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.
Numerous contemporary devotees contend the foundational source for the Guadalupe apparition tradition is the Nahuatl-language Nican mopohua (a title derived from the document’s first words, “here is recounted”), first published in Luis Laso de la Vega’s 1649 treatise Huei tlamahuiçoltica (By a Great Miracle). The narrative hinges on its dramatic reversals. At first only Guadalupe has trust in Juan Diego; by the end, the bishop and his assistants believe he is truly her messenger. At the outset Juan Diego kneels before the bishop; in the end, the stooped indio stands erect while the bishop and his household kneel before him and venerate the image on his tilma (cloak). Throughout the account Juan Diego must journey to the center of the city from Tepeyac some three miles to the north; at the end, the bishop and his entourage accompany Juan Diego to the periphery of Tepeyac, where they will build the temple that Guadalupe requested. Symbolically—and physically—the presence of the ecclesial leadership and the church they are constructing is thus moved from the center of their capital city out to the margins among the Indigenous people.
Echoing insights such as these, theologians today increasingly seek to comprehend Guadalupe through the eyes of Juan Diego. They insist that Guadalupe can only be fully understood through her relationship with the marginalized one who was her partner in achieving her purposes. When preachers and theologians during the colonial and national periods made reference to Juan Diego, they typically presented him as a model for native conversion to Catholicism, or as the symbolic recipient of the heavenly favor bestowed on the people of Mexico. Conversely, their present-day counterparts give substantial attention to Juan Diego as the chosen protagonist of Guadalupe in confronting the plight of the marginalized. Women theologians, who tend to accentuate Guadalupe as a feminine manifestation of strength and liberation, have concurrently emphasized that she emancipates women as she did Juan Diego. These articulations comprise a crucial epistemic shift in the Guadalupe tradition: from this perspective, Guadalupe and Juan Diego reveal a divine plan in which the lowly are entrusted with a mission and the powerful are instructed to accompany them. Through the eyes of Juan Diego, the ultimate significance of the Nican mopohua and the wider Guadalupe tradition is discovered in the way they are lived out among the poor today.
Pope Francis reinforced this perspective in his 2016 visit to the Guadalupe shrine at Tepeyac. He avowed that, as Mary had made her visitation to her kinswoman Elizabeth, so too she “wished also to come to the inhabitants of these American lands through the person of the Indian St. Juan Diego.” The pope explained that the “preferential” love offered through Juan Diego “was not against anyone but rather in favor of everyone.” He urged his audience to realize that in “visiting this Shrine, the same things that happened to Juan Diego can also happen to us.” Then he commissioned them in the name of Our Lady of Guadalupe to be the Juan Diegos of today: “Today, she sends us out anew; as she did Juancito, today, she comes to tell us again: be my ambassador, the one I send to build many new shrines, accompany many lives, wipe away many tears…. Go and build my shrine, help me to lift up the lives of my sons and daughters, who are your brothers and sisters.”
The evolving understanding of Guadalupe parallels the evolving story of the Americas, or as Pope John Paul II put it in his 1999 apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America, the story of “America,” an intentional use of the singular to underscore “all that is common to the peoples of the continent.” Historical events addressed through the theologies and tradition of Guadalupe—conquest, attempts to Christianize natives, society-building, racial mixing, independence, and the demands for justice for marginalized groups—were not only momentous occurrences in Mexico. They marked the history of nations throughout the American hemisphere. Similarly, the historical trajectory of understanding Guadalupe’s meaning provides an incisive interpretive key for assessing the past and present of Christianity and human flourishing in America.
We in the United States would do well to reexamine our own national history and current state through the lens of the Guadalupe tradition, as Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso did in his recent pastoral letter Night Will Be No More. Issued on the vigil of Indigenous Peoples’ Day and at the Jornada por la Justicia national gathering of the Hope Border Institute and the Latinx Catholic Leadership Coalition in October 2019, the pastoral letter also followed upon the massacre of twenty-two people at a Walmart in El Paso last August. Bishop Seitz addresses “the legacy of hate and white supremacy.” He testifies to the colonial conquest and exploitation of Indigenous peoples. He confesses with sadness the complicity of Catholics and church leaders in that oppression and in the deadly effects of institutionalized racism that subsequently plagued what is now the Southwest. He deplores the suffering of immigrants such as the Irish and Chinese, the Manifest Destiny ideology that drove the expansion of the United States, and the brutal treatment of Indigenous, African-American, and ethnic Mexican populations in Texas through the dispossession of lands and communities, enslavement, segregation, disenfranchisement, worker exploitation, and lynching. The El Paso Walmart massacre and the current xenophobic atmosphere of our nation must be comprehended within this history of racism.
Yet Bishop Seitz accentuates that “the people of the borderlands are not victims.” They are a resilient and dignified people who have created community across borders, formed generations of leaders, and struggled to build a more just society. As she did with Juan Diego, Our Lady of Guadalupe has enabled them to confront the forces of dehumanization and embrace the mission to transform and humanize the world. Marveling at the ongoing capacity of Guadalupe to uplift her daughters and sons, Bishop Seitz states: “Only a woman such as this young, brown, mestiza empress, born on the edges of empire and who revealed herself anew on the edges of empire, could have convinced our people of the nearness and tenderness of God.” He calls for a new flourishing of leaders who empower the victimized and not only avoid the evil of racism, but actively combat it in solidarity with those it afflicts.
A critical appropriation of our American history is foundational for renewing hope and enacting transformation. Marginalized groups in particular have been, in Bishop Seitz’s words, “deprived of the narratives, land and religious traditions that gave their life consistency and meaning” and assailed with “new racialized narratives for self-understanding [that] were forced upon them.” Consciously or not, racialized narratives of colonial conquest and Manifest Destiny justify white privilege, incite uncritical nationalism, and fracture human dignity. It is no surprise that numerous devotees in El Paso and beyond, especially those of marginal status, resonate with a rival story: Juan Diego’s interactions with a loving mother, his election as an unexpected hero, his rejection, his unwavering faith, and his final vindication. Their fervent devotion intimates that for them this is the true story and hope of America. It reveals the truth of their human dignity and exposes the lie of experiences that diminish their fundamental sense of worth. It calls them to be leaders in confronting injustice and transforming church and society. It reminds the privileged that, like Bishop Zumárraga, Guadalupe demands we denounce false narratives that dehumanize, and listen instead to the cries and the wisdom of her struggling children.