December 3, 2004

La Virgen de Guadalupe

By Heriberto Escamilla

There is no doubt that la Virgen de Guadalupe is not just a symbol, but that she truly is Mexico; she has been present at most of the significant events that have shaped the country’s modern growth and development. When the padre Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla incited the Meztizo army against the Spanish oppressors, it was the Virgen, emblazoned on a high-flying banner that led the way. Years later, when Felix Hernandez assumed the first Mexican presidency, he appropriately renamed himself Guadalupe Victory. When the humble Benito Juarez separated church and state, the only religious holiday he dared not touch was December 12th, when Mexicans all over the world celebrate the patron saint’s appearance. And in 1862, when General Ignacio Zaragoza was charged with resisting the French advance to Puebla, it was on the hills of Loreto and Guadalupe where he successfully made his stand.

The actual account and precise significance of the virgin’s appearance on the other hand, are ambiguous. The popular story is that she appeared in 1531, ten years after the arrival of Cortez. Between December 9th and 12th, the Virgin materialized a total of four times to a humble peasant who the Spanish conquistadores called Juan Diego. Before his conversion to Christianity, he was known as Cuauhtlatoatzin (talking eagle) to family and friends. The Virgen, according to legend chose a hill the Mejica called Tepeyac (nose hill), no doubt so named for its appearance as the place to reveal herself.

Historians also tell us that before the arrival of the Spaniards, Tepeyac had been the home of Tonatzin, the sacred personification of mother earth. In their efforts to share their salvation, the Franciscan priests under the direction of Bishop Zumarraga had attempted to disconnect the people from their mother, by destroying her shrine that once sat upon the hill. Naturally some wonder if the Virgen was really Tonatzin reaffirming her place and connection to the people. And indeed, one of her requests of Juan Diego was that a shrine be built in her honor.

And according to the Nican Mopohua,” a document believed to have been written in by the Mejica don Antonio Valeriano, the Virgen identified herself not only as the mother of the true creator, but she did so in Nahuatl, as Coatlaxopeuh, la que aplasta el serpiente or in English “she that steps on the serpent.” Now some have drawn the connection between this name and a passage in Genesis 3:15 of the Christian Bible. As he was expelling Adam and Eve from the garden, God told the serpent that he was putting “enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.” At the time of the apparition, the Catholic Church considered the bible beyond the understanding of the common people so it is doubtful that Juan Diego had been exposed to this verse. Perhaps the connection, if one really exists, is coincidental, but some still wonder if this name means that the Virgen was a manifestation Eve, the mother of all humanity, perhaps reminding us of our fall from grace, or maybe showing us a way home again.

People that study history also tell us that the brown-faced Virgen conveniently made her appearance when the Franciscans were struggling to convert the common people of Mexico. Ten years after the fall of Moctezuma, people publicly professed their allegiance to the new God of the Europeans, but under the cover of darkness still paid homage to Huitzilopochtli, Tlaloc, Tonatzin, to the sun, the rain, the earth, the forces that had always decided their fate. The Spanish were no doubt learning that while the tongue can be trained to intone new sounds, the spirits that stir our hearts into action, those that through generations of repetition have established their residence deep in our psyche, are slowly forgotten, if at all. Some wonder is the Virgen was a story created by the clerics to aid the conversion.

History, we are told is written by the victors. The Franciscan scholars of the time quickly interpreted the Virgen’s appearance and her name to mean the destruction of Quet-zalcoatl, the “plumed serpent,” and a clear signal that the people of Mexico should abandon their olds ways and customs in favor of the God that animated the Spanish canons. And the people obeyed, the Mejica priests laid down their sacrificial knives. The people accepted that their new God was indeed strong enough to traverse the heavens without their blood, without their help. In exchange for salvation, the new God asked only for obedience and submission.

In his book The Voice of Knowledge, Don Miguel Ruiz tells us that the truth reveals itself only through experience. Only Don Juan Diego directly experienced the Virgen’s teaching and only he heard what she said. Juan Diego the witness, like the rest of us was shackled by the limitations of the words available to him. His attempts to describe communion with his mother, what he felt, what he learned, fell short. The Franciscans clerics, eager to promote their own cause further obscured what the Virgen said. Perhaps we will never know the real truth.

As a young child of Mexican parents, cradled and nurtured in the customs of my grandfathers, I could not escape images of la Virgen.She dangled from rear view mirrors and graced the walls of the homes we visited. And while she obviously spoke to the people around me, especially the old, graying women, whose bodies were stunted by years of suffering and sacrifice, her words never reached my ears or touched my heart. Only now that twilight dims my sight, are my ears beginning to perceive muffled sounds from the very distant past.

“Juanito, Juanito” she said sweetly. “Why do you fear?’. “I have always been with you and I always will.”

Let us propose that our ancestors did not forget everything the grandfathers, the old gods had taught them. Mexican Catholicism to this day reflects a unique solution to the meeting of two worlds; one in which the old gods were not destroyed but simply took new names. Yes, Christ lives in our churches, but walk into any Mexican place of worship and there is absolutely no doubt who reins supreme. And perhaps Tezcatlipoca no longer needs our blood, but even today nobody understands sacrifice like a Mexican. We are indeed responsible for the world that gives us our life.

Let us not be distracted by exotic names and the stories men tell; Quetzalcoatl, Tlaloc Tonatzin were simply our an-cestor’s way of asserting that the wind, the rain and the earth were tangible manifestations of LIFE. And if you doubt this, try talking with no air in your lungs, deny yourself water for a few days and tell me the rain has no power. And if you wake up tomorrow cursed to never feel your feet on the ground, wouldn’t you long for your mother’s warm embrace? La Virgen de Guadalupe, Tonatzin, Coatlaxopeuh, or Eve if you like, connects us to a time when we were as children, both in our personal life and as a people. Do you remember that time; when the spirits easily moved you, to sadness and pain to pleasure, to joy?

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