Our Lady Of Guadalupe
A Mexican National Symbol

by Brother John M. Samaha, S.M.

One would be hard pressed to find a better example of a highly evocative national symbol than the Virgin of Guadalupe of Mexico.  Like her famous Polish counterpart, the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, Our Lady of Guadalupe embodies abstract principles and precepts of the nation where she dwells.

The complexity and heterogeneous nature of Mexico are reconciled in Our Lady of Guadalupe in a special way that no other symbol can rival.  Political overtones are blended with individual and societal aspirations, especially for the Indian, because it was an Indian to whom she revealed herself in 1531.

Several decades ago, Eric Wolf compiled a masterful analysis of the Guadalupe phenomenon.  What follows is an attempt to summarize his findings.  With the recent canonization of St. Juan Diego, this topic might be timelier than ever.

Now and then we encounter a symbol that seems to embody the major hopes and aspirations of an entire society.  Such a master symbol is Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico's patroness--and Empress of the Americas.

During the Mexican War of Independence against Spain, her image preceded the insurgents into battle.  Emiliano Zapata and his agrarian rebels fought under her emblem in the Great Revolution of 1910. Today the Guadalupe image of Juan Diego's tilma adorns house exteriors and interiors, churches and home altars, bull rings and gambling dens, taxis and buses, restaurants and houses of ill repute.  Our Lady of Guadalupe is celebrated in song and poetry, popular and sacred.  Annually her shrine at Tepeyac, a little north of Mexico City, is visited by millions of pilgrims ranging from the Indian villages to the members of socialist trade unions. As one scholarly observer reported, "Nothing to be seen in North America or Europe equals it in the volume and vitality of its moving quality or in the depth of its spirit of religious devotion."

Eric Wolf referred to the holy image and the ideology surrounding it as the Mexican master symbol.  He identified it as a cultural form or idiom of behavior operating on the symbolic level, and not restricted to one set of social ties, but referring to a wide range of social relationships.

The history of the images and shrine are well known.  The Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego, a neophyte Indian of ordinary standing, and addressed him in Nahuatl, his native Indian Language.  The encounter occurred on the hill of Tepeyec in 1531, ten years after the Spanish Conquest of Tenochtitlan.  Mary directed Juan Diego to visit the archbishop of Mexico and to inform him of her desire to have a church built in her honor on Tepeyac.  Twice unsuccessful in his  mission, Mary miraculously provided her messenger colorful roses in a spot where normally only desert plants would grow.  Juan Diego gathered the roses into his tilma, and was told by the Virgin Mother to present the roses and tilma to the Franciscan Bishop-elect, Juan Zumarraga.   When St. Juan Diego unfolded his tilma before the Bishop, the roses cascaded to the floor and the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was miraculously impressed to the cloth.  The bishop acknowledged the miracle and ordered a shrine to be built where Mary had appeared to her humble servant.

Now the tilma bearing the sacred image of Mary is displayed above the main altar of the basilica, showing a young woman with her head lowered demurely in her shawl. She wears an open crown and flowing gown, and stands upon a half moon.

This Marian shrine, however, had been preceded on Tepeyac hill by the pagan temple honoring the earth and fertility goddess, Tonantzin--our lady mother, who like Our Lady of Guadalupe, was also associated with the moon. In pre-Hispanic times, that temple was the site of large scale pilgrimages.

The veneration accorded Our Lady of Guadalupe at first commingled with and was influenced by the earlier pagan worship of Tonantzin. Several Spanish friars attest to this over those early years.

Fray Bernardino de Sahagun, writing fifty years after the Spanish Conquest, bemoaned the fact that the Indian pilgrims to the shrine were calling Our Lady of Guadalupe Tonantzin, too. "The term refers to that ancient Tonantzin," he wrote, "and this state of affairs should be remedied, because the proper name of the Mother of God is not Tonantzin but Dios and Nantzin. It seems to be a satanic device to mask idolatry. "    

Later, Fray Martin de Leon expressed a similar concern: "On the hill of Our Lady of Guadalupe they once adored an idol of the goddess called Tonantzin, which means our mother. This is the name they also give to Our Lady, and they always say they are going to Tonantzin, or they are celebrating Tonantzin, and many of them understand this in the old way, and not in the new way."

In the seventeenth century, the syncretism was still alive. Discussing the pilgrimages to the shrine at Tepeyac, Fray Jacinto de la Serna noted, "It is the purpose of the wicked to worship the goddess and not the Most Holy Virgin, or both together."

The cult of Our Lady of Guadalupe increased steadily in the sixteenth century and thereafter, and gathered emotional impetus during the seventeenth century. The seventeenth century saw the first pictorial and artistic representations of the miraculous original; poems were composed in honor of the Virgin and her chosen messenger; sermons presented the implications of her supernatural appearance in Mexico and among Mexicans. Wolf's opinion is that historians tended to neglect the seventeenth century, which seemed "a kind of Dark Age in Mexico." But in this period the institution of the hacienda begins to dominate Mexican life, and "New Spain" ceases to be "new" and is regarded as Spain. These new experiences required a new cultural idiom, and in the Guadalupe cult the various segments of colonial society found cultural forms in which they expressed their parallel interests and longings.

The evolution of the Guadalupe symbol took on functional aspects in relation to the major social relationships of Mexican society. Primary among these relations are the ties of kinship and the emotions arising in the interplay of relationships within families. Wolf suggested that some of the meanings of the Virgin symbol in general and the Guadalupe symbol in particular derive from these emotions. He says "derive" rather than "originate" because the form and formation of the family in any given society are themselves determined by other social factors: residence, economy, technology, political power. The family is one relay in the circuit within which symbols are generated in complex societies.

Mexican family life may be understood in terms of two major types of families. The first type of family is congruent with the closed and static life of the Indian village. This is the Indian family. The husband is ideally dominant, but in reality labor and authority are shared equally between both marriage partners. Exploitation of one sex by another is atypical; sexual feats do not add to a person's status in the eyes of others. Physical punishment and authoritarian treatment of children are rare. The second type of family is congruent with the much more open, manipulative life in communities which are actively geared to the life of a nation, a life in which power relationships between individuals and groups are of great moment. This is the Mexican family. The father's authority is unquestioned on both the real and ideal planes. Double standards regarding sex prevail, and male sexuality is charged with a desire to exercise domination. Children are ruled with a heavy hand. Physical punishment is common, even frequent.

The Indian family pattern is consistent with the behavior toward Our Lady of Guadalupe noted by John Bushnell in the Matlazinca-speaking community of San Juan Atzingo in the Valley of Toluca. There the image of the Virgin Mother is addressed in passionate terms as a source of warmth and love; and the pulque (century plant beer) drunk on ceremonial occasions, is identified with her milk. Bushnell assumed that Our Lady is identified with the mother as a source of early satisfactions, never again experienced after separation from the mother and emergence into social adulthood. She embodies a longing to return to the pristine state in which hunger and unsatisfactory social relations are minimized. The Mexican family pattern is also consistent with a symbolic identification of Virgin and mother, within a context of male and adult dominance and sexual assertion, discharged against submissive females and children. In this context the Guadalupe symbol is charged with the energy of rebellion against the father. Her image is the embodiment of hope in a victorious outcome of the struggle between generations.

The symbolism is further extended by that struggle. Successful rebellion against power figures is equated with the promise of life; defeat is equated with the promise of death. John A. McKay saw additional symbolic identification of the Virgin Mother with life, of defeat and death with the crucified Christ. Mexican artistic tradition and Hispanic artistic tradition in general seldom depict Christ as an adult man, but usually as a helpless child, or as a person beaten, tortured, defeated, and killed. This symbolic equation strikes at the roots both of the passionate affirmation of faith in the Virgin Mother, and of the fascination with death which characterizes Baroque Christianity in general, and Mexican Catholicism in particular. Our Lady of Guadalupe stands for life, for health, for hope; Christ on the cross for despair, for death, for salvation. Supernatural Mother and natural mother are equated symbolically, as are earthly and other-worldly hopes and desires.

However, family relations are seen as only one element in the formation of the Guadalupe symbol. They illuminate the feminine and maternal attributes of the more widespread Virgin symbol. Our Lady of Guadalupe is important to Mexicans not only because she is a Supernatural Mother, but also because she embodies their major religious and political aspirations.

To the Indians, the symbol is more than an embodiment of life and hope. It restores to them the hopes of salvation. The Spanish Conquest signified not only military defeat, but the defeat also of the old gods and the decline of the old ritual. The apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe to an Indian commoner represented in one way the return of Tonantzin. Tannenbaum had observed, "The Church gave the Indian an opportunity not merely to save his own life, but also to save his faith in his own gods." But on a deeper level the apparition served as a symbolic testimony that the Indians as much as the Spaniards were capable of being saved, capable of receiving Christianity. To be understood properly, this must be seen against the background of the bitter theological and political disputes that followed the Conquest and divided clerics, religious, officials, and conquerors into two camps: those who believed that the Indian was incapable of conversion, was inhuman, and therefore a subject of political and economic exploitation; and those held the opposite and knew that this exploitation had to be tempered by the demands of the Catholic faith and of orderly civil processes of just government. Consequently the Guadalupe event validates the Indian's right to legal defense, fair government, citizenship, and salvation from random oppression.

If that sacred event guaranteed a rightful place to the Indians in the social system of New Spain, it held special appeal to the large group of illegitimate offspring of Spanish fathers and Indian mothers. These progeny were disinherited, impoverished, acculturated, and bereft of any status with the Spanish population or the Indian. For these people there was no proper place in the social order for a considerable length of time. Their very right to exist was questioned because of their inability to command the full rights of citizenship and legal protection. While the Spaniard and the Indian stood squarely within the law, the mestizo landed in the intersections arid margins of constituted society. Although they acquired influence and wealth in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they still found themselves outside the pale of social recognition and power by the prevailing economic, social, and political order. For them the Guadalupe event symbolized not only the possibility of a place in heaven, but also an assurance of their place in society here and now. Politically, the desire for a return to a paradise of food and warmth, a life without defeat and sickness, gave rise to a wish for an earthly Mexican paradise. There the illegitimate would possess the country and the irresponsible Spanish overlords, who never acknowledged the social obligations of their paternity, would be driven from the land.

In the writings of seventeenth-century clerics, the Guadalupe event looms as a harbinger of this new order. A book published by Miguel Sanchez in 1648 offered the view that the Spanish Conquest of New Spain is justified solely on the ground that it allowed the Virgin Mary to become manifest in her chosen country, and to found in Mexico a new paradise. As Israel was chosen to produce Christ, Mexico had been chosen to produce Guadalupe. Sanchez equated Our Lady of Guadalupe with the apocalyptic woman of Revelation 12:1, "arrayed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars," who is to realize the prophecy of Deuteronomy 8:7-10 and lead the Mexicans into the Promised Land. Hence, colonial Mexico became the desert of Sinai; independent Mexico the land of milk and honey.

Writing in 1688 Fray Francisco de Florencia coined the slogan that made Mexico not merely another chosen nation, but the Chosen Nation: non fecit taliter omni nationi (he did not act in such a way for every nation)--words which still adorn the portal of the basilica and shine in lights at night.

An additional elaboration had been expressed on the eve of Mexican independence when Servando Teresa de Mier claimed that Mexico had been converted to Christianity long before the Spanish Conquest. St. Thomas the Apostle had brought the image of Guadalupe Tonantzin to the New World as a symbol of his mission, just as St. James the Elder had converted Spain with the image of Our Lady of the Pillar. This made the Spanish Conquest unnecessary and erasable from the annals of history. In that perspective, the Mexican War of Independence marked the final realization of the apocalyptic promise. The banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe led the insurgents. Their cause was labeled "her law."

In this ultimate extension of the symbol, the promise of life proffered by the Supernatural Mother has become the promise of an independent Mexico, liberated from the Spanish father oppressors and restored to the Chosen Nation whose election had been manifest in the apparition of the Virgin Mary on Tepeyac. The land is finally possessed by the rightful heirs. The symbolic circuit is closed. Mother; food, hope, health, life; supernatural salvation, rescue from oppression; Chosen People, national independence. All find expression in a single master symbol.

The symbol of Our Lady of Guadalupe links together family, politics and religion, colonial past and independent present, Indian and Mexican. This reflects the salient social relationships of Mexican life, and embodies the emotions generated. It provides a cultural idiom through which the import and emotions of these relationships can be expressed. Ultimately the Guadalupe symbol is a way of talking about Mexico, a "collective representation" of Mexican society.


This article was originally published in slightly modified form as "La Morenita is the Mexican National Symbol" in Queen of All Hearts 53/4 (November-December 2002), 16-20, and as "La Virgen de Guadalupe, National Symbol of Mexico" in Ephemerides Mariologicae 53 (2003), 117-121, and has been reproduced on The Mary Page with the permission of the author, Brother John M. Samaha, S.M.


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