The cult of Guadalupe Virgin is very difficult to comprehend to us non-Catholics, and I think even to Catholics outside of Mexico. They say that the only way to really irritate a Mexican is to disrespect his or her mother, or Virgin of Guadalupe.
Knowing Mexican history and pre-hispanic cults it’s not very hard to guess where the belief is coming from. Almost all north American and middle American tribes had, among others, the good goddess of home, motherhood and domestic bliss so to say. Aztecs called her Tonantzin, our good mother, and strangely enough, she wasn’t motherly figure, but beautiful young woman, young wife in love. To the European way of seeing things, this is a little bit off since we are used to see woman in very patriarchal manner, as beautiful virgins or nice old ladies, like there isn’t anything in between. Sexuality is in European point of view, connected to the youth and matrimonial love is something to intimate to look at or talk about.
Tonantzin thus was one of the favorite goddesses in Aztec pantheon. When Catholic priests came to New world fallowing conquistadors and started forced baptism of the natives, they as all the missionaries started building new religion on the roots of the old one, explaining Virgin Marry as similar as Tonantzin as possible, to make it easier and more appealing to the natives.
This sincretism resulted in the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Actual image is from XVII century and has a beautiful story of origin: Outside of Mexico City, ancient Tenochtitlan of Aztecs, there was a little village called Tepeyac, and in it there existed temple to Tonantzin, among a beautiful flower garden. Catholics destroyed a temple and built a church dedicated to the Virgin Marry in the same place. Natives kept coming to the church and kept addressing her as “Tonantzin”, although it’s not blasphemous perse, since tonantzin in Nahuatl means “our mother”, so it can be applied to Virgin Marry too. However, one event marked the sincretistic nature of Mexican religious cult: Newly baptized native, named Juan Diego on his baptism, started claiming that he saw “Tonantzin”, or Virgin Marry, while he was climbing the hill of Tepeyac, on his way to the temple. Like in similar cases, no one believed him, but Virgin Marry kept appearing to him. One day, when she asked why does people don’t come when she asked for Tepeyac to be place of pilgrimage, Juan Diego admitted that no one believed him, and that priests even forbid him to talk about his experiences. Then she promised proof that will make her divine presence known to everybody, and wipe all the doubts. She ordered Juan Diego to pick up roses that she left to fall to the ground from her hands, and so he did. She also told him to carry the roses to the church and show them to the disbelieving priests. He did, and when he opened his long tunic, which was worn by the natives, on the white fabric there was an image, a painting never seen before of a beautiful lady in a long green-blue cape covered with stars, standing on the young moon sustained by an angel.
Her skin was not fair and rather dark, and she had sun beams coming out of her entire body, not only surrounding her head. The Virgin said that her name was the Perfect Virgin, Holy Mary of Guadalupe, but it is possible that catholic priests, like so many time before, misinterpreted Juan Diego’s Nahuatl, and it is possible that he actually said Tecuatlanopeuh, “she whose origins were in the rocky summit”, or Tecuantlaxopeuh, “she who banishes those who devoured us”, which has much more logic, since “Guadalupe” is a region and a river in Spain, and has nothing to do with Mexico.
The painting which miraculously appeared on Juan Diego’s tunic still exist and it’s an object of one of the biggest pilgrimage in the world, when on 12th of December millions of Mexicans visit Tepeyac where the old chapel is changed to grand Basilica. She is called the “Queen of Mexico and Emperor of America”, and is patron saint to Mexico. It is ever present motive in Mexican popular art and everlasting reminder of divine grace.