Why the Virgin of Guadalupe lives in every heart in Mexico
Though every Mexican loves the Virgin of Guadalupe, the attraction, I discovered, is not magnetic
While I was in the framing shop in Puerto Vallarta waiting to pick up some photographs, I flipped through the stacks of finished jobs leaning against the wall across from the till. At least eighty percent of them were images of the Virgin of Guadalupe. In Mexico, Our Lady of Guadalupe inspires widespread devotion. Whenever I pull out the Guadalupe billfold I bought in the La Peñita market, shopkeepers and taco vendors regard it with envy.
Images of the Virgin are everywhere in rural Mexico— painted on the cinderblocks of half-constructed houses, glimpsed through the open door or window of homes and schools and restaurants and bars, hanging from the rear-view mirror of buses and cars, passed in small shrines along every roadside, stencilled on T-shirts and candles and pencil cases, even stitched on the back of cowboy boots. Driving up a steep mountain road toward the Franciscan missions of the Sierra Gorda, I saw a giant image of the Virgin of Guadalupe painted on the mountain’s rocky peak.
A few years ago, when I was working on the scientific method in the Grade 4 class at the school where I’ve been volunteering, a little girl discovered a surprising thing about the Virgin of Guadalupe.
I had begun the class by letting the students play with magnets at their desks. Then I asked them to list what they thought might be magnetic in the classroom. Together, they constructed a list — the metal door, the legs of their desks, the swivel stand holding the 50 litre water jug (too rusted to swivel), the snaps of a jacket, the window sill.
Once each student had copied our hypotheses into their notebooks, I let them loose testing. They ran around the classroom, snapping their magnets onto everything and then running to the blackboard to record their findings — yes to the door, no to the zipper of a jacket, yes to the swivel stand, no to the wooden desktops, yes to the windowsill and a paper clip.
I was wearing a medallion of the Virgin of Guadalupe that day, and I bent to hold it before Fatima. “Do you think we should test the Virgin?” I asked.
Fatima’s big brown eyes went wide. She held her magnet to the necklace, and I was surprised to see that the medallion didn’t attract. “La Virgen no es magnético (The Virgin is not magnetic),” I said.
Fatima’s response was instant and matter of fact. “Jesús tampoco,” she assured me, and then ran off to make more tests. “Neither is Jesus.”
Octavio Paz, the Mexican poet and Nobel Laureate, famously commented that after centuries of promises and betrayals, Mexicans believe in only two things: the Virgin of Guadalupe and the National Lottery. Faith in the Virgin unites rich and poor, urban and rural, peasants and professors. Those who live in Mexico revere her, and those who are forced to live away hold her image as the dream of return. Even extranjeros (foreigners) cannot resist her appeal. The reason why is a two-part story.
I first saw the full story of Guadalupe in a church in Quiroga, a village near the beautiful colonial city of Morelia. Quiroga is entirely devoted to making things of wood — tables, chairs, headboards, sideboards, cribs, beds, boxes, kitchen utensils, candleholders, carved animals of all sizes and types.
As in every Mexican town, Quiroga’s zocalo (central park) is ringed with taco carts, juice stands and shoe shine chairs. A seated Indian with a feathered headdress and an elaborately fanned staff sits atop an incongruous Corinthian column in the zocalo’s centre.
Our guide told us the statue represents the Aztec emperor Montezuma. Since Morelia is Tarascan territory, and the Tarascans were not only famously fierce but sworn enemies of the Aztecs, I am more inclined to believe the director of our language school who identified the figure as Curicaueri, the Tarascan fire god, also associated with the sun. Curicaueri was reputedly a child prince when the Spanish arrived.
Whoever he is, the indigenous leader sits above the plaza, and the Virgin lives just at the end of the street. Her home is a peaceful retreat only a single step away from the bustling vendors of wood. A simple church tells her story in eight brightly painted panels on its flat wooden ceiling. It’s a story that unites the sculpture in the zocalo and the Church.
On December 12, 1531, Juan Diego, a poor indigenous farmer chose a short-cut over the hill of Tepeyac, at the northern edge of what is now Mexico City, to seek help for his dying grandfather. At the crest of the hill, a dark-skinned Virgin appeared to him in a celestial vision. She spoke to Juan Diego in his native language, Nahuatl, which astonished him.
“Go to the Bishop”, she told him, “and tell him that I want him to build a basilica in this place.” Juan Diego went to the Bishop as bidden, but the Spanish bishop refused to see the Aztec farmer.
Juan Diego went back over the hill of Tepeyac and the Virgin appeared to him again. “Gather roses,” the Virgin told him, “and take them to the Bishop.”
Juan Diego was confused. It was winter and long past the time of flowers, yet he looked among the rocks at the top of the hill and he found the roses blooming.
Gathering the roses into his cloak, he returned to the Bishop. This time, the guards received him and allowed him into the palace.
When he knelt before the Bishop, the roses fell from his cloak, and the vision he had seen — an olive-skinned Virgin wearing a mantle dotted with stars and surrounded by rays of light — miraculously appeared on the cloth.
The Bishop, amazed to see an image of the Virgin on the tilma (cloak) of a peasant farmer, ordered a church to be built at once.
When Juan Diego returned to the hill at Tepeyac, he met the Virgin again and told her of his dying grandfather. Her image appeared beside the ailing man’s bed and Juan Diego’s grandfather was healed.
The easiest answer to the Virgin’s popularity in Mexico is this story — a dark-skinned Virgin who appeared to an indigenous farmer, spoke to him in his native language and interceded on his behalf. This may have been enough to ensure Guadalupe’s reverence throughout the country, but the deal was even more firmly sealed three hundred years later.
Miguel Hidalgo, a libertine and Roman Catholic priest, nicknamed El Zorro (The Fox) for his cleverness, was an intellectual firebrand whose wide reading led him to challenge the authority of Spanish rule in New Spain. Born a criollo, of Spanish parents in Mexico, he had fewer rights and privileges than peninsulares, Spanish born citizens living in the New World.
Hidalgo recognized many of the injustices of colonial rule, including Spain’s prohibition of growing grapes and olives in the fertile soil of the Mexican heartland in order not to compete with imports from Spain and its harsh treatment of Mexico’s indigenous people.
Recognizing the power of a symbol, Hidalgo raised a flag bearing an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe and issued his famous grito (cry) for Mexican independence. On September 16, 1810, Mexico began an uneven battle to overthrow the heavy yoke of Spain.
The tilma (cloak) on which the Virgin of Guadalupe’s image first appeared is preserved in la Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe ) on the hill of Tepeyac on the outskirts of Mexico City. Unlike the roadside shrines to Guadalupe throughout Mexico, the basilica is massive: a modern concrete temple dominating one side of a plaza that holds 10,000 people. Estimates of as many as 12 million pilgrims visited the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12, 2016.
The Old Basilica (begun in 1695, not the one built by the Bishop) is on the northern side of the plaza. Baroque in appearance, with towers and domes and elaborate ornamentation, it cants at an alarming angle. Like most of the old buildings in Mexico City, the Old Basilica is sinking into the clay bed of the ancient lake on which the city was built. The New Basilica hangs from tension cables radiating out from a bridge-like pylon to prevent it suffering the same fate.
No expense has been spared to protect the tilma, although it can be argued that precautions were unnecessary. People say that the colours of the image on the holy cloak have not faded since the date when the Virgin first appeared to Juan Diego.
In 1921, a bomb, set by revolutionaries protesting the continuing power and abuses of the Church, exploded in the gracious Old Basilica. The bomb destroyed the main altar, bent a massive brass crucifix and blew out the windows of nearby homes. Miraculously, the tilma remained unharmed. The twisted crucifix now lies on a white silk cushion in the New Basilica, and the cloak with its image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is protected behind bullet-proof glass.
I came to love the Virgin long before I learned of her miracles, or her revolutionary history, or the supernatural protection of Juan Diego’s cloak. The image alone made me a fan. I was first attracted by the portrayal of light — the stars on her cloak and the rays radiating out from her body as if from the sun.
The image of the Virgin is surrounded by a mandorla, an aureole of light, contained within a thin dark membrane, like the brown silk of an almond beneath its husk. The mandorla contains the Virgin’s power, combining the properties of both seed and light, and it makes her the ultimate symbol of rebirth and regeneration. Guadalupe appears both humble and powerful, both physical and celestial, both radiant and demure. Her image, as it appeared to Juan Diego, is like the fresh promise of dawn.
Every photo or painting or sculpture or poster I see of the Virgin of Guadalupe, no matter how saccharine or how garish, is made beautiful by that light. Her mandorla is a mantle of hope, symbolizing the latent potential of every new day. Mexico lives on that hope. The Virgin of Guadalupe offers the possibility of a better life to all of her people, a powerful symbol in a country where over half the population lives in poverty.
This is the 18th story in the weekly publication A Remarkable Education: Lessons Learned in a Mexican Rural School. The next story describes two new approached to math in rural Mexico.
The previous story lists the unexpected (and often amusing) obstacles to taking a Mexican rural school into the digital age.
Starting in the winter of 2009, Diane Douglas volunteered three years in the two-room school in the fishing village of Chacala, north of Puerto Vallarta. Since 2012, she’s been working to improve online learning at el Colegio Patria, a remarkable rural school in the poor, agricultural town of Las Varas.