Sometime in 1531 a young indigenous Mexica named Cuauhtlatoatzin converted to Catholicism and was given a new Spanish name: Juan Diego. He was one of very few early indigenous converts following the Spanish conquest of Mexico 10 years earlier.

“The indigenous people would not accept the ideology of the Europeans, whether religious, government, education or style of life; they did not accept it,” said Ernesto Vega, the Hispanic ministry coordinator of adult faith formation for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He has studied Our Lady of Guadalupe for 25 years.

The Spanish conquerors disrespected indigenous culture, destroying temples, raping, killing and taking the land, explained Vega.

“The last thing they would want to do is convert to a religion brought by these people,” he said. “The indigenous people respected the wisdom of their elders and could not betray that wisdom.” The Spanish disrespect for that wisdom and culture created a divided society.

When Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego on Tepayac Hill outside of Mexico City in December of 1531, the miraculous image she left imprinted on his cactus fiber tilma changed the Americas forever.

“There were two groups with different mentalities, two civilizations that hated each other and did not have common ground to reconcile,” said Vega. “Then this image appeared like a book for the indigenous people, a pictographic image of the message of the Gospel of Christ. She presents herself as the mother of God, and the mother of all humanity.

“She is the mother of the Earth,” he continued, “the mother of the one who made heaven and earth, the mother of the one who made all people.”

The indigenous saw in her symbology an affirmation of their culture, not a condemnation, said Vega. Perhaps most significant was that she appeared with the face of a mestizo.

“The image says I am European, I am indigenous and I am a mestizo. I am Jewish, I am Muslim, I am black. Her face is mestizo, meaning she is a combination of all the genes,” he said.

The mixed-race mestizos were rejected and abandoned by both the Europeans and indigenous. “She appeared with the face of a mestizo saying, ‘I am aligning myself with the ones who are suffering the most right now,’” said Vega.

She appears as a synthesis between both cultures. “She says ‘I’m here, your beloved mother, to listen and hear all the troubles, difficulties and pains that you might be going through and I will be responding to all those dwellers of these lands, for all the tribes, all the peoples to trust and come to me,’” he said. “She shows the best of both civilizations, saying, ‘Please come together as brothers and sisters because I am your mother.’

“She arrived in Mexico City to bring this message,” Vega added, “but she also clearly says ‘I am coming here so that I can show the one who is all my happiness, all my joy,’ meaning Jesus Christ.”

Her womb, which held Christ, is the center of the image and conveys the message that the center of our lives should be love, harmony and respect toward each other, noted Vega. “The way of expressing faith according to the culture is different, but we need to respect that, and that does not contradict the teaching of the Church. The most important thing is to deliver the message of Christ according to the culture where I am sent,” he said.

In the two years following the apparition an astonishing 8 million indigenous converted to Catholicism. They shared the news and people came from all over “like in pilgrimage. We have books from the 16th century that the Europeans got scared of how many indigenous would come to see the image of Our Lady and request to be baptized,” Vega said. They came from all over Mexico and Central America, not only from one tribe, but from hundreds of tribes. 

Today, the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe is one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in the world, with millions of visitors every year. People still respond to her from across the Americas.

“You go to El Salvador you find her image. You go to Guatemala you find people doing pilgrimages,” said Vega. “You find it all over Mexico. She is loved all over the Americas and therefore she won the titles of Patroness of the Americas and Queen of Mexico. For me, more than our queen, she is our mother,” he added.

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Highlights

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