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How La Virgen de Guadalupe Became an Icon

On the anniversary of her first appearance, we look at the evolution of the symbol that has special resonance for Mexican people.

Ximena N. Larkin

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - DECEMBER 11: An image of the Virgin hangs on a truck outside the Basilica of Guadalupe on December 11, 2014 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Miguel Tovar/LatinContent/Getty Images)

I was 14 when my grandmother bought me a cheap white T-shirt with an iron-on decal of la Virgen de Guadalupe. We were at an open air market on the north end of Mexico City. In the decal, Guadalupe wore a modest dress that resembled an old time-y nightgown bearing a pattern of red flowers. Her dark hair was covered by a blue cloak adorned with stars, and it cascaded down to a crescent moon, which I initially mistook for a set of bullhorns. Her hands were placed together at heart's center, while she floated on the back of a baby angel and rays of sunbeams emanated from behind her.

In a cramped stall, the merchant arranged the letters of my name above the sepia-toned image. In a few quick movements, he passed the hot iron over the letters “XIMENA” to seal in the glue. I couldn't wait to wear the shirt back home in Brookfield, Illinois, the Southwest Chicago suburb where few people looked like me, spoke Spanish, or even understood the significance of la Virgen de Guadalupe. I was never ashamed of my Mexican heritage, but I also didn’t publically declare myself with any identifying markers. Getting that shirt was the first time I remember feeling a proud ownership of my indigenous roots.

Over the years, my grandmother would send me all kinds of Virgen de Guadalupe-branded items—bracelets, prayer cards, and charms made in her image. When I was in college, she even shipped me a 2 ½ ft. plaster statue that she had painted by hand. When it arrived, it was broken into hundreds of shards. Although it was nearly damaged beyond repair, I couldn't bring myself to toss it. So I spent weeks super-gluing it back together. The sculpture still sits in my closet today as a reminder of my grandmother and Mexican heritage.

Pilgrims carry a large painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe outside the Basilica de Guadalupe in Mexico City. The main celebration for the Virgin of Guadalupe is on December 12th, the date that she appeared to the Indian Juan Diego in 1531. People travel from all over the country, some for weeks by foot, to attend the celebration. (Photo by Ann Johansson/Corbis via Getty Images)

La Virgen de Guadalupe isn't just precious to me and my family. As the National Museum of Mexican Art describes, "Her name and image have become synonymous with Mexicanidad (Mexican-ness) as she embodies the central theme to which any study of Mexican identity must inevitably return."

The origin of la Virgen de Guadalupe dates back to December 12, 1531. On this date in Tepeyac, which is located on the outskirts of Mexico City, an indigenous shepherd named Juan Diego saw a vision of the Virgin Mary in Aztec garb. Mary asked him in his indigenous language to build a temple in her honor. After multiple sightings, a miracle took place—Diego discovered Guadalupe’s now-iconic image mysteriously imprinted on his tilma (cloak). This seemingly supernatural occurrence helped perpetuate the cult around her and inspire the building of her temple, which has become a pilgrimage site that receives more than 20 million annual visitors, according to Mexico City’s tourism board.

Diego’s vision is special because it is believed to be the first time an Aztec saw the Virgin Mary bearing physical features like own. Her brown skin drew similarities to Tonantzin, one of many goddesses worshipped by the Aztec people. Guadalupe’s visual representation also evokes traditional Catholic imagery. Some believe she resembles the pregnant Woman of the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelations, who is described as being “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a garland of 12 stars.”

Some experts see a conspiracy in Guadalupe's melding of both Aztec and European culture. They doubt the miracle imprint on Juan Diego’s tilma and the very existence of Diego altogether. Instead, they believe it is all a myth that was manufactured by Spain to conquer Mexico by inspiring religious conversion to Catholicism. Critical inquiries into la Virgen de Guadalupe were first officially raised in Catholic church in 1888 by historian Joaquín García Icazbalceta. But regardless of the origin of Guadalupe, modern academics such as Allen Yeh and Gabriela Olaguibel see her as a vehicle for indigenous people used to preserve their own culture amid persecution from the Spanish.

Today, the icon has come to embody Mexico's modern reality as a melting pot. In this, she has also become a rallying point for Mexican people. Associate professor of art history and architecture at DePaul University, Delia Cosentino, who teaches a class on Guadalupe, told me she believes Guadalupe to be the most widely circulated image in the Western Hemisphere. She’s even been evoked by stars including Beyonce and Kim Kardashian.

Not to mention her millions of devotees across the globe, and altars all over North and South America, and European cities including Paris, where she has a dedicated altar inside Notre-Dame. To honor her, people light a candle and say a prayer in her name. And on the anniversary of her appearance to Diego, herds of people travel to the basilica on foot carrying her banner or statute. For those who can’t get to her in Mexico, they stage their own pilgrimages, marching in her honor through the California heat or the Chicago snow.

To better understand her complicated history and the intense devotion she inspires around the world today, I followed up with Cosentino. Here’s what the expert had to say about la Virgen de Guadalupe.

A girl poses for a picture in a makeshift photo studio outside the Basilica de Guadalupe church in San Salvador, El Salvador on December 12, 2014 during the celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The Salvadoreans celebrate the appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe to Juan Diego in 1531 in Mexico. Photo by Jose CABEZAS/AFP/Getty Images

VICE: I know what la Virgen de Guadalupe means to me, but in broader terms, what does she represent?
Delia Cosentino: She is a Catholic symbol in association with a new tradition. But in more modern times, she's become this national image. Within each of those categories, she has a variety of meanings. If you're Mexican and indigenous, you may have particular associations with Guadalupe, calling her Tonantzin. But if you're not necessarily indigenous, and yet still Mexican, she's almost synonymous with the flag. The fact that her image is often associated with the oppressed classes is a function of more modern times. Her ambiguous roots have allowed her to become a symbol for those people who don't have a voice.

What role does her skin color play into that?
Within Mexico, there's a history of racism that's based on skin color. [Gudalupe has] olive skin, which speaks to this idea of her being an image that's intended to speak to and about indigenous people.

What’s the connection between Guadalupe and the Aztec goddess Tonantzin?
The truth is we don't know that much about Tonantzin. It is important to recognize that Tonantzin was one of many Earth goddesses, which is typical of polytheism. She just happened to be the one who, according to tradition, was revered in Tepeyac. That's her connection to Guadalupe.

It would be wrong to suggest that Tonantzin was some dominant goddess. She was not big within the Aztec pantheon. She wasn't honored at the main temple, but then, no women were. The Aztecs were imperialists and male-dominated.

How did Guadalupe become synonymous with the Mexican flag?
That really began to happen with the call for independence, El Grito (in 1810). It was [Catholic priest Miguel] Hidalgo, under a flag with her image, who called for Mexican independence from Spain. That's where the roots of her national identity come from. And then, of course, it gets compounded over time. It got a bit complicated in the 20th century with the separation of church and state. But around 2000, [Vicente Fox] appeared with Guadalupe and broke the unspoken rule that Mexican presidents shouldn't be visually aligned with her image. It's a complicated history.

How certain are we of her origin?
It's a very delicate subject. Some people have suggested that she was a tool of conquest. I think there's a legitimate argument there—and there is evidence, too.

The most significant voice is Stafford Poole. He has done a lot of historical work that would suggest that the way that we think about her today is shaped by the Colonial period, when her image was controlled and developed by people who were in power. He is a Vincentian priest who wrote an entire book [on the topic]. After that book, he was told by the Basilica of Guadalupe that he was no longer welcome there.

We do know that her power as a representative for the underclasses is really a modern thing. But that doesn't delegitimize her. I tread carefully on this subject. Take the tilma, [Juan Diego’s cloak that features an image of la Virgen de Guadalupe and still hangs in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City]. Even those who would argue the tilma was not painted by the hand of God can’t argue over how old it is. That image definitely came out of early Colonial Mexico. Any way you cut it, that is a very powerful image, because it's been here for a long time. And even if somebody might be threatened by the idea that it is the image is a tool of control, they have to acknowledge that it was created by a native. An indigenous man. That's very powerful.

What is the evidence that suggests she was fabricated?
Part of that evidence is simply iconographic. Her appearance is derived directly from images of the Woman of the Apocalypse. Unless God was creating the same images in Spain as in Mexico, it would be hard to argue that there wasn't a clear connection to Spain. Again, it doesn't defy the idea that it could have been a godly image, but it raises questions. Friars were bringing images from Spain to Mexico to inspire and to teach the native populations about Catholicism. Because they didn't share a language, they had to use images to teach. One of the first images that was brought into Mexico was brought by Hernán Cortés ("Cortez the Killer"). It was an image of the Virgin Mary that looked very similar to Guadalupe.

What does the future of la Virgen de Guadalupe look like?
I have absolutely no doubt that she has a very, very rich future. This is, because her past is so rich and so complicated. Her symbolism has complexity that ties into race, culture, belief, and politics. There's no getting rid of her. She's here to stay. She's the kind of image that even if somebody tried to destroy all remnants of her, she would rise like a phoenix from the ashes.

It sounds like you don't have to be religious to love or worship her.
Any kind of imagery that is powerful transcends any one interpretation. Because of her association with nationalism, her ability to bring voice to women, and because of her religious foundations, I don't think you have to have an association with all, or even one of those, to recognize her power. At a certain level, she has become her own religion. Her Catholic origins are just a one part of her. They're significant, and I don't mean to underplay that. But I'm most comfortable suggesting she is her own religion. I believe religion is most effective when it's built from the ground up, not top down. So the idea that you could embrace her and she could serve whatever needs you have, regardless of your ethnic or religious identity, is an important part of her as well.

How does she fit into the current political landscape?
She can serve as a reminder of the power of Mexico and of Mexican people. She has the potential to be a leader of a new kind of resistance movement. It takes us back to the period of Hidalgo, his flag, and thinking, How can she again rise from the ashes to really help bring renewed balance into what right now seems like a completely chaotic reality in the US?

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