La Virgen de Guadalupe is a staple for many Mexican Catholics. Her presence extends beyond rosaries and cathedrals; she has become a structural part of their spiritual and cultural identity. We see her appear in some other unorthodox ways as well, such as in tattoos, jewelry, and sometimes even paint jobs on vehicles. It leaves us to wonder, why do the people of the Catholic Church hold so much love and adoration for Our Lady of Guadalupe. The answer is simple, and it all begins with the simple messenger, Juan Diego.
The arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in Mexico was a historic event for the country. They transformed the native people’s beliefs and converted them to Catholicism, changing the cultural and social environment. According to Eduardo Chávez, “The first missionaries truly did an admirable job defending the Indigenous, denouncing injustice, trying to evangelize the Indigenous with the Catholic principles of the sixteenth century. Many of the Indigenous were converted thanks to the friars; their testimony and their great efforts were bearing fruit. Their catechism and teachings took shape little by little.”1
Juan Diego was among those indigenous who took part in the conversion, and was soon baptized. On the morning of December 9, 1531, in Tlatelolco, Juan Diego attended mass, practicing his newly discovered faith. Upon arriving at the Tepeyac hill, in present-day Mexico City, Juan Diego began to hear calls, followed by a gleaming cloud-like figure. Confused but intrigued, Juan Diego questioned himself, “Am I by luck worthy of what I see? Maybe I am just dreaming it. Maybe I just see it as if in between my dreams. Where am I? Where do I see myself?” Nonetheless, he stepped closer to the strange figure as it called “Juanito, Juan Dieguito.” When he asked who she was, she revealed herself to him as the Mother of God and answered “Tlecuatlecupe,” meaning “the one who crushed the head of the serpent,” referencing Genesis 3:15: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” It was none other the The Virgen Of Guadalupe speaking to him in his native language of Nahuatl. Now being able to see her clearly, Juan Diego noticed her dress shining in the sun, shooting rays. “Juanito, the smallest of my sons, where are you going?” “My Lady and my child, I have to go to your house in Mexico, Tlatelolco,” Juan Diego replied. Then she began to give him specific instructions. 2
“Know, be certain, my son, the smallest one, that I am the perfect always Virgin, Holy Mary. Mother of the true God for whom one lives. Creator of people, Owner of the closer and the immediacy, the Owner of Heaven and Earth. I want very much, I desire very much, that my little sacred house be erected here, where I will show Him. I will exalt Him when I manifest Him, I will give Him to all the people in my personal love, in my compassionate sight, in my help, in my salvation; because I am truly your compassionate Mother, yours and those men in this land who are one, and the various nations of men, my lovers who cry out to me, who look for me, who trust in me, because there I will be and hear their cry, their sadness, to remedy, to cure all the different sufferings, their miseries, their pains. And to accomplish what my compassionate, merciful glance intends, go to the Bishop of Mexico’s palace, and you will tell him how I sent you, you will let him know that I wish him to provide a house here for me, to build my temple on the flatland. You will tell him everything, all that you have seen and admired and what you have heard.”3
Obeying the Virgin of Guadalupe, Juan Diego arrived at Tlatelolco, where he asked to speak with Bishop Fray Juan de Zumárraga. Upon seeing his poor attire, they ignored him and made him wait. Juan Diego was very patient and determined to fulfill what was instructed to him. After some time, he was finally able to meet with the Bishop. Kneeling down, he communicated his experience in the Tepeyac hill. In disbelief and reasoning that this was only Juan Diego’s imagination, the Bishop questioned him and then dismissed him. Juan Diego left in sadness and returned to the Tepeyac Hill. “Little Patroness, Lady Queen, my Daughter, the youngest one, my Little Girl, I have already gone to where you sent me to fulfill your kind word. However, I barely entered the place of Governing Priest, I saw him, I presented your word before him, as you ordered me he received me kindly and he heard it perfectly but, judging by his answer, he may not understand it. He does not hold it as truth. He told me, ‘Again you will come, I will listen to you patiently from the very beginning. I will see why you have come, your wish, your desire.’”3
Discouraged, Juan Diego began to describe himself as a country man, a mecapal, a tail, a wing. He felt he was not worthy of the mission he received and began to apologize. She listened and answered, “Listen, the smallest of my children, rest assure that my servers are not few, my messengers to whom I may entrust my word so that they carry out my will. But it is necessary that you, personally, go beg, that through your intercession my wish, my will, be accomplished.”5 The next morning, Sunday, December 10, Juan Diego returned to Tlatlelolco. Once again the servants left him waiting a long while. When he finally entered, he knelt and in tears explained that the Mother of God asked for a holy house to be built on the Tepeyac hill. The Bishop realized that what Juan Diego said was just not possible, and that he was sure that it must be a dream of his. He then asked Juan Diego for proof of these encounters, and Juan Diego agreed. After their conversation, the Bishop sent two servants to follow Juan Diego. The servants failed and lost him at the bridge built over a river and returned to warn the Bishop not to believe Juan Diego and to punish him for his blasphemy.
Meanwhile, back on the Tepeyac hill, Juan Diego explained all that the Bishop had said and the sign of proof that he requested. The Most Holy Mary expressed her gratitude toward Juan Diego and ordered him to return the next day, December 11, and she would give him the sign then. Nevertheless, Juan Diego was not able to return because his uncle, Juan Bernardino, was very sick and he was unable to find a doctor. His uncle asked to go to find a religious to come confess him, for he didn’t know how many days he had left. In an attempt to lose no time, Juan Diego avoided the Tepeyac hill, but the Most Holy Mary encountered Juan Diego, asking him what was happening. Embarrassed and afraid, he explained that his uncle was very ill and had asked him to bring a priest for confession. She understood his worry and said to him “May no other thing afflict you, upset you; the illness of your uncle should not disturb you, since he will not die from it now. Be sure that he is well already.”6 Just as she stated, his uncle was being healed.
She then ordered him to go gather the flowers on the top of the hill where they had met and bring them back to her. Without hesitation, Juan Diego ran up to the hill and did as he was told, disregarding the fact that he had not seen any flowers on any of their previous encounters, for the land was filled with cacti and very cold. Taken by surprise, he was met by grounds filled with flowers. He filled his tilma and brought them to the Holy Mother. She took them in her hands, and said “My little son, the youngest, these various flowers are the proof that you will take to the Bishop.”7 And once more he placed them in the tilma.
Juan Diego made his way back to the Bishop’s house and begged the servants to let him inside, but they refused and again made him wait. They noticed that he was carrying something in his tilma and got closer to inspect. Juan Diego opened his tilma just enough so they could have a peak, in fear that they might damage the flowers if he did not show them. The servants then attempted to grab them from his grasp, but then saw that the flowers had miraculously been embroidered onto the tilma. Amazed, they hurried to inform the Bishop of what they had just seen. Realizing that this was the sign that he had asked for, he ordered that Juan Diego come see him right away. Once there, Juan Diego fell to his knees and outstretched his tilma, the flowers that had once been embroidered now fell to the floor and revealed the image of The Virgin of Guadalupe. The Bishop, along with the servants present, were left astonished and contemplated the image. He began to ask for forgiveness and placed the tilma on his oratory. Juan Diego spent the next days showing him the places where he had had these divine encounters with the Virgin of Guadalupe. Additionally, Juan Diego demonstrated that she had cured his sick uncle and took the time to explain to his uncle the encounters he had with the perfect Virgin Saint Mary of Guadalupe. By Christmas, the temple, made of adobe, was built.8
The news of this revelation spread like wildfire and the brown skin of the Virgin of Guadalupe moved many indigenous to convert to Catholicism.9 The 12th of December is Our Lady of Guadalupe’s feast day, and it’s one of the greatest Catholic holidays in Mexico. Devotion is frequently displayed through pilgrimages to Mexico City’s Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Our Lady of Guadalupe became the Patron Saint of Mexico in 1737 when Pope Clement XII appointed her the nation’s patroness. The Empress of the Americas is another name for the image. There are followers and devotees of Our Lady of Guadalupe all around the world, beyond Mexico. Juan Diego’s interactions with the Virgin of Guadalupe had a major and lasting effect on Mexico’s religious and cultural environment.