Mexicans will tell you that they are 90 percent Catholic but 100 percent Guadalupan. While the numbers aren't entirely accurate anymore, it is definitely the case that the Virgin of Guadalupe has been a constituent part of Mexican national identity, reflected in the fact that millions of both women and men are named Guadalupe, many going by the nickname "Lupe," such as my former colleague at the University of Houston, Dr. Guadalupe San Miguel, Professor of Mexican-American history. As a specialist in Latin American religion, I've always been fascinated by the most important advocation of the Virgin Mary both in terms of territorial coverage and number of devotees.
The Virgin purportedly appeared to an Aztec peasant, Juan Diego, for the first time on a hill called Tepeyac on December 9, 1531, and told the Christian convert, in his native language of Nahautl, that she wanted a church built in her honor on the site of her apparition. Juan Diego sought out the archbishop of Mexico City to share news of the miraculous apparition but was met with skepticism. The brown-skinned Virgin appeared to the Aztec peasant a second time in which Juan Diego recounted what she already knew, that he’d been rebuked by the archbishop. Determined to have her church built and named Guadalupe, the Virgin instructed the middle-aged Aztec to ty again with the top prelate in Mexico.
The dubious bishop asked for a sign of the Marian apparition at Tepeyac. During her third apparition, Guadalupe told Juan Diego to gather some Spanish roses that had miraculously bloomed in his “tilma,” or cactus-fiber cloak. The determined convert returned to the bishop and unfurled his tilma revealing not only the unseasonable roses but a miraculous image of the Virgin imprinted on the cloak, which can be seen today at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.
La Virgen Morena (the Brown Virgin) is not only patroness of Mexico but also Empress of the Americas, from Chile to Canada. While other manifestations of Mary claim at most a region or country, Guadalupe is the only one to reign over two continents. And if that's not enough, for a brief period in the mid-twentieth century she was also declared patroness of the Philippines, home to the world's third largest Catholic population. Before Mexican folk saint, Santa Muerte, caught my scholarly attention in 2009, I had conducted two years of research on the Mestiza Virgin for a book project that was put on hold. On the eve of her feast day, December 12, I thought I'd share ten fascinating facts about the Virgin who led Mexicans to independence from Spain.
1. Many Mexicans aren't aware that the original Guadalupe is from Extremadura, Spain. In fact, Christopher Columbus was a devotee and even named the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe in her honor, after she purportedly saved his fleet from a storm at sea. The Spanish Guadalupe is one of several Black European virgins, so in her Mexican incarnation she actually became lighter complected as the Virgen Morena.
2. Prior to Guadalupe's alleged appearance to the Indigenous peasant, Saint Juan Diego, in 1531, Aztec goddess Tonantzin had been worshipped for decades at the very same site, Tepeyac, which is now home to the Basilica in Mexico City. Tonantzin means "Our Mother" in the Aztec language of Nahautl, so some skeptics contend that the Spanish colonial Church concocted the story of Guadalupe appearing to Juan Diego as a way to convert his fellow Aztecs and other indigenous groups to Christianity.
3. Despite his canonization in 2002, there is no hard historical evidence that Saint Juan Diego ever really existed. In fact at the time of the controversial canonization process the abbot of the Basilica, Guillermo Schulenberg, resigned in 1996 claiming that Juan Diego had never existed and "is only a symbol." The Aztec peasant was canonized, nonetheless, as part of a Vatican strategy to retain indigenous Catholics in Mexico and across Latin America who have been defecting in droves to Protestantism, especially Pentecostalism.
4. Art historians studying depictions of the Patroness of Mexico over the centuries have discovered that over time her skin color has become progressively darker, going from a lighter to a darker shade of brown. Studies on her historical development, such as Our Lady of Guadalupe by historian Stafford Poole, demonstrate that contrary to legend, it was Mexican creoles (people of Spanish descent born in Mexico), and not indigenous converts, who were the first devotees of Guadalupe and the primary propagators of her cult. Artistic renditions of Guadalupe became noticeably darker complected on the heels of the Mexican Revolution (1910-20), which led to the exaltation of the mixed-race mestizo as the new model of Mexicanness.
5. While devotion to her grew during the Spanish colonial era, it was independence from Spain, declared in 1810, that really transformed her into the national patroness that she is today. Independence leader Father Miguel Hidalgo launched the campaign for independence with the battle cry "Death to the Spaniards and long live the Virgin of Guadalupe!" The image of the Mexican Virgin emblazoned on flags, banners and peasant sombreros became the insignia of the armed rebellion against Spanish rule. Spanish troops, on the other hand, were led by the Virgin of Remedies, who was the preeminent advocation of Mary in Mexico until eclipsed by Guadalupe.
6. Besides her darkening complexion, La Morena remained relatively unchanged in artistic renditions until as recently as the 1980s. And the first artists to experiment with novel depictions of the Empress of the Americas were Mexican-Americans who didn't feel as culturally and religiously constrained as their Mexican counterparts in exploring new ways of representing her utilizing all kinds of media. A bare-breasted Guadalupe created by artist Paz Winshtein was the object of considerable controversy when it was displayed at a gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 2014.
7. The etymology of her name is also the subject of considerable debate. Some linguists and historians point to Nahuatl origins while others, more convincingly, remind us that the name Guadalupe already existed in Spain, and thus we should look there for its etymological genesis. There is little doubt that the prefix "Guada" derives from the Arabic "wadi" or river valley. The jury, however, remains out on "lupe," which many assert comes from the Spanish "lobo" (lupus in Latin) or wolf.
8. Guadalupe was an integral part of the world's first great popular rebellion of the twentieth century, the Mexican Revolution (1910-20). Fighting under the slogan "land and liberty," revolutionary peasant leader Emiliano Zapata and his fighters carried the Mestiza Virgin on banners into battle against Mexican oligarchs. Some Zapatista guerrillas carried on the tradition during their uprising in 1994 in the southern state of Chiapas.
9. In 1929 the official photographer of the old Basilica claimed to have discovered the image of a bearded man in the right eye of the original image of Guadalupe. Two decades later another "expert" not only confirmed the presence of the original bearded man but also claimed to see it in both her eyes. Since then, the "secret of her eyes" has expanded to include images of an entire family supposedly visible in both of her pupils. For believers, the images are reflections of what Guadalupe saw when she appeared almost five centuries ago to Saint Juan Diego.
10. The tilma upon which the Virgin's image is imprinted is held to be miraculous by devotees. Some scientists claim an absence of brush strokes on the cloak while others report that the coloration contains no animal or mineral elements. Perhaps the most spectacular miracle, according to devotees, is the tilma emerging unscathed from a bomb blast. In 1921 an anti-clerical radical detonated twenty-nine sticks of dynamite in a pot of roses beneath the cloak. The blast destroyed a marble rail, twisted a metal crucifix and shattered windows throughout the old Basilica but the tilma itself was untouched.
11. In continuity with her robust presence in the Mexican body politic, Guadalupe now has a political party named for her. In 2012 populist presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (aka AMLO) founded the National Regeneration Movement, a political party on the left whose Spanish acronym, MORENA, recalls the Virgen Morena (the Brown Virgin).
12. To the dismay of the Church in Mexico, the image of Guadalupe has been fused with that of her religious rival, folk saint Santa Muerte. The hybrid image, known as GuadaMuerte, integrates elements of the two most popular female figures on the Mexican religious landscape and has also been rebuked by a number of Santa Muerte devotional leaders who are not keen on provoking the Church in a country that is still 81 percent Catholic.