Co-authored by Dr. Kate Kingsbury* and Dr. Andrew Chesnut
Mexicans will tell you that they are 90 percent Catholic but 100 percent Guadalupan. While the numbers aren’t entirely accurate anymore, it is definitely the case that the Virgin of Guadalupe has been a constituent part of Mexican national identity, reflected in the fact that millions of both women and men are named Guadalupe, many going by the nickname “Lupe,” such as a colleague at the University of Houston, Dr. Guadalupe San Miguel, Professor of Mexican-American history. As specialists in lived religion, we’ve always been fascinated by the most important advocation of the Virgin Mary both in terms of territorial coverage and number of devotees.
The Virgin purportedly appeared to an Aztec peasant, Juan Diego, for the first time on a hill called Tepeyac, in what is now Mexico City, on December 9, 1531, and told the Christian convert, in his native language of Nahautl, that she wanted a church built in her honor on the site of her apparition. Juan Diego sought out the archbishop of Mexico City to share news of the miraculous apparition but was met with skepticism. The brown-skinned Virgin appeared to the Aztec peasant a second time in which Juan Diego recounted what she already knew, that he’d been rebuked by the archbishop. Determined to have her church built and named Guadalupe, the Virgin instructed the middle-aged Aztec to try again with the top prelate in Mexico.
The dubious bishop asked for a sign of the Marian apparition at Tepeyac. During her third apparition, Guadalupe told Juan Diego to gather some Spanish roses that had miraculously bloomed in his “tilma,” or cactus-fiber cloak. The determined convert returned to the bishop and unfurled his tilma revealing not only the unseasonable roses but a miraculous image of the Virgin imprinted on the cloak, which can be seen today at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.
La Virgen Morena (the Brown Virgin) is not only patroness of Mexico but also Empress of the Americas, from Chile to Canada. While other manifestations of Mary claim at most a region or country, Guadalupe is the only one to reign over two continents. And if that’s not enough, for a brief period in the mid-twentieth century she was also declared patroness of the Philippines, home to the world’s third largest Catholic population. Having conducted research on the Mestiza Maria for a future book project, we thought that on the eve of her feast day, December 12, we’d share 15 fascinating facts about the Virgin who led Mexicans to independence from Spain.
1. Many Mexicans aren’t aware that the original Guadalupe is from Extremadura, Spain. In fact, Christopher Columbus was a devotee and even named the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe in her honor, after she purportedly saved his fleet from a storm at sea. The Spanish Guadalupe is one of several European Black Madonnas, so in her Mexican incarnation she actually became lighter complected as the Virgen Morena.
2. Prior to Guadalupe’s alleged appearance to the indigenous peasant, Saint Juan Diego, in 1531, Aztec goddess Tonantzin had been worshiped for decades at the very same site, Tepeyac, which is now home to the Basilica in Mexico City. Tonantzin means “Our Mother” in the Aztec language of Nahautl, so some skeptics contend that the Spanish colonial Church concocted the story of Guadalupe appearing to Juan Diego as a way to convert his fellow Aztecs and other indigenous groups to Christianity.
3. Despite his controversial canonization in 2002, there is no hard historical evidence that Saint Juan Diego ever really existed. In fact at the time of the contentious canonization process the abbot of the Basilica, Guillermo Schulenberg, resigned in 1996 claiming that Juan Diego had never existed and “is only a symbol.” The Aztec peasant was canonized, nonetheless, as part of a Vatican strategy to retain indigenous Catholics in Mexico and across Latin America who have been defecting in droves to Protestantism, especially Pentecostalism.
4. Art historians studying depictions of the Matroness of Mexico over the centuries have discovered that over time her skin color has become progressively darker, going from a lighter to a darker shade of brown. Studies on her historical development, such as Our Lady of Guadalupe by historian Stafford Poole, demonstrate that contrary to legend, it was Mexican creoles (people of Spanish descent born in Mexico), and not indigenous converts, who were the first devotees of Guadalupe and the primary propagators of her cult. Artistic renditions of Guadalupe became noticeably darker complected on the heels of the Mexican Revolution (1910-20), which led to the exaltation of the mixed-race mestizo as the new model of Mexicanness.
5. While devotion to her grew during the Spanish colonial era, it was independence from Spain, declared in 1810, that really transformed her into the national matroness that she is today. Independence leader Father Miguel Hidalgo launched the campaign for independence with the battle cry “Death to the Spaniards and long live the Virgin of Guadalupe!” The image of the Mexican Virgin emblazoned on flags, banners and peasant sombreros became the insignia of the armed rebellion against Spanish rule. Spanish troops, on the other hand, were led by the Virgin of Remedies, who was the preeminent advocation of Mary in Mexico until eclipsed by Guadalupe.
6. Besides her darkening complexion, La Morena remained relatively unchanged in artistic renditions until as recently as the 1980s. And the first artists to experiment with novel depictions of the Empress of the Americas were Mexican-Americans who didn’t feel as culturally and religiously constrained as their Mexican counterparts in exploring new ways of representing her utilizing all kinds of media. A bare-breasted Guadalupe created by artist Paz Winshtein was the object of considerable controversy when it was exhibited at a gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 2014.
7. The etymology of her name is also the subject of considerable debate. Some linguists and historians point to Nahuatl origins while others, more convincingly, remind us that the name Guadalupe already existed in Spain, and thus we should look there for its etymological genesis. There is little doubt that the prefix “Guada” derives from the Arabic “wadi” or river valley. The jury, however, remains out on “lupe,” which many assert comes from the Spanish “lobo” (lupus in Latin) or wolf.
9. In 1929 the official photographer of the old Basilica claimed to have discovered the image of a bearded man in the right eye of the original image of Guadalupe. Two decades later another “expert” not only confirmed the presence of the original bearded man but also claimed to see it in both her eyes. Since then, the “secret of her eyes” has expanded to include images of an entire family supposedly visible in both of her pupils. For believers, the images are reflections of what Guadalupe saw when she appeared almost five centuries ago to Saint Juan Diego.
10. The original image of the Virgin is said to be indestructible. Firstly the agave fibre which the image is imprinted upon has not deteriorated with time, unlike other cloths similar to the tilma. Most paintings on such materials last no more than ten years as the threads begin to break and deteriorate. Furthermore, the infrared and ultraviolet radiation from the tens of thousands of candles appears to have had no effect on the durability of the tilma.
Secondly, the Mexican Madonna has survived an acrid acid spill as well as a bomb blast. In 1785, a worker cleaning the glass where the Virgin was encased, fecklessly spilled 50% nitric acid solvent onto the image which should have been instantly destroyed. However, it is stated that over the ensuing 30 days the image miraculously self-restored. Guadalupe also survived a bomb blast in 1921. An anti-clerical activist detonated a bomb inside the Basilica consisting of 29 sticks of dynamite. These exploded immediately in front of the image of Guadalupe. The blast annihilated everything from the marble altar rail to the floor below the depiction. Windows 150 meters away were shattered. Yet the image itself remained intact and unscathed.
11. In continuity with her robust presence in the Mexican body politic, the ruling political party is named for Guadalupe. In 2012 current Mexican president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (aka AMLO), founded the National Regeneration Movement, a political party on the populist left whose Spanish acronym, MORENA, recalls the Virgen Morena (the Brown Virgin).
12. To the dismay of the Church in Mexico, the image of Guadalupe has been fused with that of her religious rival, folk saint Santa Muerte. The hybrid image, known as GuadaMuerte, integrates elements of the two most popular female figures on the Mexican religious landscape and has also been rebuked by a number of Santa Muerte devotional leaders who are not keen on provoking the Church in a country that is still 81 percent Catholic.
13. The Virgin is garbed in a sapphire blue tilma depicting the night sky. What is intriguing about the stars upon her cloak is that these have polysemic, syncretic meanings whilst also reflecting astrological information. Not only do the astral bodies portray her heavenly origins according to Christian theology, but they also evoke elements at the fulcrum of Aztec cosmogony. The Aztecs observed celestial bodies, tracking the movements of the sun,moon, and stars. Their religious beliefs were intimately intertwined with stellar motions. According to research completed in the eighties by Fr. Mario Rojas Sánchez and Dr. Juan Homero Hernández Illescas of Mexico, the stars on Guadalupe’s mantle correspond exactly with the position of the stars in the winter solstice on the morning of December 12, 1531, when Juan Diego is said to have had his final vision of the Virgin. For the Aztec, direct knowledge of the stars’ position would have been essential as a way of recording time.
14. Clothing and adornment in indigenous societies across the Americas have long been used to communicate social status and information about the wearer. Thus, the garments worn by the Mexican Madonna convey specific messages using indigenous symbols which would have indicated to Aztec peoples her origins and physical condition. The black ribbon worn by the Marian advocation and her loose hair are the most important of these. A black ribbon tied just above the waist was the way in which indigenous noblewomen communicated that they were pregnant. However, loose hair signified they were virgins. In the image of La Morena, the unusual combination of black ribbon and loose locks is used to signify that Guadalupe is not only the noblest of all women due to her heavenly origins but also as she affirmed to Juan Diego when they met atop the mountain, that she is the ‘Holy Virgin Mary, Mother of the true God.’
15. Many have interpreted the Virgin’s hands as a call for unity. Symbolically la Morena’s hands joined together in prayer are said not only to confirm her request that the Bishop construct a chapel for people to pray in on Tepeyac Hill where she appeared, but are also believed to indicate her desire for indigenous and Spanish cultures to mesh, bonding to birth a new race. This assertion is made on the basis that her right hand is said to be lighter and resting upon a fuller, darker hand, indicating the Spanish presence melding with that of the indigenous peoples.
*Dr. Kate Kingsbury obtained her doctorate in anthropology at the University of Oxford, where she also did her Mphil. Dr. Kingsbury is a polyglot fluent in English, French, Spanish. She is a polymath interested in exploring the intersections between anthropology, religious studies, philosophy, sociology and critical theory. Dr. Kingsbury is Adjunct Professor at the University of Alberta, Canada. She is fascinated by religious phenomena, not only in terms of their continuity across the Holocene and into the Anthropocene but equally interested in the changes wrought to praxis and belief by humans ensuring the infinite esemplasticity that is inherent to all religions, allowing for their inception, survival, alteration, regeneration and expansion across time and space. Dr. Kingsbury is a staunch believer in equal rights and the power of education to ameliorate global disparities. She also works pro bono for a non profit organisation that aims to empower and educate girls in Uganda. Follow Dr. Kingsbury on Twitter