As the patron saint of Mexico, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Queen of Mexico, empress and patroness of the Americas, has always served as a symbol of the interaction between the Old World and the New, especially in her reflection of the mixed-race origins of Mexico as a nation.
At the time of her initial appearance, only 10 years had passed since Hernán Cortés lay siege to the seat of the Aztec empire, Tenochtitlan, and the Church was in the throes of a debate regarding the pearsonhood of the indigenous peoples of “New Spain.” According to anthropologist Eric Wolf, Church officials and conquistadores were divided between two views.
One view held that the “Indian was incapable of conversion, thus inhuman, and therefore a fit subject of political and economic exploitation.” Another view held that “the Indian was human, capable of conversion and that this exploitation had to be tempered by the demands of the Catholic faith.” Within this debate, conversion was presented as an argument for the physical and spiritual rights of these indigenous peoples.
Amid this debate, King Charles V sent Fray Juan de Zumárraga, the priest who received news of the Virgin’s apparition from Juan Diego, to the New World to serve as bishop (and later archbishop) of New Spain. Fray Zumárraga was a proponent of the possibility for indigenous conversion, and in the words of historian Lewis Hanke, “The greatest contribution Zumárraga made to the Mexican culture was his belief that there could be such a culture.”
In 1537, six years after the apparitions, Pope Paul III issued a bull proclaiming Indians capable of receiving the faith, settling the issue of indigenous personhood once and for all.
In 1649, Luis Laso de la Vega, vicar of the chapel at Tepeyac, wrote a Nahuatl-language religious tract, which included an account of the events of the apparition in 1531. According to this account, the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego five times over the course of four days, between Dec. 9-12, 1531, on a hill in what is now Mexico City.
First apparition: In the early morning of Dec. 9, Juan Diego, an indigenous convert, was walking his usual route from home to the Franciscan mission station for religious instruction. The Virgin Mary appeared, revealing herself as the Mother of God, and charged Juan Diego with informing the bishop, Juan Zumárraga, of her wishes for a church to be built in her honor. Juan Diego faithfully delivered the request but was told by the bishop to return the next day.
Second apparition: Later on the 9th, Juan Diego reported the bishop’s words to Our Lady, and suggested that she find someone of a higher standing for the task. Our Lady insisted on Juan Diego. On Dec. 10, Juan Diego returned to the bishop, who asked for a sign of the apparition.
Third apparition: After meeting with the bishop a second time, Juan Diego reported immediately back to Our Lady. She told him a sign would be provided the next day, Dec. 11.
On Dec. 11, Juan Diego’s uncle, Juan Bernardino, fell deathly ill. Juan Diego was sent for a priest to give his uncle last rites. On his way, he took an alternate route to avoid Tepeyac Hill, the site of the apparitions.
Fourth apparition: Our Lady intercepted Juan Diego and asked why he had not appealed to her for help, stating, “Am I not here, I who am your mother?” These words were later engraved above the door of the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City, which was built in Our Lady’s honor. After chiding him, Our Lady assured Juan Diego of the restored health of his uncle, and sent him to pick flowers that were now growing on the hillside. Juan Diego dutifully gathered them up in his cloak and returned to the Blessed Mother. She rearranged the flowers and told him to present them to the bishop.
Upon opening his cloak, Juan Diego revealed two signs of the apparitions: Castilian roses, non-native to Mexico and picked from a site where normally only desert plants could grow and the image of Our Lady imprinted on his tilde (cloak). Bishop Zumárraga was convinced of the miracle and immediately venerated the image.
Fifth apparition: Juan Bernardino reported having been visited by Our Lady, who told him she wanted to be known as “Guadalupe.” He was miraculously cured. According to Rosario M. de Swanson, PhD, this miracle “refers us to multiple cures and resurrections performed by Christ and by the ancient prophets of the Old Testament, a power which had until then been reserved for the Church’s male saints.”
The image was initially kept in the bishop’s private chapel, then in public display at the church. A chapel was quickly built on Tepeyac, where the image was then housed. In 1555, Archbishop Alonso de Mont√∫far ordered the construction of the Basílica de Nuestra Se√±ora de Guadalupe, which now hosts millions of visitors annually.
Face: The Virgin who appeared to Juan Diego was brown-skinned and had indigenous features. She addressed Juan Diego in Nahuatl, his native language, and confided in him that her apparition was a symbol of her love for the native peoples of the New World.
Crescent Moon and Sun Rays: The status of the Blessed Virgin Mary as Queen of the Heavens is reflected by Our Lady’s positioning in front of the sun, while stepping on a crescent moon.
Stars: Various individuals have matched the stars on Our Lady’s cloak to the positions of the constellations during the time of the apparitions in 1531.
Flowers: The flowers on Our Lady’s dress are similar to Aztec representations of flowers that grew in Mexico City. Her blue-green mantle is the same color as precious jade and turquoise stones valued by the Aztecs, and she appeared to Juan Diego at the site of an Aztec temple to the mother goddess Tonantzin (“Mother Earth”). This imagery reflects the syncretism of the physical realities of the New World with the Christian religion of Spain.
De Swanson, R. M. (2002). Los Milagros de la Virgen de Guadalupe: Transicion at Nuevo/Nuevos Mundos. Hispania, 85(2), 228-239.
Hanke, L. (1949). The Contribution of Bishop Juan de Zumarraga to Mexican culture. [Special issue]. The Americas, 5(3), 275-282.
Wolf, E. R. (1958). The Virgin of Guadalupe: A Mexican national symbol. The Journal of American Folklore, 71(279), 34-39.