Mexican Identity: La Virgen de Guadalupe, The Patron Saint of Mexico

The Patron Saint of Mexico, La Virgen de Guadalupe

La Morenita, Virgencita, or Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, is a cultural symbol that goes beyond the religious sphere and, to some, is a part of the identity of being Mexican. For example, in Mexico alone, more than a million men and women are named Guadalupe, according to the Federal Register of Voters. In the streets around the country, there are hundreds of altars to the Virgin built and guarded by the neighbors. Moreover, Mexico City's Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the sanctuary where the original mantle with her image is found, is one of the most visited temples in the world, since it receives more than 18 million people throughout the year. Today, as we approach her celebration, which is held on December 12, we would like to share with you the roots, significance, and the historical, social, and cultural impact that La Virgen de Guadalupe has in Mexico (and around the world).

Basílica de Guadalupe

The Virgin of Guadalupe is a form of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. However, The Virgin of Guadalupe has black hair and brown skin: she is an indigenous, Mexican, Mestizo version of the Virgin Mary. In her image, several Aztec codices can be seen that represent her connection to indigenous Mexicans. For example, she wears traditional Aztec royal garments and a black sash around her waist, indicating the pregnancy in the Aztec culture.

What is the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe?

The story of La Virgen de Guadalupe, or Our Lady of Guadalupe, starts on a cold morning of December 9, in 1531 when Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin heard his name being called by a beautiful voice while walking on Mount Tepeyac, located in what is now north of Mexico City. He followed the voice and standing there was a beautiful lady who with very kind and attentive words introduced herself as the Virgin Mary and expressed that she wanted a temple to be built so that those who needed her could approach her.

Dutifully, Juan Diego went to pass the message to the Bishop, Juan de Zumárraga, who unfortunately did not believe him and requested proof of her existence. On the way back, Juan Diego went back to Our Lady of Guadalupe and related the events to her. She asked him to return the next day to the same place so that she could provide him with that proof. However, unfortunate events happened that prevented him from returning.

The following morning, at the dawn of December 12, Juan Diego's uncle fell very ill and asked his nephew to call a priest to perform his last rites. Juan Diego ran in search of the priest, avoiding passing through Mount Tepeyac so as not to waste any time. Suddenly, the Virgin came out to meet him and performed three miracles that proved her sanctity. First, she assured Juan Diego that his uncle would not die and that he was cured. Second, she told him to go up to the top of the hill where he found fresh Castile roses, which were neither native nor in season. He cut as many as he could, placing them on his tilma, or cloak, and took them to the bishop. As Juan Diego unfolded his tilma to reveal the roses, the tilma depicted an image of this beautiful lady, Our Lady of Guadalupe, concluding like this her three miracles and, thus, proving her sanctity. After seeing this, a church was built on Mount Tepeyac to mark the site of the apparitions. Today this church is known as La Basílica de Guadalupe and is home to one of the most famous Catholic pilgrimage sites in the world.

Juan Diego Cerro del tepeyac

The apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe is one of the most famous apparitions recorded by the Catholic Church, tied with the Virgin of Lourdes (France 1858) and the Virgin of Fatima (Portugal 1917). The three apparitions have in common that they are presented as private revelations and before seers who must go to Catholic authorities to understand or comply. But the Virgin of Guadalupe differs from the other two by a material and forceful element: the tilma. Lourdes and Fátima are places of worship, in Mexico the place is Tepeyac, but the Virgin is in the piece of cloth (referred to as ayate, or tilma) that rests in the Basilica and is made of agave, a reason that, when uniting it with popular culture, guarantees its Mexican origin and authenticity.

What Influences Has She Had in Mexico (and Around the World)?

La Virgen de Guadalupe set the stage for the mass conversion of indigenous people in Mexico to Christianity. The way in which she is depicted with her beautiful brown skin, presenting herself to an indigenous man, speaking in Nahuatl, and using cultural Aztec symbols (such as her dress) in the image found on this tilma, or cloak, made it possible for indigenous people to relate to her. The image on the tilma, particularly, which can still be found in the Basilica de Guadalupe, spoke to those who had not been evangelized by Catholic missionaries yet.

It is important to note that one problematic nature of this story is the recurring custom of Catholicism in America to build churches on indigenous places of worship. Tepeyac is no exception since there existed the sanctuary of a deity of the earth and fertility called both Coatlicue, "lady in the skirt of serpents", and Tonantzin, "our adorable little mother", with which a relationship can be appreciated that at least it is worth thinking about.

Although a religious symbol, it has also become an icon of Mexican culture, as it is recognized throughout the world. In Mexico, one can find both Catholics and non-Catholics who recognize Our Lady of Guadalupe, known as Guadalupanos. Her image is an icon that can be found everywhere, from jewelry, paintings, street art, coffee mugs, etc.

Her image has been present throughout many moments of important Mexican history. For example, the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was taken by the priest Miguel Hidalgo during the feat of independence, which became his war standard with thousands of people following him. Moreover, there has been some research proving that, when conquering northern territory (Texas territory in particular), from lack of women, Spanish missionaries used a banner with her image when approaching Indians to reflect peace, rather than war.

Lastly, La Virgen de Guadalupe is not a symbol that is limited to Mexican territories. With her indigenous descent, many in Latin America are devoted to her and/or recognize her as a Patron Saint. Moreover, in the United States, she is also an important symbol among the Mexican/Chicano culture and identity, as it is the case of Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago, and New York among other places where her presence can be seen throughout.

How is She Celebrated?

Throughout the years the Virgin of Guadalupe receives believers and non-believers from the five continents in her temple, La Basilica de Guadalupe, but the week of December 12 is the busiest. This day is considered her birthday and Mexicans treat it as such. Over 800,000 people gather around the Basilica and bring candles and offerings to honor her. Pilgrims walk there from different parts of Mexico for days, even weeks. Such is the faith and devotion for her that some pilgrims cover the final stretch of the road on their knees.

From the night of December 11, there are preparations happening for this day. At dawn, as the history of the apparitions dictates, “Las Mañanitas Guadalupanas” are celebrated. Songs, prayers, and praises in a choir and mariachis are sung by those present, who spend the night on the hill. The dawn of the 12th is colored in the patriotic colors green, white, and red, even the ayate with her image is adorned with a huge and shiny Mexican flag.

12 de diciembre día de la virgen de Guadalupe

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So, what are your thoughts? Were you familiar with the story of La Virgen's apparition to Juan Diego? Is this something you were familiar with? If so, how? We would love to hear your experiences with this beautiful figure and symbol! Are there any other symbols of Mexican culture you would like for us to address? Let us know in the comments below, we love to hear from you and try our best to write about all that you care about!

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We would like to note that Lolo and this blog's intent is not to generalize religious beliefs of Mexicans or impose any beliefs on others; with this we would like to highlight what we believe to be an important part of our Mexican culture and history, regardless of the religious significance that may convey, without causing any harm, and attempting to recognize all others who are different.

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2 comments

Kim Andrews

Thanks for this is very interesting blog! I have seen images of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Santa Fe, NM, and in the St. Francis of Assisi church in NYC. I would love to visit La Basilica de Guadalupe one day!

Nora CORYELL

Love your blog and send it to my students sometimes. Santo Nino de Atocha might be a possibility, or the ex votos, and/or retablos if you haven’t already done that.

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