December 12 is the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, an event commemorated in the Catholic Church marking three days in 1531 when Mary supposedly appeared to Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, a poor Aztec peasant, in Mexico.
Most Americans’ knowledge of Our Lady of Guadalupe probably extends to recognizing the famous image of Mary, often found in the homes and businesses of many Mexican-Americans. Indeed, Mexicans often display the image on their cars, clothing, and even on their bodies vis-a-vis tattoos.
That image, and the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe, may seem like a parochial element of Mexican culture of little interest to broader America. Yet it is a thoroughly American story, one with a message of faith, hope, and love not only for Catholics, but for all Christians and even non-Christians, as well.
What Reportedly Happened
The story of Our Lady of Guadalupe begins in Mexico in December, 1531. The colony — formerly the great empire of the Aztecs — had only been in the hands of the Spaniards for ten years. The vast majority of the inhabitants, including Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, were Aztecs, a small number of whom, like Juan Diego, had converted to Christianity.
On December 9, 1531, a maiden dressed in traditional Aztec clothing and speaking Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, appeared to Juan Diego at a place called the Hill of Tepeyac. She identified herself as Mary and requested a church be built at the site in her honor.
Juan Diego appealed to the archbishop of Mexico City, Fray Juan de Zumárraga, and related the story. The bishop, unsurprisingly, did not believe him. Later that day, Mary reportedly appeared to Juan Diego again, and urged him to continue to entreat the archbishop’s aid.
The next day, Juan Diego again sought out the archbishop, who instructed the peasant to return to Tepeyac Hill and petition the lady for a miraculous sign to prove her identity. Diego promptly returned to Tepeyac, and encountered the maiden yet again, and reported the request for a sign. The maiden consented to provide one the following day, December 11.
The next day, however, learning of a desperately ill uncle, Juan attempted to avoid the maiden in his rush to find a priest to say last rites. The woman confronted Juan on his alternative route, told him his uncle would be healed, and instructed him to gather flowers from the top of Tepeyac, a hill typically barren, especially in December. Juan obeyed, and found blooming there Castilian roses, a species foreign to Mexico.
The woman arranged the flowers in Juan’s tilma, or cloak, and Juan Diego headed off to see the archbishop. When he reached him, he opened his cloak, the flowers fell to the floor, and prominently displayed on the fabric was the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a seemingly miraculous event. The story spread through Mexico like wildfire. Within ten years, ten million Aztec natives had been baptized into the Catholic faith.
The Right Kind of Multicultural Pluralism
One of the most salient features of the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe is the way Christian belief intersects with indigenous culture. Although at some points in the story Mary speaks Spanish, the language of the colonizers, she also speaks Juan Diego’s native tongue. She appears to him as one of his own people, and many of the features of the famous image on the tilma evoke various Aztec beliefs, symbols, and cultural traditions.
In effect, Christianity has appropriated and reconstituted certain elements of an indigenous culture. Yet the fundamental doctrines and practices of the Church remain steadfast: the Aztecs who convert are baptized and catechized in Christian teaching.
This reflects a deeper, more nuanced, and more powerful form of multicultural pluralism. Christianity evaluated what was inherently good and beautiful in Aztec culture and found creative ways to incorporate those things into itself, without compromising objective truth.
Moreover, Aztec culture prior to the Mexican conquest was truly brutal, possibly one of the most wicked civilizations ever to populate this world. Those who have seen Mel Gibson’s 2006 movie “Apocalypto” will have some idea of sixteenth-century Aztec civilization. Historians estimate that in the decades leading up to the arrival of Hernan Cortes and his conquistadores, approximately 50,000 people, mostly from subject tribes of the Aztecs, were sacrificed annually to appease the Aztec gods.
As Cortes and his men made their way to the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, they observed pyramids of human skulls along the roadside. Some of this sacrifice included cannibalism; indeed, Cortes and men were offered human blood at an Aztec banquet. It was largely for these reasons that Cortes burned his ships and determined to use his little army of 500 soldiers to conquer the Aztec Empire.
True pluralism finds a careful balance between what elements of different cultures can be celebrated and appropriated into a larger multicultural society, and what must be refuted. It rejoices to find those cultural traits that accord with the natural law — and in this case, with Christian belief — and censures what doesn’t.
The lessons of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Aztec culture for our own day are easily discerned. Many aspects of cultures foreign to America are truly good and can be embraced as creating a more interesting, multi-layered society. Immigrants for many generations have done exactly this, bringing their languages, values, and cuisines, among other things, to make America a culture far wealthier in cultural capital than others are. Alternatively, cultures can have weaknesses or sins — say, misogyny or blood feuds — that should be recognized and rejected.
The Dignity of the Common Man
Our Lady of Guadalupe is also an American story that celebrates the working man, the average Joe (or in this case, average Juan). There was nothing particularly exemplary about Juan Diego. A poor Aztec peasant, he was someone the political and religious authorities of New Spain could easily overlook. Yet he was obviously a man of virtue and character — when his family member was ill and in need, he rushed to help him. When his uncle appeared to be on his deathbed, he urgently sought spiritual succor for his relative.
Nor did Juan Diego seek attention or glory for himself. He sought to quietly live, work, and love his family. He seemed a simple man, with simple pleasures. Yet — if the stories are true — God chose a man of the poorest, simplest origin to communicate a message of grace and power to all of Mexico.
God also apparently chose an Aztec peasant to embarrass a Spanish colonial archbishop, who probably thought Juan Diego was either crazy or repugnantly ambitious. Nor did glory for Juan Diego’s unusual story come quickly after the events of 9-11 December, 1531. He wasn’t declared a saint by the Catholic Church until 1990! Thus is Our Lady of Guadalupe a reminder of the rewards that come from the virtues America has promoted since its beginnings: simplicity, humility, piety, and hard work.
Freedom Versus Totalitarianism
There is far more to the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe than what can be shared in this brief article, although one anecdote stands out for its brilliance in communicating the power of freedom over the machinations of the totalitarian state.
Mexico underwent a bloody revolution in the 1910s, ultimately resulting in an authoritarian government that developed ties with the newly formed Soviet Union. The government pursued a number of attacks on religious freedom, including forbidding religious instruction in schools, and severely restricted the freedoms of priests and ministers of other religious. Many clerics and devout Catholics were murdered by the state.
The anti-Catholic government and its supporters turned their attention on many traditional elements of Mexican religious piety, including Our Lady of Guadalupe. On 14 November 1921, an anti-Catholic secularist hid a bomb within a basket of flowers before the famous image. When it exploded, it damaged the altar, but somehow left the tilma unharmed.
Mexican Catholics, many revolting against the state, declared it a miracle. As has been shown in so many other examples of totalitarian regimes and their anti-religious programs — Revolutionary France, Soviet Russia, and now Communist China — sincere religious devotion will not be obliterated. The state may make martyrs of the faithful, and may drive the church underground, but it will endure, even in the worst of circumstances.
America Should Adopt Our Lady of Guadalupe
Although many here in the U.S.A. have typically thought of Our Lady of Guadalupe as a symbol of Mexican identity, it is thoroughly American, inspirational as it is instructional. When Pope Benedict XIV approved of the patronage of Our Lady of Guadalupe over New Spain in 1754, he quoted Psalm 147: “God has not done anything like this for any other nation.”
That language should sound familiar to American ears. For many Mexicans, and Mexican-Americans, the image of the Aztec maiden is a source of comfort and hope. As Mexican culture continues to become an indelible part of our own social fabric, we should heartily embrace whatever goods God has done. As with so many other cultural traditions, it is one worth inheriting as our own.