According to the Catholic Church, Our Lady of Guadalupe. or the Brown Virgin, as she is also known, appeared to indigenous villager Juan Diego on the morning of Dec. 9, 1531, at Tepeyac Hill, just outside Mexico City. The woman spoke to Juan Diego in his native Nahuatl language, instructing him to tell the local church leaders to build a church at that site in her name.
The indian Juan Diego recounted the events to the Archbishop of Mexico City, Fray Juan de Zumárraga, who initially did not believe one word the simple man was saying, and asked him to bring back a sign that would confirm the lady’s identity as the Mother of Jesus.
On Dec. 12, the Virgin appeared before him again, and had him gather Castilian roses from the top of the Tepeyac Hill. However, the flowers were not native to Mexico and do not bloom in December. The Virgin touched and arranged the flowers in Juan Diego’s “tilma”, or cloak.
Juan Diego ran back to the church, opened his cloak and when the flowers fell to the floor, the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe was imprinted on Juan Diego’s tilma.
During the traditional early-morning celebration, parishioners bring flowers to lay at the altar, and children dress as indigenous Mexicans to honor Juan Diego.
The image of the brown-skinned “Virgencita” standing on a crescent moon, head covered in the familiar blue-green cloak framed by golden rays, has become iconic and in many ways ingrained in the Latin and especially Mexican culture.
In the late 1570s, the Franciscan missionary and historian Fray Bernardino de Sahagún denounced the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe in a personal digression in his General History of the Things of New Spain, in the version known as the Florentine Codex.
At this place [Tepeyac], [the Indians] had a temple dedicated to the mother of the gods, whom they called Tonantzin, which means Our Mother. There they performed many sacrifices in honor of this goddess… And now that a church of Our Lady of Guadalupe is built there, they also call her Tonantzin, being motivated by the preachers who called Our Lady, the Mother of God, Tonantzin. It is not known for certain where the beginning of this Tonantzin may have originated, but this we know for certain, that, from its first usage, the word means that ancient Tonantzin. And it is something tha should be remedied, for the correct [native] name of the Mother of God, Holy Mary, is not Tonantzin, but Dios inantzin. It appears to be a Satanic invention to cloak idolatry under the confusion of this name, Tonantzin.
Sahagún’s criticism of the cult seems to have stemmed primarily from what he considered to be a syncretistic application of the native name Tonantzin to the Virgin Mary.
The image on the tilma has become Mexico’s most popular religious and cultural symbol, and has received widespread ecclesiastical and popular support. In the 19th century it became the rallying call of American-born Spaniards in New Spain, who saw the story of the apparition as legitimizing their own Mexican origin and infusing it with an almost messianic sense of mission and identity – thus also legitimizing their armed rebellion against Spain.
Don Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, the Catholic priest who initiated the armed rebellion against Spain on September 1810, and who is considered to be the “Father” of the Mexican Independence, used a flag with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe to ignite the people’s rage against the oppressors, since it was the only graphic symbol he could find that identified the whole Mexican Nation (indigenous and mestizos) back then.
Hispanic people have a very deep devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe, and she is so important to the Roman Catholic Church Structure, that Pope John Paul II designated her as the patroness of the Americas, (not just Latin America, but the Americas).
While many argue that the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe was actually just a way to convert thousands of indigenous people into the Catholic faith during the XVI Century, most Mexicans and Latin Americans see it as a symbolic legend, that highlights the fact that marginalized people also have value and virtue.
If you ask any Mexican, they will tell you that Our Lady of Guadalupe is the protector of the humble and the weak, that the “Guadalupana” (as she is also known), didn’t go to the church leaders to get her church built, instead she approached the poor, she looks like a Mexican and chose a simple country man to be the carrier of her message of love.
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