Five centuries ago, on Good Friday in 1519, Hernán Cortés and his band of conquistadores landed on the east coast of Mexico. Two years later they conquered the great Aztec city state of Tenochtitlan (present-day Mexico City). A decade after that, Our Lady of Guadalupe reportedly appeared to the Indigenous neophyte Juan Diego. She charged him with the mission of communicating to Bishop Juan de Zumárraga her desire that a temple be built on the hill of Tepeyac, originally situated north of Mexico City though today within the bounds of the since-expanded metropolis.
The encounter and clash of the Old and the New Worlds in the Americas set off lively debates in Spain and its colonies on the legitimacy of military conquest and the autonomy and humanity of native peoples. Miguel Sánchez, author of the first Guadalupan theology with his 1648 book Imagen de la Virgen María, mirrored his contemporaries in his Eurocentric interpretation of the Spanish imperial project. Sánchez deemed Guadalupe Spain’s “assistant conqueror” and attested that the “heathenism of the New World” was “conquered with her aid.” His book established an enduring pattern of engaging Old World sacred texts and theological discourse to examine Guadalupe as a New World chapter in the spread of Christianity.
For Indigenous devotees, Guadalupe began as a paradoxical figure. She was a force whom Spaniards engaged to enhance native peoples’ acceptance of colonial rule and missionary efforts, a protagonist in the Spanish efforts to displace Indigenous ways. But she was also a powerful mother and intercessor, a brown-skinned woman who provided continuity with an ancient Nahua worship site at Tepeyac. She worked miracles that alleviated suffering in Indigenous communities amidst the catastrophic effects of European diseases. The fact that natives were the first Guadalupan devotees with an explicit intercessory devotion to Juan Diego, who was not officially canonized until centuries later in 2002, underscores that at its core the apparition story is about Guadalupe’s providential choosing of an Indigenous believer as her emissary.
Nonetheless, preachers who followed in Sánchez’s wake increasingly pronounced triumphalist claims about Mary of Guadalupe’s singular patronage of New Spain. They popularized the association between Guadalupe and the text of Psalm 147:20: “Non fecit taliter omni nationi” (God has not done this for any other nation). Drawing on this legacy, by the early nineteenth century both those struggling for and against Mexican independence displayed hermeneutical savvy in their articulation of Guadalupan and biblical justifications for their conflicting causes. Insurgent priests as well as crown loyalists led troops who fought under Guadalupe’s banner and attributed their victories in battle to her. The year after independence was secured, a preacher at the Guadalupe shrine acclaimed: “Believe me, compatriots: if we have conquered our sovereignty, if we have triumphed over our enemies, if the country of Anahuac [Mexico] breathes liberty, we owe it all to the Virgin of Tepeyac.”
Subsequently, the conviction of Guadalupe’s providential relation with Mexico continued to shape national consciousness. When Mexican prelates secured the authorization of Pope Leo XIII for a canonical coronation of Guadalupe in 1895, the chosen orator for the occasion, Bishop Crescencio Carrillo y Ancona of the diocese of Yucatán, asserted that “Mexican history is Guadalupan history.” Diverging from the claims of his colonial predecessors, he averred that Guadalupe did not abet the Spanish imperial enterprise, but instead forged a new mestizo (mixed-race) people and nation. She halted both the cruelties of the former Aztec rulers and “the horrible and barbaric calamities of the warlike [Spanish] invaders” and “united and constituted into one people the two diverse castes, Indigenous and Spanish, and thus was born the present race that is truly American.” Just like Yahweh accompanied Israel in the Ark of the Covenant and “made from an enslaved people a free and great nation,” Guadalupe was, according to Carrillo y Ancona, the “Ark of the Divine Mexican Covenant” and Mexicans her chosen people.
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