December 12 is the Feast Day for Mexico’s beloved Virgin of Guadalupe. The devoted make pilgrimage to her shrine in the Mexico City basilica named in her honor. Many arrive crawling on their knees in supplication. She is honored and revered. Her image appears on every form of religious and commercial iconography you can imagine, from altars and pendants, to tote bags and dish towels. Here in Mexico, I might say she is more popular than God and Frida Kahlo.
She is officially known as Our Lady of Guadalupe. In the common vernacular she is also called The Patron Saint of Mexico.
What motivates me to write about the Virgin of Guadalupe today? It is Sunday in North Carolina, where I now sit after completing two intense medical procedures upon my arrival (completely cleared of any issues, BTW). I am not Catholic, nor am I a woman of extreme faith. I have my beliefs and was raised in the tradition of question asking and skepticism. I am not an expert in social, cultural or religious history of Mexico by any stretch of the imagination. However, I am a keen observer and appreciate analysis. At university, I majored in history and political science. I have always been curious about revisionism, myth and how storytelling can be interpreted as fact. I also like to hear others’ points of view. This is how we learn and respect differences.
So, who is the Virgin of Guadalupe? She is Our Lady of Guadalupe. In the common vernacular she is also called the Queen of Mexico and the Patron Saint of Mexico. That’s where I got in trouble: I called her a saint in my blog post about the opening of the Virgin of Guadalupe textile exhibition at the Museo Estatal del Arte Popular in San Bartolo Coyotepec.
First, my friend Rebecca wrote to set me straight: Catholics would put her [the Virgin of Guadalupe] above the saints and wouldn’t refer to her as a saint. They might call her Our Lady, The Blessed Virgin, etc.
I replied that Wikipedia and Huffington Post call her the Patron Saint of Mexico, after I went back to verify my facts.
Rebecca came back with: I think the Huff Post is inaccurate. They just didn’t have a word and “patron saint” sounds reasonable. No one would say Jesus is the patron saint of anything. No one ever refers to her as Saint Mary. Jesus, Mary, The Holy Ghost (Spirit), and God the Father are in their own category. I don’t know how things translate in Spanish. I know Our Lady of Guadalupe is beloved. But again Our Lady is not saint.
On Monday, December 10, 2018, I posted on Facebook asking the question: Is the Virgin of Guadalupe a saint?
Hector replied, yes, she is a saint and included in the Catholic Church’s Martirologium Romanum: a list of the people considered to actually be in the presence of God. She is actually considered to be ascended to heaven in her physical human form: Guadalupe is an “advocacy” a kind of suit or custom in which Mary is considered to be willing to present herself to some culture.
Helen reminded us that the Virgin is Tonantzin, the Aztec Mother Goddess.
I reminded myself that syncretism — the blending of indigenous and Spanish conquest religious, social and cultural practices is how acceptance of the new religion — Catholicism became embedded in the New World.
Hector wrote back saying: Guadalupe (cave of wolves in Latin) was an advocacy of Mary meant to be used in the Christianization of Moorish people in Spain (that is the origin of her dark skin)… and it was also used in Mexico where it blended with the local Mother Earth Tonantzin.
Cristina noted: There is a saying in Mexico: “No todos somos católicos, pero todos somos Guadalupanos.” (We are not all Catholics, but we all believe in Our Lady of Guadalupe.)
Then, my long-ago friend Evangeline added this link from Skeptoid: The Virgin of Guadalupe. This was a history version well-worth reading, since the article postulates that it was Cortes the Conqueror who brought Guadalupe to Mexico from Extramadura, his home region in Spain, to use in the evangelization of the Indios. Seems there was a Guadalupe Shrine there, too. Perhaps the image was repurposed and adapted to a new location, and the accompanying Juan Diego (he is a saint) Virgin Mary sighting told to make conversion more appealing.
You can read the Skeptoid article if you want to know more.
Nevertheless, what is most important, I think, is that the Virgin of Guadalupe has taken on ecumenical proportions as a powerful female figure around the world. Not only is she the most revered in Mesoamerica, she represents woman as Mother Earth, Goddess, strength and perseverance, and yes, of freedom. But, she has evolved.
This paper: The Virgin of Guadalupe: Symbol of Conquest or Liberation, offers an important explanation of the politics of conquest and conversion, race and classism, and how the Virgin of Guadalupe was used to turn a recalcitrant indigenous population from paganism to the new religion. This gives us context and understanding for her popularity. Eventually, later paintings of her included the angel being draped by the Mexican flag, giving legitimacy to nationhood.
Needless to say, the Virgin of Guadalupe is embedded into the popular culture of Mexico. Perhaps it doesn’t matter who she is or what she is called: Virgin Mary, Tonantzin, an amalgam of both. Perhaps she is no longer a unique religious symbol, but an icon of the divine feminine in each of us.