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The Aztec and the Miracle
Article first published in Vol. 10, 1992.
By Gabriela Monreal
Two months ago Catholic faithful on the border lined up to view what many consider the latest appearance of Our Lady de Guadalupe -- this time on cloth blinds covering a glass door at a home in Las Cruces. Visitors from Mexico and all over the United States converged on the neighborhood for a look of the changing image, sometimes holding a baby, sometimes with hands in prayer or uplifted.
Flowers for Our Lady of Guadalupe at San Lorenzo Church in Juárez, Mexico. Photo by Mary Hinojos.
Although priest and other officials discouraged people from converging at the home, many Catholics are convinced the appearance of the Virgin is real indeed. After all, it isn't the first time she has appeared to an ordinary person.
She appeared the first time 460 years ago to Juan Diego, an Aztec Indian who had converted to Christianity. He was on his way to mass, but when he heard the strains of beautiful music, he stopped at the top of the hill in Tepeyac, site of the shrine to the Aztec goodness of Earth and Corn. The Aztecan deity was known as Tonanzin and was represented as a virgin and mother.
Then a voice called to him as a mother would call her son. Presenting herself to him as "Holy Mary, Ever Virgin Mother of the True God," she asked that he communicate to the bishop that she wished a temple built in the valley below.
Juan Diego did she asked, but the Spanish bishop did not act as if he truly believed this simple native. When Juan returned to the same hill and related the bishop's doubt, she repeated her request. And on the next day when Juan Diego again told the bishop of her appearance and request, the bishop asked that Juan Diego bring him a sign of the Lady's presence. Juan Diego dutifully relayed the bishop's response to the Virgin, and she asked him to return the next day for his proof.
However, the entire following day Juan Diego had to take care of his dying uncle. Instead of going back to the hilltop in Tepeyac, Juan Diego sought a priest to administer the last rites to his uncle but was approached once again by the Virgin. When he explained his delay, Holy Mary said his uncle would no longer need the priest, for he was cured. She told Juan Diego to go to the top of the hill and gather the flowers growing there. When Juan reached the summit of the hill, he found hundreds of roses blooming, yet frost covered the winter ground. "Take them," she said. "Take them and show them to the bishop as a sign of my presence."
Once in front of the bishop, Juan Diego opened his simple cloak, or tilma, and roses tumbled to the floor. But all present saw one more miracle: the image of the Lady on the hill was forever manifested on his cloak.
The Spaniards, finally convinced of the miracles, called her Our Lady of Guadalupe, perhaps a misunderstanding of the Aztec name Tequatlaxopeuh, pronounced similarly. There were no "g's" or "d's" in Juan Diego's native language, Nahuatl, and the Spanish may have thought of the site of another shrine to the Virgin in Spain.
According to her wishes, an adobe shrine was completed by Christmas that year, and a more permanent cathedral was constructed to house the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Juan Diego's tilma. In the 400 years since that time several cathedrals have been constructed to hold the sign of her presence, the most recent being completed 11 years ago, the new Basilica of Guadalupe in northern Mexico City.
The image on the 460-year-old cloak on display in the Basilica is that of an Indian maiden, with a darker face than other images of the Virgin Mary which have appeared throughout the world. Philosophers have reasoned that her appearance was an announcement of an emerging civilization, that of the Mexican people. Her presence in 1531 heralded the emergence of Christianity in the New World. At the time of her apparition there were no boundaries, which differentiated the United States and Mexico. The entire area was the New World.
Throughout the Americas, Catholics celebrate the appearance of the Virgin on December 12, with ceremonies in some places beginning the preceding two or three days.
The first devotions to the Virgin of Guadalupe came to the border through the founding of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe Mission from 1657 to 1659 in what is now Juárez. These missions attracted many Indians in the region, including those Pueblos displaced after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. When their descendants moved further north into what is now El Paso and Las Cruces, they bought their customs honoring the Virgin with them.
For hundreds of years, the Matachines, a group of Indian dancers, dedicating themselves to the Virgin the Guadalupe, have danced on December 12 to honor their patroness.
Twelve dancers dress in bright colors, wear tall headdresses and cover their faces with handkerchiefs. They dance with rattles in hand and bells on their ankles to the beat of a drum and the music of a fiddle. Their leader, El Monarca, directs the group. Six to eight young girls wear white dresses and alternate playing the part of La Malinche (a figure representing innocence). El Polverero (Powder Man) signals the end of each song with a shot from his gun. Two others characters, El Toro (The Bull) and El Abuelo (the Grandfather), act as clown. A special sequence of 12 dances make up the ritual either inside or outside the church.
The celebrations in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe thus still reflect the combination of Indian and Spanish custom, as do so many border traditions.
Residents of this area, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, cannot help but be aware of the image of Guadalupe, for in addition to beautiful statues in churches, she is found on huge murals on downtown buildings, on flags at charreadas and parades, in outdoor and indoor shrines and altars at private residences, in folk art, on jewelry and on other objects, She is one of the most dominant religious images in our area, To believers it is no surprise that she appears periodically to the faithful who hold her in reverence.