BY THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
She is the patron saint of Mexico and the focal point of the world’s most visited Christian pilgrimage site.
Her image is seen in virtually every Mexican Catholic church and is even caricaturized in hip teenage accessories ranging from school backpacks to chic little blouses.
And yet, for all her omnipresent influence in Mexican culture, the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe (better known as the Virgin of Guadalupe) is still shrouded in mystery and controversy.
The image of the beautiful, brown-skinned Virgin Mary, encircled in rays of sunlight with an angel and moon at her feet, is considered to be the most revered religious icon in predominantly Catholic Mexico and is eternally enshrined inside the majestic Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City’s northern colonia of Villa de Guadalupe Hidalgo.
Believed to have been discovered by an elderly indigenous farmer by the name of Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin in the early twilight of Dec. 9, 1531, the story of the Virgin is as much a tale of national patriotism as it is a saga of religious devotion.
A recent convert to Catholicism, Juan Diego first heard what he would later describe as the sound of birds chirping in the distance on his way to work.
Enthralled by the music of the birds, he diverted from his normal path to try to find the source of the sound, and when he reached the top of a former Mexica (Aztec) temple, which would later be known as Tepeyac Hill, he was overwhelmed by the sight of a beautiful woman who charged him with the task of taking a message to the local bishop.
Juan Diego was dazzled by the beauty and miraculous nature of the Virgin’s apparition and the incredible sweetness of her voice and, complying with her request, later beseeched the bishop to build a small temple at the site of the miracle.
But the clergyman did not at first believe Juan Diego’s account and twice dismissed his appeal as the rantings of a lunatic.
Undaunted, Juan Diego returned to Tepeyac Hill, and this time, the Virgin provided him with tangible evidence of herself in the form of a stunning painting inside his cloak.
When the bishop saw the cloak, he was at last convinced of the Virgin’s authenticity and agreed to build the church, which still stands to this day.
The emotional and religious pull of a manifestation of the Mother of Christ in a physical form that resembled that of the indigenous population of Mexico was immediately recognized both by the prophesizing missionaries and the European conquistadores, who saw conversion as a useful tool in winning the submission of the local people.
Indeed, the missionary efforts of the parade of Augustinians, Franciscans, Jesuits and Dominicans who came to the New World to convert the Native Americans to the Cross were seen as a crucial element of – and partial justification for – the colonial efforts of Spain and went hand-in-hand with the mandate to establish settlements and search for wealth.
And while the Christ figure remained the undisputed center of Christian conversion, it was the iconic image of the Virgin Mary – in particular, the Virgin of Guadalupe – that was most venerated by the native Mexicans.
Almost immediately after Juan Diego’s encounter with the Virgin, churches dedicated to this indigenous incarnation of what had previously been perceived as a strictly European deity began to spring up throughout Mexico.
Consequently, the Virgin of Guadalupe helped to pave the way for the massive conversion of the Mexicans to the Catholic faith, and by 1540, an incredible 9 million new Catholics had been admitted into the Church.
For centuries, the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe was revered by believers and reviled by doubters who claimed that she was simply a myth created by the Spanish conquerors as an instrument to help repress native religious beliefs.
But in October of 1945, then-Pope Pius XII put an end to the controversy by officially decreeing Our Lady of Guadalupe as the “Patroness of all the Americas” and declaring her feast day as Dec. 12, a day of holy obligation for all of Mexico.
In 2002, any further doubts as to the merit of the indigenous Virgin were squashed when then-Pope John Paul II canonized Juan Diego, transforming him into the first Roman Catholic indigenous saint from the Americas.
Over the centuries, the Virgin has been depicted in Mexican art and has served as a mirror of national and cultural identity.
Nearly every Catholic home in Mexico today has at least one image of Our Lady of Guadalupe and come December, millions of Mexicans pay homage to her with elaborate pilgrimages to her basilica, often making their way to the sacred site in kneeled positions, legs bleeding and tears streaming down their eyes in awed devotion.
This year, at least 15 million religious pilgrims are expected to make their way to the site in December.
There is no more powerful symbol of Mexican culture and religious history than that of the emblematic Virgin of Guadalupe.