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The Myth of the Virgen de Guadalupe
A National Symbol
The Virgen de Guadalupe is an icon of the Mexican people. She is more than a version of the Mother of God, she is their national symbol. What many do not know is that this goddess that is revered and considered a Christian deity is actually a hybrid of Christian mythology and an ancient Nahua goddess called Tonantzin. Even more interesting is how this myth came to be in the first place. The myth that supposedly took place in 1531, was never even heard of until 1648 and was created by a Creole, not a Nahua Indian. In this article I hope to enlighten the reader and separate the truth from the myth.
Before we get into the nitty gritty of this event, you would be wise to ask what makes me an expert on this topic. Good question! I am currently a student in my second year at UMKC working towards a masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing with a second major in History. Also, this past semester I studied under Dr. Viviana Grieco, an expert on the Spanish Conquest. My research topic for this course was, guess what--the Virgen de Guadalupe. So, while I had done some research on my own prior to my formal studies, the information I am about to give you comes from academic primary and secondary sources, all of which I will cite at the end. Now, lets get down to the juicy stuff.
According to the myth, in 1531 on a December Saturday morning, a humble Nahua named Juan Diego was on his way to church to be evangelized when he heard birds singing up on the hill of Tepeyac. Curious, he went up the hill and saw before him a beautiful lady surrounded by bright shining light. Her message was simple: she wished that a temple be built in her name on the hill of Tepeyac. From there she would make it known to all that she is the protectress of the Mexican Nation. She told Juan Diego to take this message to the bishop and reluctantly, he agreed, but the bishop did not believe him. Juan Diego returned to Tepeyac and told the lady what happened and she instructed him to return the next day. The next day, Sunday, he returned to deliver the message to the bishop and was once again received with doubt. The bishop asked for proof. On Monday Juan Diego, now lacking confidence, avoided Tepeyac all together and he tried to do the same on Tuesday, but somehow, she found him. He told her how the bishop wanted proof so she instructed him to go up on the hill and pick flowers. This was an odd request because it was December and there were no flowers to be found that time of year, but sure enough, just over the hill, he found every kind of rare flower he could think of. Obeying the command he picked several flowers and put them in his tilma, kind of like a pancho. This time, when he went to the bishop he opened his tilma and instead of flowers there was an image of the Virgen de Guadalupe there—proof enough for the skeptical bishop. So this is how the story goes.
The truth is very different. Actually, there is no mention of this myth until 1648 when Miguel Sanchez published it. The supposed bishop in the story was Bishop Juan de Zumarraga who, while a real historical character, was not the bishop in Mexico at the time. In fact, Zumarraga is the only real character in the story because there is no evidence of there ever having been a Juan Diego. And Zumarraga, in all his records as an inquisitor and even later when he did finally become bishop, makes no mention of this miracle. Funny how something that would have seemingly have had such an impact on a person goes unmentioned for over one hundred years until it is written down as a second hand account. Another undeniable fact is that the image is man made. There is nothing other worldly about it. All the paints and the fabric can be traced back to the paints and textiles that were popular at the time. In fact, the image even has an author; Marcos Cipac. It's pretty hard to claim heavenly divinity when the item in question is very human.
But here’s the real kicker. The hill of Tepeyac was originally the site of a Nahua temple to honor Tonantzin, a Nahua goddess. The year 1531 is also suspicious because it was just ten years after Cortez’s conquest and the top priority of the Spaniards was to convert the Nahuas to Christianity. It is highly possible that Nahuas continued to make pilgrimages to the hill of Tepeyac to honor their Nahua goddess, and the Catholic monks and friars, in their haste to convert them, declared that Tonantzin was actually a Christian goddess. That is more plausible than the whole miracle thing.
The Sad Reality
All of this evidence and research will do no good when confronting a Mexican patriot, though. The Virgen de Guadalupe is not just a religious symbol, as I said before, she is a patriotic one. My favorite quote on this subject can best summarize this phenomenon: “The Mexican people, after more than two centuries of experiments and defeats, have faith only in the Virgen of Guadalupe and the National Lottery.” (Octavio Paz) Most people will take offense if any of these facts are brought up. In fact, even the Vatican took issue with these claims and their response was to beatify Juan Diego, even though NO evidence exists for either the myth or his existence. When historians, such as Stafford Poole, write articles on this highly sensitive topic, they are assailed with insults. So, I find myself in a similar position by publishing this...but I welcome the onslaught.
If you found this article interesting, other articles by Stafford Poole on this topic may interest you as well.
Books by Stafford Poole
Peterson, Jeanette Favrot. "Creating the Virgin of Guadalupe: The Cloth, The Artist, and Sources." The Americas Volume 61, Number 4, April 2005: pp. 571-610.
Poole, Stafford. "History versus Juan Diego." The Americas, Vol. 62, No. 1 July 2005: 1-16.
—. Our Lady of Guadalupe, The Origins and Sources of a Mexican National Symbol, 1531-1797. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1995.
More on the Virgen de Guadalupe
- The Christian/Pagan Syncretism in Post Conquest Latin America
Many Christian gods and deities in the Latin American world today carry a dual identity because of the Christian/Pagan syncretism that took place post conquest.
- Pagan Deities: Our Lady of Guadalupe
- Why Belief over Evidence is Immoral: a Case Study
A brief overview of the beatification process of Juan Diego and why it is a blatant attempt to perpetuate a lie.