Since ancestral times, people and cultures have developed myths, beliefs, legends and traditions that give them significance and identity through the years. It is said that the culture on this side of the planet is Western Judeo Christian, because many of the things that identify us derive from the ancient Greco-Roman culture as well as the Jewish traditions that gave rise to Christianity in the Middle East over 2,000 years ago.
Christianity spread across Europe and was adopted by Constantine and the Holy Roman Empire. It dominated the darkness of the Middle Ages, leading to other religions and arriving on this continent 500 years ago via conquest and colonization. This happened by force of sword and cross, and triumphed over and destroyed the pre-Columbian culture, its history and traditions. From this tremendous clash of civilizations that changed the world, along with the defeat of the conquered indigenous peoples, came new and mixed traditions, many of which endure today.
The most important religious fusion of these two worlds is the Miracle of Tepeyac in 1531, just 10 years after the conquest. The legend tells of three visions of the Virgin Mary that appeared to the native Juan Diego on the hill of Teyepac and commanded that he go to the Bishop Zumárraga and tell him to build a shrine to the Virgin there. Juan Diego’s request was ignored, but he persisted and the Bishop demanded proof of his vision. On December 12 the vision of the Virgin appeared for a third time, surrounded by sparkles, and asked Juan Diego to gather roses—which did not grow at that time of year—and take them to the Bishop. On arrival, Juan Diego showed the Bishop his poncho full of roses, and, imprinted on his cloak as further proof of the miracle, the image of the Virgin, who is venerated today with fervor in the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City.
Never mind that history indicates that it was almost a century after these events that we find a written record of it (in Náhautl), or that we don’t know why the Virgin was called Guadalupe, which is an Arabic word used for another Virgin who was venerated in Extremadura, Spain, and to whom Hernán Cortés was deeply devoted, or that there is no historical proof of the existence of Juan Diego, whom Pope Juan Pablo II canonized on the fast track. No good Catholic doubts the authenticity of the miracle and its protagonists, as did the Abbot of the Basilica at that time—a failure that cost him his job.
The true miracle, according to sociologists and others, is not that of Juan Diego, but of the popular religious and nationalistic fervor created by this image of “the Mother of all Mexicans,” and the number of pilgrims (6 to 8 million) who visit the shrine on December 12—a pilgrimage that easily surpasses that of Muslims who visit Mecca in Saudi Arabia, and does not include the millions who visit Teyepac during the rest of the year.
The story of this miraculous apparition helped to convert the recently conquered natives to Spanish Catholicism: they called Guadalupe “Tonantzin,” their Mother Goddess, who was worshiped at the same hill and whose shrine was destroyed by the conquistadors. This fusion, or syncretism, took place over time: the Indians pretended to believe the priests who worshiped Catholic icons when in reality they continued to venerate their old gods. The colonial facades and interiors of churches were filled with Indian symbols, where representations and images of saints, Christ and the Virgin existed on equal footing with those of indigenous deities. Today one can encounter Indian expressions and rites mixed with Catholic forms of worship.
These rites, traditions and customs are foreign to Catholicism but are tolerated by ecclesiastic authorities. Popular Mexican religion, and that of other countries, abounds with magical and superstitious expressions. Immigrants to this country arrive with many of the same beliefs, and their nostalgia deepens those beliefs, as their devotion increases with distance and the sense of losing their identity.
Catholic religion, with its Guadalupe influence, reinvents itself here and elsewhere among the “excluded,” including the poor, gang members, criminals and drug traffickers who adapt it to their circumstances and suffering. The protective and miraculous image of the redemptive Virgin is recreated in tattoos, medals, murals, stamps, pendants on bodies, walls, streets, vehicles, houses and in many other ways and places, covering the faithful with her holy mantle. Miraculous petitions or expressions of gratitude are part of the phenomenon and must be accompanied by a sacrifice to the Dark Lady of Tepeyac. Walking, cycling, running or even kneeling and crawling over great distances to the Basilica or other Guadalupe shrines are considered proper forms of humility, gratitude or solicitude, as are flagellation, fasting, abstaining or donning special clothing for some specified period.
The Twelfth of December is superior to any other Mexican celebratory day. No other pagan or religious celebration comes close. Those in this country who don’t understand this will not be able to understand the deep divide that already separates us culturally.
Victor Reyes is a Sonoma-based translator, language teacher and writer, and a native of Puebla, Mexico. The Spanish language version of this column is available at ptreyeslight.com.