July 26 2002

Mexico’s New Saint — A Twisted Road to Tepeyac

By Alberto Huerta

MEXICO CITY—It has been a long and twisted road to Tepeyac, the hill near this city where the Pope is scheduled to canonize Mexico’s most controversial saint on July 31. While millions are expected to witness the ceremony at the shrine dedicated to the patroness of the Americas, Our Lady of Guadalupe, the event illuminates Mexico’s discomfort with its indigenous identity: the new saint is Juan Diego, a dark-skinned Indian who reported seeing the Virgin repeatedly in 1531.

Artis Carlota Espinoza's version of Juan Diego, honring the miracle of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the hill of Tepeyac outside Mexico City. Date of the drawing is unkown.

The official Mexican holy card makes him look “guero” — blond and Spanish, more like the conquistador Hernan Cortes than a humble “Indio.” Mexico’s indigenous population remains poorer and more marginalized than its non-Indian majority. Among the worst epithets one Mexican can hurl at another is “Indio.”

When the Virgin Mary “appeared” to Juan Diego on the Tepeyac Knoll, and ordered him to inform Bishop Juan Zumarraga of Mexico City to build a basilica in her honor, the bishop doubted the Indio. Juan Diego returned with roses from the spot - miraculous in December - emptied from his cloak. The bishop, his secretary and Juan Diego himself were reportedly amazed to see the perfect image of the Virgin — with dark skin — imprinted on the cloak, today the object of pilgrimage at the cathedral at Tepeyac.

Zumarraga, who had leveled native Aztec temples to build Christian churches, employed Indian slave laborers. He was not keen to attribute any spiritual power or privilege to an Indio. Least of all would he admit to mounting miracles attributed to an Indian-looking virgin. He never mentioned these apparitions in his “Regla Christiana” of 1547. He wrote that miracles were not needed in the Americas. Even the scholarly Franciscan Bernardino de Sahagun, responsible for recovering the ancient Aztec codices, was reluctant to encourage devotion to Guadalupe. He feared idolatry: Tepeyac was the site where the earth goddess Tonantzin, mother of the Aztec deities, once had her temple.

In spite of these obstacles, devotion to “La Morena,” the dark lady, spread and thousands of Indios converted to Christianity.

In 1666, Rome interviewed survivors of the period. It seemed the issue of the Indio’s existence and connection to the image of Guadalupe was resolved. That is, until May 1996, when Abbot Schulenburg of the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City stated that there were no historical indications of Juan Diego’s existence, that he was merely a symbol. Cardinal Rivera, the primate of Mexico, disagreed, removing the abbot. Nevertheless, for those whose colonial past inhibited their acceptance of this spiritual “mestizaje” — the blending of the European and the Indio — this revelation of a dark Indian-looking woman and “un Indio” as God’s messenger became an issue of race and class. Arguments exploded on both sides.

Was Juan Diego perhaps from Aztec nobility, and not an ordinary Indian? Could he have been light-skinned? Or was he indeed what history and deeply held belief say he was — an ordinary Indian, like millions of others?

It has not been easy for “La Morena” and “El Indio.” Five hundred years later, controversy still stalks the powerful spiritual message that she had come to bless this new people of the Americas that sword and cross had conquered, slaughtered, enslaved, colonized and baptized.

Here in the United States, Hispanic Americans seem to be ahead of some Mexicans, coming to terms with their indigenous roots as something good and positive, which sets them apart from other Americans.

Curiously, the new Indian saint and La Morena may even touch Americans with neither indigenous nor Mexican roots. One morning at the ocean, I noticed a Nordic-looking young man sunning himself with a tattoo of Our Lady of Guadalupe on his arm. Curious, I asked if he was Catholic. He said he had no religious affiliation, but had visited Guadalupe. When I asked why, he pointed to a name tattooed under the image of Juan Diego. He said that his life-long friend had contracted a fatal disease. He had tattooed his friend’s name under Juan Diego in the hope of a miracle.

Huerta is an associate professor of Spanish at the University of San Francisco.

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