Mexico’s Love Affair with The Virgin

Mexico’s Love Affair with The Virgin

By Carol L. Bowman

Virgen Guadalupe


Mexico is the land of religious celebrations. For the past 500 years, few months have passed without a festival that honors a Catholic Saint or event as loud booms of cajotes explode into the sky to announce the celebration. But this year, 2020, Mexico’s sacred traditions have gone silent, the masses have worshipped in solitude, and depictions of their faith have faded into the air among the droplets of an unseen virus. Plazas, where throngs of the Church’s faithful used to gather, remain empty. Who among us could fathom Day of the Dead or the Passion Play reenactment canceled? No religious observation will be more sorely missed than December 12, the Day of Our Lady, the Virgin of Guadalupe.

To break this silence and fill this void, come with me to Mexico’s holiest shrine, the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, located in the Tepeyac Hill neighborhood in northern Mexico City to witness this country’s love affair with the Virgin. Let’s revisit December 12th, pre-Co-Vid-19.

Standing on the stone steps at the entrance to this magnificent plaza, called La Villa, I gazed at the throngs descending on this place. Some pushed strollers cradling precious children, others escorted elderly parents in wheelchairs; some struggled with disabilities, others moved easily through the crowd- all flooded up the avenue. Thousands of pilgrims including myself, prepared to spend this special day with the Virgin of Guadalupe. Stoic emotions painted their faces, as faithful souls came to pray to the Patroness of Mexico, their protectorate. For centuries, ‘She’ has been a comfort for Mexican Catholics, converts and even curious non-believers.

The fervor generated for this unusual image of the Virgin Mary surpassed any religious pilgrimage I had ever witnessed, even my visit to Fatima, Portugal on Easter Sunday. Tokens designed to enhance the spiritual interaction for each individual abounded. Women clutched wooden replicas of Our Lady of Guadalupe, men carried three-foot statuettes of the Virgin’s likeness, swathed in palm branches and surrounded with roses; children wore medallions of the Virgin hanging close to their hearts; teenagers held ‘trendy’ battery-operated blinking icons with the golden aura surrounding her image flashing in neon. Young and old proudly donned t-shirts that projected an artist’s interpretation. I felt naked, I came unadorned. I hadn’t anticipated this intense display of passion that resembled a political rally.

It is impossible to understand Mexico and its culture without comprehending the national devotion, veneration and eternal affection of its people for Our Lady of Guadalupe. As a permanent Mexican resident, but a life-long Protestant, even I sensed a connection to Mexico’s sacred Lady. You cannot live here and escape her pull. I felt compelled to travel to Mexico City to witness the largest and most spectacular commemoration of The Day of Our Lady, the Virgin of Guadalupe at the Basilica, even though observances take place in every town and village in the country.

The story has been repeated millions of times. On December 9, 1531, Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzen, an Aztec convert to Catholicism, witnessed an apparition that he believed to be the Virgin Mary in the hills surrounding Mexico City. The vision wore a blue-green mantle, the color reserved for an Aztec divine couple. Spokes of light that resembled maguey cactus spines the Aztec used to make pulque, radiated from her image. Her belt style represented a sign of pregnancy and her skin beamed an olive hue, like that of the native people. She spoke to Juan Diego in Nahuatl language.

She asked Juan Diego to report her revelation to the local Bishop and to request that a shrine in her honor be built on that spot. Archbishop Fray de Zumarraga required proof.  On December 12, the Virgin again appeared to Juan Diego. The date coincided with the Feast of Immaculate Conception, the most sacred and celebrated event in the holy calendar for Mexican Catholics.

Following ‘Her’ instructions to provide evidence of her vision, Juan cut a huge bouquet of Castilian roses he found growing in the hills. He filled his apron-like cloak (tilma) with these long stemmed beauties which were not native to Mexico and would never bloom in Mexico City’s winter climate and carried them to the Archbishop. When Juan unfurled his apron to lay the roses at the Father’s feet, the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, framed in gold was miraculously emblazoned in the agave threads of the cloak. The Archbishop authorized the immediate construction of a shrine at the site of the apparition and ordered that the Virgin’s image preserved on the tilma, be protected forever and hung in the shrine as a symbol of ‘Her” miracle. This image of the Virgin Mary, that physically resembled the indigenous and Mestizo cultures of Mexico, would finally bring meaning for the new converts to Catholicism. ‘She’ gave them something to believe in and that belief has intensified over almost 500 years.

Initially, Catholic Church officials questioned the wisdom of allowing the indigenous population to revere the painted image, but the Dominicans argued that the Aztecs’ veneration of the Virgin of Guadalupe provided a lure toward conversion. To them, ‘She’ became the first Mestizo, the first true Mexican who joined Old World Spain and New World reality.

I felt sandwiched among the faithful in the standing-room only crowd inside the New Basilica with a capacity of 50,000. I found myself shuffling on an electric people-mover, passing by that same image of the Virgin of Guadalupe that had appeared on Juan Diego’s cloak. The completely round Basilica provided a perfect view from any point in the building. Protected behind bullet-proof glass, the cloth had an enormous Mexican flag draped beneath the vibrant impression. I felt ‘doubt’ dissipate and ‘belief’ fill that void, as this powerful miracle evoked a feeling that this was a Shroud of Turin for the Americas.

The Old Basilica, Templo Expiatorio del Cristo Rey, under construction from 1531 until 1709, held the Virgin’s image until the newest shrine to house Juan Diego’s cloak was completed on October 12, 1976. The New Basilica, considered one of the architectural masterpieces of the world, was designed by Mexican architect, Pedro Ramirez Vasquez, who also built Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology. Several events over the years have served to cement the Mexican people’s faith in the Virgin. In 1921, a disgruntled parishioner set off a bomb inside the Old Basilica, causing significant damage to the altar, but the image of the Virgin remained unscathed. In 1791, after an accidental ammonia spill onto the tilma’s canvas, the image apparently repaired itself without external help.

On May 6, 1990, Pope John Paul ll beatified Juan Diego at a mass at the New Basilica. In 1999, he proclaimed the Virgin of Guadalupe to be the Patroness of the Americas and on July 31, 2002, before a crowd of 12 million in the plaza of La Villa, he canonized Juan Diego. ‘Her’ religious miracle was complete.

Carlos Fuentes, noted Mexican novelist said, “You cannot truly be considered Mexican unless you believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe.” I left the Basilica having witnessed that truth.


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