Thousands of Mexicans flocked to the Basilica de Guadalupe on December 12 for the annual homage to the Virgin of Guadalupe, who it is said appeared to the Aztec peasant Juan Diego as he walked the Hill of Tepeyac in what is now Mexico City back in 1531, two years after the Spaniards conquered Mexico.
Taking the form of a young, indigenous-looking young woman, the Virgin Mary was surrounded by light. She asked for a church to be built on the hill. Juan Diego told the bishop, but the bishop required more proof. She told him to gather flowers from a normally barren hillside into a cloak. The flowers magically appeared; Diego picked them, put them in the cloak and took the bundle to the bishop, the story goes, where he let it fall open. The flowers fell from the cloak and left behind an impression of the Virgin Mary.
The cloak is still on view today at the Basilica de Guadalupe in Mexico City. Pilgrims pour into the Basilica and surrounding plaza on this day bearing offerings of art, music, fireworks and flowers. The Virgin is celebrated Mexico-wide as well, and is the unofficial kickoff to the Christmas season.
This most indigenous of Catholic holidays marks a turning point in the conversion of the Indian population to Christianity in Mexico. As the Spanish Conquistadors pushed them to convert and they resisted, this indigenous Virgin sealed the deal and enabled the conversion of the Native population.
At the same time she’s a symbol of perseverance and female power not unlike that of Mother Earth. She defies Eurocentric symbolism and instead is a combination of European and Native American, as Friar Gilberto Cavazos-Gonzalez of the Catholic Theological Union put it to NPR.
“You know, she basically was the skin tone of the new children that were being born of Mexican women who had, unfortunately, been either violated or seduced by European men,” he said on NPR. “She has the skin tone of the unwanted children of the violent conquests of Mexico, symbolizing that these children are human. They are worthy of being children of God as well. Mexicans take pride in that, in that we are those children of the violent conquest who have been adopted by God.”
Moreover, he said, with her hands in prayer and her face lifted, she’s telling the Indian that she’s a servant of a god rather than a goddess herself. Yet she represents strength at the same time.
“Besides being a spiritual and religious symbol, she's also a symbol of ethnic pride. She's also a symbol of revolution against the oppressor,” Cavazos Gonzalez said. “Miguel Hildago, the father of Mexico, you know, grabs the standard or the banner of Guadalupe in order to begin the revolution against Spain. And as a result, she becomes the national and secular symbol as well.”