The History and Significance of the Virgin of Guadalupe
Our Lady of Guadalupe, better known as the Virgin of Guadalupe, is Mexico’s most important Catholic figure. Her importance has transcended borders and oceans, and she is considered miraculous and relatable in many ways.
Read this article to learn the history and cultural elements around her, as well as the religious background of this crucial Mexican apparition. Discover how the Virgin of Guadalupe changed the history, culture, and identity of Latin America forever.
Historical Facts and Oral Tradition of the Virgin of Guadalupe
Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe is considered to be the Mexican version of Virgin Mary. Her piel morena (brown skin) and black hair makes her relatable to people in Latin America. This indígena version of European virgins made the indiginous and natives embrace catolicismo.
She was canonized in 1895 and called by many names:
- the Patrona de América Latina (Patroness of Latin America) by Pius X
- Emperatriz de las Américas (Empress of the Americas) by Pius XII
- La Misionera Celeste del Nuevo Mundo (The Celestial Missionary of the World)
- La Madre de las Américas (The Mother of the Americas) by John XXIII
Marian Mexican Tale
According to the Vatican’s historical documents, the mother of Jesuscristo had four apariciones (apparitions) in 1531 in Mexico. This was 10 years after La Conquista, which is the name for the 300-year period after the Spanish conquered Mexico.
The Virgin of Guadalupe did not appear in front of an important Catholic leader but rather to poor, humble Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin. He was born a Chichimeca in the Texcoco kingdom, (present-day Cuautitlán) and was canonized as a saint in 2002. He told the church about the virgen but they were only convinced after witnessing a miracle from her.
The relato guadalupano (Guadalupan tale) of Nican Mopohua narrates that the Virgin of Guadalupe asked Juan Diego to go to Juan de Zumárraga to build her a temple. Zumárraga was skeptical of this apparition and requested evidencia (evidence).
After the fourth and last apparition on December 12th, Juan Diego brought to Zumárraga roses from the Tepeyac Hill in his tilma (mantle made of cotton fibers). When he delivered them to the obispo (bishop), an image of the Virgin was revealed on his clothes. After that, Juan Diego explained everything he had witnessed to Zumárraga, who then believed him.
That same tilma, often called manto sagrado (sacred mantle) is displayed today at the Basílica de Guadalupe in beautiful Ciudad de México (Mexico City). After almost 500 years the colors remain bright, and no one can explain why.
Political Importance of the Virgin of Guadalupe
The Virgin of Guadalupe was present at every step of Mexico’s making and inspired social movements that led to their Independencia (Independence) and Revolución (Revolution). She is the representation of nacionalismo (nationalism) and identidad (identity) and has always been close to Mexican heads of state.
Before the Independencia de México in 1821, a secret society made of insurgent liberals formed called Los Guadalupes. Their independent ideals contributed greatly to the independence of Nueva España (New Spain), which had as its main banner the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
The man famous for carrying it was Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, one of Mexico’s independence heroes. The banner said, “Long live religion, long live our most holy mother Guadalupe. Long live Ferdinand the VII. Long live America. Death to the bad government.”
The second most important hero of independence, José María Morelos y Pavón, issued a decreto (decree) that exalted the Virgin of Guadalupe, saying that she should be honored and that every man, soldier, and homeland defender should be devoted to her most holy image. Before being executed, his last wish was to pray to the Virgin of Guadalupe one last time.
Mexican Emperors Agustín de Iturbide and Maximilian from Habsburg created the National Order of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Guadalupe Order, respectively.
The first president of Mexico, Manuel Félix Fernández, changed his name to Guadalupe Victoria after a battle victory as a tribute to the Virgin.
Other presidents including Vicente Guerrero, Juan Álvarez, and Ignacio Comonfort were known for taking pilgrimages to the Villa de Guadalupe to thank the Virgin for their battle triumphs. Revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata entered Mexico City with his peasant followers carrying the Guadalupe estandarte (banner).
On a tour to Venezuela, President Adolfo López Mateos said that the image of the Virgen de Guadalupe was never going to be part of cultural interchange with Venezuela since it belonged to the believers of Mexico. He later said that her image couldn’t be considered as a work of art because the hands that painted it were from another world and that it was the most valued reliquia religiosa (religious relic) of Mexico.
In 2000, the president-elect Vicente Fox Quesada raised a Virgin of Guadalupe banner and went to the Basílica de Guadalupe to thank her for the result of the election.
Miracles of the Virgin of Guadalupe
Many milagros (miracles) have been attributed to Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, such as
- the cease of three epidemics in 1554, 1633, and 1737
- a man who was brought back to health after being wounded with a spear during a procession
- a bomb exploded right below the image of the Virgin in the Basilica, and everything was damaged except for the image, which remained intact
Cultural Elements of the Virgin of Guadalupe
Mexican culture changed forever after the milagro guadalupano (Guadalupan miracle). Indiginous people had not wanted this foreign religion called Catholicism, but the majority of nativos (natives) agreed to be bautizados (baptised) after the Virgin of Guadalupe apparitions.
The leyenda (legend) of this miraculous woman and mother convinced the indígenas that God had seen and accepted them. People throughout the Americas accepted her and the Virgin of Guadalupe was soon considered the santa patrona (patron saint) of most Latin American countries.
After the fall of the Imperio Azteca (Aztec empire) and of Tenochtitlán (today Mexico City), all prehispanic representations of Gods and their templos were destroyed. The Catholics built churches and chapels on top of them.
The same happened to a shrine on the lago de Texcoco that was dedicated to the fertility goddess Coatlicue (the Lady of the skirt made of snakes), also known as Teteoinan (mother of all Gods in Náhuatl, the language of the Aztecs) or Tonantzin (our adorable mother). Her birthday was on December 12th, the birthday of Huitzilopochtli, her prodigal son, patron of the Mexicas.
Benito Juárez was a Mexican president who implemented the leyes de reforma (reform laws) to separate church and state. In doing so, he stripped the church of multiple rights, nationalized ecclesiastical assets, implemented civil matrimony, closed down convents and cloisters, and permitted religious freedom. Nevertheless, he declared December 12 as a mandatory holiday and made the Guadalupan shrine untouchable. This is proof that, to many Mexicans, culture prevails over religion.
According to the Spanish chronist Bernardino de Sahagún, even then in the 1500s, people visited Tonantzin from far away places and that such devotion was suspicious. There were churches dedicated to Virgin Mary everywhere, but people still congregated at the Coatlicue temple. Tonantzin is one of the multiple names that we use to refer to the Virgin of Guadalupe today.
The most accepted theory is the one with Náhuatl roots: Coatlaxopeuh translates to “the one who crushes the serpent’s head.” Nevertheless, other experts are more inclined to believe that the name has Arabic origins that later derived in its Spanish variant: wad-al-hub (“caudal of love”).
The 21st Century Virgin of Guadalupe
One of the most fascinating aspects of cultura guadalupana today is that Mexicans don’t have to be Catholic in order to be guadalupanos. Tonantzin is, above all, a mother figure, and people are devoted to her regardless of their religion. They ask her for advice, favors, miracles, and guidance. Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes once said that you can’t be considered a true Mexican unless you believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe.
You’ll find representations of the Virgin of Guadalupe in images almost in every Mexican house or wallets, as well as on t-shirts and tattoos. This figure is revered everywhere, and her image and name are considered to provide great protección.
Virgin of Guadalupe Art
Much artwork has been dedicated to the Virgen Morena: songs, poems, books, image replicas, paintings, illustrations, sculptures, documentaries, films, and TV shows. La Rosa de Guadalupe is a show that airs in 23 countries about believers who ask for a miracle. The Virgin of Guadalupe grants it and makes a white rose appear as a signal.
Image of the Guadalupana
The image of the Reina de México (“Queen of Mexico”) has many symbols and tells a whole story of its own. The following 12 aspects of the image relates to indigenous or Catholic traditions:
1. Her gaze
She isn’t looking straight at you because indigenas thought it was a sign of disrespect. The Virgin is bowing her head as a sign of respect.
2. Her mouth
This part of the image is printed on a knot of the tilma so it looks more realistic.
3. Her hands
They are together in prayer position.
4. Her listón negro
The black ribbon is an indiginous tradition that was practiced by women who were embarazadas (pregnant). This symbol conveys her maternity.
5. Rayos de sol
The sunbeams beneath her give her an aura.
Represents the sky. It has 46 stars in the same position that they were on the firmament on December 12, 1531.
Her tunic is red and symbolizes the earth. Its nine flower arrangements may represent the nine pilgrim villages that came from Aztlán.
8. La luna
The meaning of Mexico is “in the navel of the moon.” To Spanish conquerors, the sun beneath the Virgin of Guadalupe and her standing over the moon symbolizes her power over Coatlicue’s descendants.
9. Las nubes
The clouds convey being in the sky near the divine, where the spirit ascends. This announced the coming of a new era.
10. Her stance
The way she is flexing her knee looks like an indígena dance which was a way of praying.
11. El ángel
The angel could represent Juan Diego, as he is wearing eagle wings and his last name Cuauhtlatoatzin means the one who speaks like an eagle. His hands link the earth and sky (mantle and tunic). The eagle is a symbol of warriors for Mexicas.
12. Her hair
Her loose hair indicates her maiden condition. Married women wore their hair braided.
Sculpture: La Ofrenda
In Jardines del Tepeyac, in Villa de Guadalupe, there is a sculptural set with 17 bronze figures, including the virgin, Juan Diego, Fray Juan de Zumárraga, and native believers offering animals, fruits, flowers, and handcrafts to the morenita. Two waterfalls join as a representation of two cultures intertwining, the Spanish and the native.
Almost everyone in Mexico knows the Guadalupan Anthem, a melody sung by faithful followers in processions or on December the 12th.
Celebrations of the Virgin of Guadalupe and Devoción Guadalupana
Her main shrine, the Basílica de Guadalupe, is located in Mexico City at the Cerro de Tepeyac. It is the second-most visited Catholic shrine of the world after the Vaticano.
To commemorate her cumpleaños (birthday), each year on December 12, believers from all parts of the world descend. Around 11 million people congregated there in 2019.
The annual event is broadcast on every major channel in Mexico. Top Mexican singers are featured offering a serenata (serenade) to the Virgin of Guadalupe and all of Latin America. Other people gather in churches all over Mexico to serenade her.
The Guadalupan devotion quickly spread, first to Guatemala, Spain, Perú, the United States, Dominican Republic, Canada, El Salvador, and Argentina. Today the morenita has altars or chapels in Notre Dame, the Vatican, the Saint Patrick Cathedral in New York, the Saint Mary of the Hope Basilica in Spain, the Our Lady of Los Angeles Cathedral, the San Nicola in Carcere in Rome, the Iglesia Votiva in Austria, and plenty of others.
Learn More about Latin American Culture
Mexican and Latin American culture changed thanks to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Her tale promotes the nation’s unity and fraternity to this day.
What do you think: Is her mestizaje expressing a spiritual motherhood that boosts Mexican unity? Or was this narrative born out of a necessity to evangelize those who were skeptical? Is this how the Spanish wished to reconcile with the natives? Leave a comment and let me know your opinion!
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