On Dec. 9, 1531, a recently baptized Aztec peasant named Juan Diego was making his way across the field on Mt. Tepeyac, located in today’s Mexico City, when he encountered a voice, a presence and a vision of a lady that would alter the course of history.
In the first of a series of five apparitions, the lady revealed herself as Mary and told him, in his Indigenous dialect, that she desired to have a casita, a little home, built on that site, for all of her children to gather.
Today, the site is a shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe, and Dec. 12 is a feast to celebrate Our Lady. She has become a significant figure for Catholics, especially those of Latin American heritage, Hispanic communities in the U.S., and Indigenous peoples.
Our Lady of Guadalupe remains a significant figure for me and many others. For years, I have been baffled by the power of La Morenita, or the mestiza woman, as she is affectionately called. For me, she is radically intersectional.
When Juan Diego told the bishop of the apparition and message, not only did the bishop consider the claim of Mary’s apparition to an uneducated Indigenous “savage” absurd; he considered the idea of building a “home” in a place that had once served as the site of worship and sacrifice to the Aztec earth goddess preposterous.
The bishop told Juan Diego that if there was any legitimacy to this claim, he would need a sign. After additional apparitions in the following days, Juan Diego returned with the lady’s response. When he unfurled his outer cloak to reveal the Castilian roses she had sent, all those assembled were astonished by the amazing image of Mary miraculously emblazoned on Juan Diego’s cloak.
The bishop was humbled by the heavenly message sent through an outcast peasant, and a shrine was built to honor Our Lady of Guadalupe on Mt. Tepeyac. Today, the shrine receives around 20 million visitors a year.
Our Lady’s apparition as a mestiza to Juan Diego, a newly baptized Indigenous man, represented an iconoclastic moment for both the church and the Spanish crown.
By the year 1531, the Catholic monarchs, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, merged their respective kingdoms by marriage and created a European superpower that collaborated with the church to send missionaries to the “New World” to save the souls of the Indigenous.
During their reign, Spain controlled all of Central and South America except Brazil and one-third of North America. This era ushered in what was arguably the most comprehensive genocide of peoples in human history.
For such a time as this, the impact of La Morenita’s story is that she represents a path toward reconciliation from polarizing positions along racial and ethnic, political, and economic lines.
The intensifying polarization of our time is driven by greed, exploitation and a politics of scarcity that legitimizes actions that yield suffering. For example, the global climate crisis is yielding massive amounts of death at every level of our natural world. As in the 16th century when the apparitions occurred, the powerful have driven the willful destruction of cultures, the exploitation of land and the dehumanization of people.
In Our Lady’s apparition, the powerless are given a voice and the dignity of the dehumanized is restored. La Morenita turns imperial power dynamics on its head. God hears the cry of the poor, and a transformed religious imagination sets the captives free.
In addition to the narrative, the iconography of Our Lady of Guadalupe invites all Christians to meditate upon the symbols that this miraculous image of Mary represents.
Reflected in her downcast eyes are the images of Juan Diego and the bishop, showing the dignity of the marginalized restored and the authority figure on his knees. Her hands, typically clasped in prayer, are a lighter right hand and a darker-toned left, highlighting the multiplicity of race and ethnicity that make up the mestizo community.
Her blue mantle, a sign that she is the Virgin Queen of Heaven, doubles as a symbol for Christianity and Aztec deities. The golden rays that illuminate her aura represent the Aztec sun god, allowing this image to transcend religious symbols of one tradition over the other, for the sake of gathering together what has been cast aside by both traditions.
Unlike other images of Mary, Guadalupe breaks into our siloed religious imaginations and engages both faith and reason in the complexity of being alive. The story of Our Lady of Guadalupe calls out to each of us to examine all the ways our faith is sending us out to see again, to hear the word and, like Mary, to say yes.