The year is 1531.
It is not quite dawn and the hills outside Mexico City are still shrouded in darkness, the sky lightening where the stars are disappearing in the east. A Native man, dressed in the simple cactus-fiber tunic that the peasants here wear, is making his way to Mass on this Saturday morning.
It is December, and the air is crisp with cold. The man, a recent convert to Roman Catholicism, stops as he hears voices. He looks up to Mount Tepeyac, from where it appears the sound of singing, like that of precious birds, is coming. From the summit of the hill, he hears a voice. “Dignified Juan,” the voice says, calling him by name. “Dignified Juan Diego.”
Juan begins up the hill uncertainly. Up ahead, he sees a lady, standing and beckoning him to come forward. She is beautiful and glows with a radiant light. This most amazing light illumines the rocks and shrubs surrounding her. She speaks, saying, “I am the entirely and ever Virgin, Saint Mary.”
She goes on to tell Juan Diego that she wants a shrine, a hermitage, a shelter built in her honor, here on Mount Tepeyac. And that she wants Juan to go to the palace of the bishop in Mexico City with this request.
Taking his leave of her, Juan Diego goes straight into the city to the palace of the bishop. The bishop, of course, is a ruling-class Spaniard, and this is the imperial city of Tenochtilan, and Juan is, of course, a peasant and an Indian. The bishop’s attendants leave him waiting for a long time, and when the bishop finally speaks to Juan, in passing, he dismisses his vision.
Returning, Juan finds the heavenly lady waiting for him in the same place he had encountered her earlier. Juan tells her what has happened, how he was kept waiting, and how the bishop dismissed him without even hearing his story. Juan begs the Virgin to send somebody nobler, better known, somebody respected and esteemed. “No one will believe me, my Lady and my Queen. I am nothing but a campesino.” The Virgin rejects these protestations, insisting that he is the one to make her message known to the official church.
Again, Juan heads into the city, and again is put off from seeing the bishop, and again is admitted reluctantly. This time, the bishop tells Juan that he must provide some proof that this vision he says he keeps having is actually the Virgin Mary herself.
The next day, Juan hastens to the bedside of his uncle who is dying of a pestilence. His uncle begs Juan to fetch a priest to give him last rites before he dies. Juan hurries off into the crisp December dawn. He needs to take the path upon which the Virgin Mary has appeared to him, but, because his last interview with the bishop didn’t go so well, he wants to avoid her, so he goes another way. Despite his attempt, the Heavenly Lady again appears before him glowing with preternatural light, surrounded by the sound of birds.
“Where are you going?” she asks. Juan confesses that he needs to get the priest before his uncle dies. She tells him that his uncle is well, that he has been healed. She tells Juan to go back to see for himself that his uncle is well, and that when Juan returns, she will provide proof of her identity for the skeptical bishop.
On December 12, 1531, the Virgin Mary appears again to Juan Diego on top of Tepeyac hill. Flowers, rich, fragrant roses from Castile in full bloom, surround her though this is neither the place nor the season for such flowers. It is the desert in winter in Mesoamerica.
“Collect these flowers,” she tells Juan. “They will be your proof to the bishop so that he will believe it is I who am requesting a shrine be built for me upon this hill.” With the flowers gathered up into his simple tunic, Juan heads for the bishop’s palace. This time, the attendants are astounded that the poor Indian who doesn’t seem to know when to go away is back, and back with what seems to be miraculous flowers. Juan is ushered into the bishop’s presence right away. Juan unwraps his tunic, and the fragrant, out-of-season, Castilian flowers tumble out triumphantly at the bishop’s feet.
And there, on the fabric of the poor Indian’s tunic, is an image. It is an image of the Ever Virgin Holy Mary Mother of God.
You can see this image today, at the basilica in Mexico City dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe. The bishop, it seems, heard and believed, and built a shelter dedicated to her on that hill. The image in the basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe is the original cloth, though about a hundred years after these events, somebody has touched it up to make it look a little more like the European representations of the Virgin Mary. They added stars and a crown and a crescent moon beneath her feet and a halo around her entire body. It is, of course, possible that the entire image was painted on and there are many who claim this is the case, a seventeenth century fiction fabricated (so to speak) within a discourse that pitted Native piety against Church hierarchy.
Her mantel drapes her head and falls about her shoulder and arms. Her hands are clasped before her. She is not carrying a baby. She is serene. And all around her, the spiky body halo. The most remarkable feature of this now ubiquitous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is the fact that she is brown-skinned. She is widely known in Mexico as la virgen morena, the dark-skinned virgin. She looks more like an aboriginal princess than a European lady. The very name Guadalupe, in fact, is probably a reference to the statue of the Virgin Mary in northern Spain by that name. That statue is carved out of a very dark wood, giving the impression of a dark-skinned Goddess more than the pale images of Mary current in European art. Many of the Spanish troops stationed at Tepeyac were from this region of Spain and may have identified the Mexican virgin with the one in Spain.
I was first introduced to the Virgin of Guadalupe soon after her feast day many years ago, when I found myself in Trinity Church in Boston, hearing about a pilgrimage somebody had made in her honor. When I visited Santa Fe, New Mexico a few weeks later, I discovered such pilgrimages were common there, with pilgrims not only going to the basilica in Mexico, but to various sacred places in the state. Sante Fe is the home of the first church dedicated to her in the United States.
The more I learned her story and saw her image, the more fascinated I became by this figure, and by the meanings that resonate out from around her like the glow of her halo. I became intrigued with what seemed to me a rich, archetypal symbol of the divine feminine and an incarnation of liberationist, post-colonial wisdom.
The fact that this is the story of a Native, an Aztec who converted to Catholicism first caught my attention. My ear is always inclined toward colonized peoples and the stories we tell through our art and religious expression. It is the story of an indigenous person whom the divine visits, and whose narration of this visitation is disbelieved by the colonial powers that be.
Who is authorized to narrate stories of the miraculous, of the divine? By what authority does a Native talk back to the power that subjugate his people, take his land, that erase his language, religion, and existence? What empowers the poor and disenfranchised to talk back to the ruling class?
“Send somebody else,” Juan Diego says. “Send a nobleman, a Spaniard, somebody educated and literate. Not me.” But the Heavenly Lady insists it must be him, and it is the bishop, representing imperial Spain, that must be converted to this poor indigenous person’s simple message to honor her wishes.
Also of note is the fact that the mountain on which Our Lady of Guadalupe is asking to be honored happens to have been the mountain that was sacred to the Aztec goddess Tonantzin. The memory of the Goddess, officially erased by the church, asserts itself. Like a flashback through the clouds of amnesia, the Goddess remains alive. The Franciscans whose missionary activities accompanied Spain’s colonization translated the Virgin Mary into the local dialect as Tonantzin, meaning “our precious mother,” though this word was also the name of the erstwhile Aztec goddess.
Her extinction is resisted by subterfuge; she lives on inscribed within the image of the European Christian Mary. The memory of Tonantzin persists in an act of resistance, in opposition to the disappearance of Native culture and religion.
What also interested me were the uses Our Lady of Guadalupe has had by the First Nations of Mesoamerica. In the 1500s, there were several Native and mestizo uprisings against Spanish rule that took on Guadalupe as their patron. The Mexican patriot Hidalgo, leading bands of mestizo and Native rebels, carried a banner depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe into battle in the 1880s, as did Emiliano Zapata in 1914. The republic’s first president, Guadalupe Victoria took his patroness’s name after she helped him, he believes, win a decisive battle. In the 1960s and 70s, the Mexican-American labor activist Cesar Chavez marched under a banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe as he agitated for the rights of migrant farm workers.
Guadalupe is an oppositional symbol, a sign of resistance to the powers that be. She is referred to often as the Madonna of the Barrios, the protector of the poor. She is the compassionate mother, and also the defiant Mary who proclaimed the Magnificat:
“[God] has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
Colonized people respond in many ways to our colonizers. One way is to adopt wholesale the imperial culture, to speak its language and learn its customs, to play its music, to practice its visual art and its religion. This was the so-called “civilizing mission” of the Spanish, along with of course the French and the British. As their empires spanned the globe, these imperial cultures thought of themselves as bringing civilization to the savages. At the same time, they didn’t really believe that the indigenous peoples of the continents they conquered were actually capable of becoming civilized. So the colonized person who adopts wholesale the culture of the colonizer is never really admitted into the circle of civilization despite his or her best efforts.
Another response is for the colonized to reject the colonial culture entirely, to assert our own, aboriginal culture and identity. This is the way of nationalists and separatists, who insist on preserving and promoting the traditional ways of the people. Traditions of language and art and religion are maintained with a sense of pride and self-worth.
One other response might be what we see in the figure of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Aspects of the colonial culture are adopted, but not wholesale. They are invested with meanings the colonizers did not intend, oppositional meanings that, like Juan Diego, talk back to the powers that be. The indigenous cultures are not wiped out wholesale, not silenced definitively, but rather remain present and in constant dialogue with imperial power.
Colonized people do not passively accept domination, even as the unequal power relations strip away all means of cultural production and self-determination. Liberatory, transgressive, and self-affirming messages from the dominating culture are highlighted and drawn upon. An evolving, hybrid culture emerges that is a vehicle for the self-expression of the colonized using the narratives and images imposed by the colonizer. Juan Diego is the prototype of the Indian who is a Christian but not a traitor. Juan Diego is a convert who does not abandon the traditions of his ancestors.
The Virgin of Guadalupe is mestiza, a mixture of Spanish and Native American. I myself am a mix of cultures and national identities. I am drawn to her. She gathers in all of us caught between worlds, between languages and cultures and religions, between the worlds of home and foreign land, of belonging and exile.
I see myself in the story of Juan Diego and the Virgin of Guadalupe. More often than not, I am the bishop, the skeptic. I don’t believe in miracles. And if you say you have experienced something miraculous, I want proof.
But I see myself in Juan Diego, too. Caught between cultures, wanting to move into new territory religiously without abandoning the old altogether, finding a voice to talk back to the powers that be, a bearer of dangerous memories–like him, remembering the Goddess on the hill and using the language and piety of the changed circumstances his people found themselves in.
In the collage of our soul’s world, we rearrange the pieces we are given, creating our own works of art and beauty. I had once dismissed the Virgin Mary as a useful potential archetype of the divine feminine, hopelessly trapped up there on her sexist pedestal, meek and submissive, lauded only for who her son turned out to be–until I met Guadalupe.
Guadalupe is for me the figure of America, the Americas–not European, but not Native or African either, but rather mestizo, creole, an emblem of the hybridity and mixed cultures that is both my own heritage and the fraught heritage of the encounter of Spanish, French, English, African and First Nations peoples. Guadalupe is the figure of my own queer spirit, my own immigrant, cross-bred soul–and can be, I think, for any of us who grew up strange and queer to our own families, who adopted the ways of this country to our parents’ chagrin, who are nostalgic for a homeland we have never seen, who have crossed oceans of loneliness to make our own way in an unfriendly land, who are émigrés from devastated places that no longer exist, who are unrelated by blood to those closest to us, who long for companions to speak to us in a mother tongue we have forgotten. For all of us lost, forgotten, and abandoned, she comes.
Without knowing what I needed until I met her, I am devoted to her now. She represents the creating, subversive power within and the creative subversions of post-colonial peoples. She is the invitation to speak, to narrate, to tell, to talk back. She is an emblem of the long march toward justice and inclusion in which I walk.
The voice that calls will not choose somebody else. It is we who must do this work, to use what is found to forge a religion of the present and future–we who have been unauthorized and demonized, silenced and sidelined.
And so I invite you to a place in the twilight of dawn, where the imagination, the soul, is awakened. Into this numinous space we come, this place of potential for creating religious culture that is a vehicle for our self-expression, for our becoming, that can re-imagine the past in order to create a future that includes all of our hybrid, complicated, contradictory selves.