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Our Lady of Guadalupe, Icon of Identity

By Jesús Aguado

The Virgin of Guadalupe is the Mexican queen; she is the mother of the hungry, ill, and unemployed as well as of singers, soccer players, vendors, and even politicians. Our Lady of Guadalupe is the symbol of maternal happiness and salvation of the country.

Lupita, Virgencita (little virgin), Lupe or Tonantzin, is the image with which Mexican Catholics identify because of her skin color. Her features convey a message of peace, love, and tranquility. She elected this nation in which to appear and talk to Juan Diego, a humble indigenous man. Almost 500 years after her appearance, she is still an icon of power, faith, and union for an entire nation.

Our Lady of Guadalupe is an icon that goes beyond the borders: her image can be found in a wallet or on a taxi’s windshield, in public plazas and streets, on facades of private buildings or in workshops where, from her altar, she watches over the workers.

“The virgin is everywhere because at least 90 percent of Mexicans are Catholic and because all Mexicans, whether they want it or not, are Guadalupanos for being born in this country,” says Monsignor Luis Felipe García from the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, church and shrine built at the hill of Tepeyac (the Gustavo A. Madero neighborhood, Mexico City) in honor of Virgen de Guadalupe.

Because of this, it is not unusual when the two main Mexican TV stations broadcast the mañanitas (Mexican birthday song) to the virgin on the night of December 11, performed by famous Mexican actors, actresses, and singers (part of Televisa and TV Azteca). It is no surprise that there are more than 1.5 million women named Guadalupe, according to the National Register of Population and Identity.

Apparitions of Our Lady

The native pre-Hispanics were polytheistic and had a god or goddess for corn, rainfall, fire, and, of course, the divine mother, mother of all gods (Tonantzin), who had a small ceremonial center on Tepeyac hill. History says that on December 9, 1531, Juan Diego—named as a saint in 2002—was on his way to mass when he was surprised by the chirping of birds. He stopped and saw for the first time, on the hill dedicated to Tonantzin, an apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe who let him know her desire to have a church built on that hill. “In that temple I will show and will give my love and my compassion to all those that come to me,” she told Juan Diego.

La Guadalupana also asked him to go and meet the bishop to let him know her desire. He went, but the bishop did not believe him and asked for proof of the meeting. On December 12, the Virgin appeared again and told Juan Diego, “Go to that hill and cut some flowers, then take them and show them only to the bishop.” Juan Diego cut the flowers and filled his ayate (poncho made from the fiber of the maguey plant) with roses that he presented to the bishop. When Juan Diego let the roses fall from his ayate, on it appeared the image of the Guadalupana (which is now displayed to the public at the Basilica).

The virgin, insurrections, and politics

Religion and the virgin were used as an emblem for the war of independence that started on the early morning of September 16, 1810. According to the official version, Miguel Hidalgo, arrived at Atotonilco and took a painting of the virgin to use to encourage the insurgents to fight for their country. City historian Graciela Cruz comments that there is a second version: an insurgent arrived at Atotonilco and asked a lay sister for a painting of the virgin. She gave it to him along with a pole that she took from a clothesline. Carrying the image of the virgin, the insurgent encouraged the rebels.

Graciela Cruz also remembers the “twin flags” from the Queen’s Dragons Army. Cruz said that the flags were fashioned by Ignacio Allende’s command and were used for the first time by the insurgent army in the village of San Miguel el Grande on September 16, 1810. The flags, also called Allende’s Flags, have two fronts. On one of them is a crowned Virgin of Guadalupe, and on the other is the Mexican eagle on a cactus and an image of St. Michael the Archangel. Those flags were confiscated from the insurgent army in their first defeat in 1811 by Félix María Calleja, who sent them to Ferdinand VII in 1814 as war trophies. They were part of the Army Museum in Spain until May 2010, when the Spanish government decided to repatriate one of the flags to Mexico as a present for the celebration of 200 years of independence.

The Guadalupana image was also used by Emiliano Zapata 100 years later during the Mexican revolution.

Benito Juárez reformed the constitution of 1857, and there was a separation between religion and politics. Properties of the church were confiscated by the government. Monsignor García says that regardless of that, Benito Juárez showed a great devotion for the virgin. In 1999 the then candidate for president of the republic, Vicente Fox, used the virgin’s image for closing his internal political campaign in León. Before being sworn as president on December 1, 2000, he went to pray at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe and repeated the act when he finished his mandate on 2006.

Also, in 2006 during the presidential race, hundreds of followers of the PRD party marched to the Basilica to ask the virgin for a miracle against an electoral fraud. Three years later, the Guadalupana image was used in demonstrations of the Mexican Union of Electricians.

Devotion to the Virgin in San Miguel

The festivities to honor the holy mother of Guadalupe start on December the 12 and end on December 17. There are several small processions from markets and communities to Mexiquito’s shrine of the virgin. However, the biggest procession in town started 28 years ago, when a woman (who was never seen again) asked Fermín Loyola from the church of San Antonio to hold a procession for the virgin. That event, as the mysterious woman requested, should start in el Puente del Fraile with the participation of people from the 28 rural communities and 10 neighborhoods that belong to the San Antonio church. More than 8,000 people walk—some barefoot to repay a granted miracle—from that bridge to the church of San Antonio. Father Antonio González Lara of San Antonio commented that all the churches belonging to San Antonio have a Virgin of Guadalupe. The festivities continue at the market of Guadalupe, continue at the market of San Juan de Dios, and end at Mercado Ignacio Ramírez on December 17. Check the whole program in Qué Pasa.

A polemic virgin

In 2002 there was indignation among the Mexican population because a Chinese entrepreneur, Wo You Lin, registered the image of La Guadalupana before the Mexican Institute of the Intellectual Property for 10 years for a price of 2,112 pesos. You Lin was the only person who had the right to use the virgin’s image for commercial purposes. The registration expired in 2012, and it was not renewed. “And it was better that he did not try to get a new registration,” said Monsignor García, because the Mexican Institute cannot sell something that is not for sale, something that is a national and universal heritage.

The most recent controversy was caused by Argentinian artists who dressed a Barbie doll as Our Lady of Guadalupe as part of the exhibit, “The Plastic Religion,” that has been open to the general public since October of this year in Buenos Aires. The exhibit also features Barbie dressed as the Virgin of Sorrows, Virgin of Fatima, St. Lucia, and Virgin of Lujan, among others.

A visit to the Basilica

To get to the Basilica, pilgrims walk through a wide avenue called Villa of Guadalupe. Most of them carry images, sculptures, and banners with the virgin’s image. When they get to the Basilica, they go into the church on their knees; some pray, some sing, others cry, but they all decide to keep their granted miracles secret.

When the pilgrims leave the Basilica, they form groups and before their own virgin’s image, they gather, rest, and eat something. Other visitors stroll through the churches of the villa and take photos before a giant sculptural work called “The Offering.”

Monsignor Luis Felipe García told Atención that whether the virgin was stamped on Juan Diego’s ayate or not is not important at this time. What it is important is that the pilgrims must stamp the image of the virgin in their heart. “They have to open their life’s ayate and fill it with roses of love from the virgin. In that Basilica, the virgin grants miracles daily,” says Monsignor García. He commented that some members of cartels have been there talking with him before the Guadalupana about renouncing evil and becoming good people; however, days later they are killed by their enemies who did not like their decision. “But they die converted to good,” says Monsignor García.

Today the country is going through social and political problems—like that of the 43 missing students from Guerrero—that could lead society to take the Guadalupana as an emblem once again. Monsignor García said that people should not be using the Virgin for their political causes because the virgin is sending the same message as the one she gave almost 500 years ago, “Build me a little house,” which means, he said, “Build a nation ruled by love and harmony without social conflicts.”

Interesting facts

  • The Basilica is the Catholic center most visited in the world, with a total of 23 million visitors annually
  • On September 14, 1921, a detractor placed dynamite in a bunch of roses and placed them at the virgin’s altar; the virgin remained unharmed after the explosion.
  • On October 12, 1985, the virgin was crowned as Queen of Mexico.


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