Am I not here? I who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not your life and health? Are you not in my embrace and in my prayers? What else do you need?”
She appeared a total of four times to Juan Diego and once to his ill uncle, Juan Bernardino, curing him. She asked Juan to bring a message to Bishop Zumarraga that a church be built at Tepeyac Hill. The humble Juan Diego demurred: “Send someone more important!” he begged. “No, Juan!” she said. “It is you I want to carry out my requests!” Juan Diego then went to the Bishop with Our Lady’s message. He was understandably skeptical and asked for a sign to prove the authenticity of the apparition. On Dec. 12th Our Lady once again appeared to Juan and directed him to pick some Castilian roses to bring to the bishop. But the fact of the matter is this: Castilian roses, though common in Spain, were unknown in Mexico at that time and would never be able to grow in the rocky soil of Tepeyac Hill! Nonetheless, here they were! With the roses snuggly enveloped in his tilma, Juan hastened to the bishop’s residence. The bishop — who was from Spain — was astonished when he realized that Juan was carrying a large assortment of CASTILIAN roses! This was the sign he had been secretly praying for. “But at this time of year!” he mused. “Impossible!”
But this was just the beginning: When Juan removed his cloak an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was miraculously imprinted on its surface. The astounded Bishop Zumarraga fell to his knees in wonder before the holy image, as would multitudes of believers throughout the generations, to the present day.
Father Harold Rahm, author of “Am I Not Here?” spoke about the effects of this apparition: “A supernatural explosion occurred on this continent,” he said. “Within a few years an explosion of Catholic churches, monasteries, convents and schools sprang up all over the once-pagan country.” “Conversions of the Aztecs were so numerous as to be unprecedented in the history of the church” he said . Estimates are that nine million Aztecs converted to the Catholic faith within a decade and a half, thus making Mexico the first Christian nation on the American continent. Our Lady of Guadalupe also brought peace to the two warring cultures. Today the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City is the most visited Marian shrine in the world. Twenty million pilgrims visit annually. They come to see the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the Basilica, the only heavenly portrait of Our Lady in existence.
The ongoing existence of the tilma is a miracle in itself. The image is still intact after almost five centuries. The tilma, an outer garment worn by the Aztecs of Juan Diego’s time is made from the delicate ayate fibres of the Maguey cactus plant. Its normal lifespan is about 20 years! And, after all this time, the sacred painting shows not the slightest indication of decay. Defying all scientific explanation it is in immaculate condition. Even its colors remain bright and vibrant, seemingly impervious to fading. Richard Kuhn, German Nobel prize winner in chemistry in 1936, found that no coloring of any kind was used in the fibers, stating that the existing “colors” were unknown to science, being of neither animal, vegetable or mineral origin. Recent investigation in the field of computerized technology in ophthalmology revealed another phenomenon: that twelve people, believed to be witnesses to the miracle, were found imprinted in the Virgin’s eyes.
The designs on Our Lady’s garment were profoundly meaningful to the Aztecs: The fact that Our Lady is standing in front of the sun, for example, signified to them that she is more exalted than their sun-war god, Huitzopochtili; the fact that she is standing on the moon indicates that she is superior to the moon god; because the black band around her waist signifies her pregnancy, it is a sign of renewal and things to come; because of this manifestation, she is the patroness of the Pro-Life movement in the Americas. One notices also the black cross on her brooch signifying that her god was that of the Spanish missionary friars, Jesus Christ, who died on the Cross for all of humanity.
The apparition abounded in music and flowers, both signs of truth and divinity in the Aztec culture. Our Lady’s mantle is an aqua-blue colour and in 16th century Aztec Mexico only the emperor could wear this colour! Her tunic and mantle are held up by an angel, indicating that she “reigns over the whole cosmos.” They had no doubt whatsoever that their new mother was from Heaven!
In 1939 a monument to Our Lady of Guadalupe was erected in the Vatican Gardens. His holiness Pope Pius Xll spoke about Our Lady’s messages to Juan Diego: “It is an instruction without limits in maternal love,” he said.
Etched above the main altar of the basilica are the unforgettable words:
NO ESTOY YO AQUI QUE SOY TU MADRE? “Am I not here, I who am your Mother?”
Who can resist such a message?
Mary Hansen writes at MadonnasOfMexico.com. She is a former teacher and has written for the for the National Catholic Register, The Catholic Register and OnePeterFive. She has a B.A. from Queen’s University and a Master of Education and Master of Divinity from the University of Toronto (St. Michael’s). She writes from Ontario, Canada.