You cannot explain Mexican culture without referencing Our Lady of Guadalupe. For Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, it is by far the most powerful symbol of identity.
Our Lady of Guadalupe is a Roman Catholic apparition of the Virgin Mary. And to millions it’s not only a symbol of faith, her image is associated with anything from motherhood, feminism to social justice.
“We grew up with her, we are used to seeing her. And as the Mexican-American population grows, the power of her image grows with it.” said Latina author Pat Mora in an interview for NBC.
“She is used as a symbol of justice,” she added, “she holds an appeal to the poor, to marginalized people. In the modern day, we can see her as representing people standing against oppression, declaring their independence.”
To Eileen Truax, a Mexican journalist and author, Our Lady of Guadalupe is a chance for Mexican-American immigrants to embrace their heritage without being perceived as un-American: “To Mexican-Americans, it’s an opportunity to be proud of their heritage. The 2006 massive immigrants-rights protest is proof of that.”
But why? What’s her story and how it became such an important symbol?
Who is Our Lady of Guadalupe?
Our Virgin of Guadalupe is one of the few Marian apparitions that the Catholic Church considers “worthy of belief.”
According to the church, the Virgin Mary appeared several times in Mexico before a 57-year old peasant named Juan Diego.
The first time, in 1531, Juan Diego was walking near what is now Mexico City and came upon an apparition of the Virgin Mary. She told Juan Diego that she was the mother of Jesus and that she wanted a church on the Tepeyac Hill.
After he tried to convince the archbishop of what he had seen, Juan Diego was asked for proof.
He then returned to share the request with Mary and she instructed him to climb to the top of the Tepeyac Hill to gather flowers and bring them to the archbishop. At the top of the hill, Juan Diego found Castillian roses which were not native to the region.
The Castillian roses were arranged in Juan’s tilma (a type of outer garment) and the Virgin instructed him to open the cloak in front of the archbishop.
When Juan Diego arrived back at the bishop’s residence and opened his cloak, the flowers fell to the floor and on the surface of the tilma was the image that’s come to be known as “Our Lady of Guadalupe”.
Today the Basilica of Guadalupe stands on the site where the apparition is said to have taken place. The Basilica of Guadalupe is the most visited catholic pilgrimage site in the world and the third most-visited sacred place, according to Travel Leisure. One of the reasons is that the tilma bearing the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is on display.
Pope John Paul II, who canonized Juan Diego in 2002, declared the Virgin of Guadalupe “Queen of the Americas.”
How it became a powerful symbol?
According to Andrew Chestnut, a professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, Our Lady of Guadalupe transformed into a national patroness during Mexico’s war of independence from Spain.
“Independence leader Father Miguel Hidalgo launched the campaign for independence with the battle cry ‘Death to the Spaniards and long live the Virgin of Guadalupe!’ The image of the Mexican Virgin emblazoned on flags, banners and peasant sombreros became the insignia of the armed rebellion against Spanish rule,” he explains in an article for the Huffington Post.
Mauricio Holguin is a Mexican journalism student. Currently at The Washington Center in DC. Shout! contributor.