The story begins in the early morning hours of December 9, 1531, when a fifty-seven-year-old Indian peasant named Juan Diego was walking along the path of Tepayec Hill on the outskirts of Mexico City. Keep in mind that only ten years earlier, Hernan Cortez had conquered Mexico City. Two years later, in 1523, Franciscan missionaries came evangelizing the Indian people. They were so successful that the Diocese of Mexico City was established in 1528. (Remember too that Jamestown, the first permanent English colony was not established until 1607.) Juan Diego and many of his family members were among these early converts to the faith. He was baptized “Juan Diego” in 1525 along with his wife, Maria Lucia, and his uncle Juan Bernardino.
One must also not forget that Juan Diego had grown-up under Aztec oppression. The Aztec religious practices, which included human sacrifice, play an interesting and integral role in this story. Every Aztec city had a temple pyramid, about 100 feet high, on top of which was erected an altar. Upon this altar, the Aztec priests offered human sacrifice to their god Huitzilopochtli, called the “Lover of Hearts and Drinker of Blood,” by cutting out the beating hearts of their victims, usually adult men but often children. The priests held the beating hearts high for all to see, drank the blood, kicked the lifeless bodies down the pyramid steps, and later severed the limbs and ate the flesh. Considering that the Aztecs controlled 371 towns and the law required 1,000 human sacrifices for each town with a temple pyramid, over 50,000 human beings were sacrificed each year. Moreover, the early Mexican historian Ixtlilxochitl estimated that one out of every five children fell victim to this blood thirsty religion.
In 1487, when Juan Diego was just thirteen years old, he would have witnessed the most horrible event: Tlacaellel, the 89-year old Aztec ruler, dedicated the new temple pyramid of the sun, dedicated to the two chief gods of the Aztec pantheon– Huitzilopochtli and Tezcatlipoca (the god of Hell and Darkness)– in the center of Tenochtitlan (later Mexico City). The temple pyramid was 100 feet high with 114 steps to reach the top. More than 80,000 men were sacrificed over a period of four days and four nights. One can only imagine the flow of blood and the piles of bodies from this dedication.
Nevertheless, Hernan Cortez outlawed human sacrifice. He stripped the temple pyramid of its two idols, cleansed the stone of its blood, and erected a new altar. Cortez, his soldiers, and Father Olmedo then ascended the stairs with the Holy Cross and images of the Blessed Mother and St. Christopher. Upon this new altar, Father Olmedo offered the Sacrifice of the Mass. Upon what had been the place of evil pagan sacrifice, now the unbloody, eternal and true sacrifice of our Lord was offered. Such an action, however, sparked the all-out war with the Aztecs, whom Cortez finally subdued in August, 1521.
Now back to our story. That morning Juan Diego was headed to Mass, because at that time December 9 was the date for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception throughout the Spanish Empire. As he walked along Tepeyac Hill, he began to hear beautiful strains of music, and he saw a beautiful lady, who called his name: “Juanito, Juan Dieguito.” He approached, and she said,
“Know for certain, least of my sons, that I am the perfect and perpetual Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus, the true God, through whom everything lives, the Lord of all things near and far, the Master of Heaven and earth. It is my earnest wish that a temple be built here to my honor. Here I will demonstrate, I will manifest, I will give all my love, my compassion, my help and my protection to the people. I am your merciful mother, the merciful mother of all of you who live united in this land, and of all mankind, of all those who love me, of those who cry to me, of those who seek me, and of those who have confidence in me. Here I will hear their weeping, their sorrow, and will remedy and alleviate all their multiple sufferings, necessities, and misfortunes.”
She told Juan Diego to go tell Bishop Zumarraga of her desire for a church to be built at the site. Tradition holds that Juan Diego asked our Blessed Mother her name. She responded in his native language of Nahuatl, “Tlecuatlecupe,” which means “the one who crushes the head of the serpent” (a clear reference to Genesis 3:15 and perhaps to the prominent symbol of the Aztec religion). “Tlecuatlecupe” when correctly pronounced, sounds remarkably similar to “Guadalupe.” Consequently, when Juan Diego told Bishop Zumarraga her name in his native tongue, he probably confused it with the familiar Spanish name “Guadalupe,” a city with a prominent Marian shrine.
Bishop Zumarraga was a saintly man, very just and compassionate. He built the first hospital, library, and university in the Americas. He also was the Protector of the Indians, entrusted by Emperor Charles V to enforce his decree issued in August 1530, stating, “No person shall dare to make a single Indian a slave whether in war or in peace. Whether by barter, by purchase, by trade, or on any other pretext or cause whatever” (Note that in 1537 Pope Paul III condemned and forbade the enslavement of the Native American Indian.). Actually, Bishop Zumarraga listened patiently to Juan Diego, and said he would reflect on the matter, understandably doubting such a story.
Juan Diego went back to Tepayac and reported the Bishop’s response. Mary instructed him to try again. So the next day, he did. Although this time it was more difficult to see the Bishop, Juan Diego prevailed, and the Bishop once more listened patiently. However, the Bishop asked him to bring back a sign from Mary to prove the story. Again, Juan Diego reported the matter to our Blessed Mother, who told him to return the next day to receive “the sign” for the Bishop.
On December 11, Juan Diego spent the day caring for his very sick uncle, Juan Bernardino. He asked Juan Diego to go and bring a priest who would hear his confession and administer the last rites. On December 12, Juan Diego set out again, but avoided Tepeyac Hill because he was ashamed that he had not returned the previous day as our Blessed Mother had requested. While making his detour, the Blessed Mother stopped him and said, “Hear and let it penetrate into your heart, my deal little son: let nothing discourage you, nothing depress you. Let nothing alter your heart or your countenance. Also, do not fear any illness or vexation, anxiety or pain. Am I not here who am your mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not your fountain of life? Are you not in the folds of my mantle, in the crossing of my arms? Is there anything else that you need?” Mary reassured Juan Diego that his uncle would not die; in fact, his health had been restored.
As for the sign for the Bishop, Mary told Juan Diego to go to the top of the mountain and pick some flowers. He went up to the hill which was dry and barren– a place for cactus– and found roses like those grown in Castille, but foreign to Mexico. He gathered them in his tilma, or poncho. He brought them to Mary who arranged them and said to take them to the Bishop.
Juan Diego proceeded again to Bishop Zumarraga’s house. After waiting a while for an audience, he repeated the message to the Bishop and opened his tilma to present the roses. The Bishop saw not only the beautiful flowers but also the beautiful image of our Lady of Guadalupe. Bishop Zumarraga wept at the sight of the Blessed Mother, and asked forgiveness for doubting. He took the tilma and laid it at the altar in His Chapel. By Christmas of that year, an adobe structure was built atop Tepeyac Hill in honor of our Blessed Mother, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and it was dedicated on December 26, 1531, the Feast of St. Stephen the Martyr.
The tilma has been preserved since the apparition. Since 1929, the Church has permitted various scientific studies to be performed on the tilma. The earliest studies detected reflected images on the eyes of the Blessed Mother, namely, those of Juan Diego and two other persons (probably one being Juan Gonzalez, the interpreter for Bishop Zumarraga). The images have a slight distortion, due to the natural curvature of the cornea and lens of the eye. These findings have been repeatedly confirmed. Interestingly, Dr. Charles Wahlig, a nuclear physicist, posited that the Blessed Mother must have been invisibly present when Juan Diego was presenting the roses to Bishop Zumarraga and that the tilma acted like a photographic plate which captured her image and the reflection of their images in her eyes.
Infra-red studies also revealed other unexplainable phenomena: The image was not painted, and the color did not penetrate the fibers as would paint. Weaving with such irregular fibers also produced a rough surface which would have distorted any simple surface painting, yet the image one sees is clear and undistorted.
Moreover, the tilma should have deteriorated long ago. It was not sized and has no protective coat of varnish. Anything of cactus fiber would have deteriorated within one hundred years, especially when exposed to the pollution, candle soot, and the like. Nevertheless, the tilma remains.
Dr. Philip C. Callahan, a biophysicist, concluded, “The original figure including the rose robe, blue mantle, hands and face… is inexplicable. In terms of this infra-red study, there is no way to explain either the kind of color pigments utilized, nor the maintenance of color luminosity and brightness of pigments over the centuries. Furthermore, when consideration is given to the fact that there is no under-drawing, sizing, or over-varish, and that the weave of the fabric is itself utilized to give the portrait depth, no explanation of the portrait is possible by infra-red techniques. It is remarkable that in over four centuries there is no fading or cracking of the original figure on any portion of the ayate tilma, which being unsized, should have deteriorated centuries ago” (Mary of the Americas, p. 92).
The image of our Lady of Guadalupe also has great symbolism. Although in this article we lack a picture, the following information can be used later. Our Blessed Mother’s image surrounded by luminous light, standing on the moon, and with stars on her mantle reflects the description found in the Book of Revelation: “A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (12:1).
These are also symbols of divine victory over the pagan religion. Sun rays were symbolic of the Aztec god Huitzilopochtli (“the Lover of Hearts and the Drinker of Blood”). Therefore, our Blessed Mother, standing before the rays, shows that she proclaims the true God who is greater than Huitzilopochtli and who eclipses his power.
She stands also on the moon. The moon represented night and darkness, and was associated with the god Tezcatlipoca (the god of Hell and Darkness). Her again, the Blessed Mother’s standing on the moon indicates divine triumph over evil.
Moreover, in Christian iconography, the crescent moon under our Lady’s feet also symbolizes perpetual virginity and is connected with her Immaculate Conception and Assumption.
The stars on her mantle indicate that she comes from Heaven, as Queen and loving Mother. Interestingly, the research of Father Mario Sanches and Dr. Juan Hernandez Illescas of Mexico attests that the stars on the mantle appear exactly as they would have in the sky before dawn on the Morning of December 12, 1531.
The face of our Blessed Mother, with its complexion, dark hair, and dark eyes, reflects the physiognomy of an Indian. Her eyes are also cast downward, showing humility and compassion. Also, in Indian iconography, a god looked straight ahead with wide-open eyes; the picture here then shows that Mary does not claim to be God, but only His messenger and loving mother.
Our Blessed Mother is supported by an angel, a symbol of royalty for the Indians. Some interpret this image as a sign of our Blessed Mother announcing a new age to come.
Her clothing also has special significance. The rose color of our Blessed Mother’s dress has two interpretations, either as a symbol of the dawn of a new era, or as sign of martyrdom for the faith. The gold brooch under her neck represents sanctity. Finally the bow around her waist is a sign of virginity. However this bow has several other meanings in Native Indian culture: this bow was the nahui ollin, the flower of the sun, which was a symbol of plentitude, fecundity, and new life. The high placement of the bow and the apparent swelling of the abdomen of the Blessed Mother have led some to conclude that Mary is pregnant.
Obviously, the tilma has been a great source of devotion, especially for the Mexican people. However, evil has tried to prevail, but has failed. For example, in 1921, during the fanatical reign of General Calles who outlawed Catholicism, a bomb was planted in the basilica in hopes of destroying the tilma. The bomb reduced to rubble the marble altar below the tilma, shattered the windows, and twisted the heavy bronze altar cross. Yet, the tilma and even its glass covering were untouched. Just as Mary’s apparition testified to the triumph of true religion over the bloodthirsty paganism of the Aztecs, even in this case, she overcame the forces of evil.
Today, thousands of pilgrims go to Guadalupe to reverence the holy image. While Hispanic Catholics have a special devotion too Our Lady of Guadalupe, she rightfully deserves the devotion of all people living in the Americas. In our liturgical calendar, December 9 marks the feast day of St. Juan Diego and December 12, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. For further information, the following books are very interesting: Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Conquest of Darkness by Dr. Warren Carroll, and Mary of the Americas by Fr. Christopher Rengers.