Our Lady of Guadalupe feast shows Latin American pride, identity

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All of the tensions between races, religions and cultures that took place when the English settled in Virginia were a repeat of what had happened in Mexico nearly a century earlier. The Spanish conquistadors did not receive a warm welcome from the indigenous people of Mexico. The Aztecs rejected Spanish customs, including Catholicism, because these ideas and traditions struck them as foreign and invasive.

Motecuhzoma, the ruler of Tenochtitlan, Mexico, during the first Mexican contact with Europeans, may have taken the Spanish for "gods" because of their white skin and facial hair, but he did not trust them.

In Codex Florentino, Benedictine priest Bernardino de Sahagún wrote, "Motecuhzoma (sent his) magicians to learn what sort of people the strangers might be, but they were also to see if they could work some charm against them, or do them some mischief. They might be able to direct a harmful wind against them, or cause them to break out in sores, or injure them in some way. Or they might be able to repeat some enchanted word, over and over, that would cause them to fall sick, or die, or return to their own land."

In 1521, Hernán Cortés and his men conquered Mexico. Shortly thereafter, Franciscan missionaries arrived from Spain and began their evangelization efforts. Dominicans and Augustinians followed. The missionaries built hospitals, schools and other amenities as a means to convert the Mexicans, but one of the biggest influencers in indigenous conversion was an apparition witnessed by Juan Diego, an Aztec convert.

Legend has it that on Dec. 9, 1531, Juan Diego was on his way to Mass when he heard a faint melody. Out of nowhere came a lovely lady calling his name. Speaking Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, she identified herself as the Virgin Mary and promised to help Juan Diego's people, but she also made a request: that Juan Diego go to the bishop, tell him of his vision and ask that a shrine be built in Mary's name. Juan Diego went to the bishop but was met with doubt. The bishop said he could not approve the construction of a shrine unless Juan Diego offered proof of his vision.

On Dec. 12, Mary reappeared before Juan Diego and asked him to collect roses in his cloak. Juan Diego did as he was told and took the roses to the bishop. When he opened the cloak, the roses fell to the floor and revealed a picture of Mary printed on the cloth. She looked like an indigenous lady, not a Spanish one. The origin of the word "Guadalupe" remains unknown and may or may not be a transliteration of a Nahuatl word.

Today the Guadalupe shrine claims to have Juan Diego's original cloak on display. La Villa de Guadalupe, a complex of two basilicas, three chapels, a cemetery and other religious sites, sits at the foot of Tepeyac Hill, three miles northeast of Mexico City. The old basilica opened its doors in 1709, while the new one, which houses Juan Diego's cloak, was completed in 1976. The complex is the most popular Marian shrine in the world and has attracted scores of pilgrims since the 1500s. It is estimated that 20 million people visit the shrine every year, with about half of them coming around Dec. 12, the Virgin of Guadalupe's feast day. Many pilgrims arrive the night before the feast day and camp out on a large plaza outside the basilica. They celebrate with prayer, music, street food and a marketplace full of Guadalupe memorabilia.

"There is so much at La Villa de Guadalupe," said Julia Young, assistant professor of history at the Catholic University in Washington, "that you could spend the whole feast day looking at things and still not see everything."

Any hour of the day and any time of year, the faithful around the world also may view live video streams on the new basilica's website.

While Mary has long been the patron saint of Mexico, the church proclaimed her the patroness of the Americas in 1999. Juan Diego was canonized in 2002, making him the first Amerindian Catholic saint. Today people across Latin America - not only Mexicans - venerate Our Lady of Guadalupe. That includes many Latin American immigrants in the United States.

"For our immigrant community, the Virgin of Guadalupe represents the wait, the hope and the motives to continue living and fighting in this world," wrote Father José Eugenio Hoyos, director of the diocesan Spanish Apostolate. Father Hoyos was born and raised in Colombia.

Several churches in the diocese, including All Saints in Manassas and St. Matthew in Spotsylvania, will celebrate Masses and hold fiestas in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Dec. 12.

Our Lady of Guadalupe even has a place in secular society, representing the hopes of the oppressed in a broader sense.

"As early as the 17th century, the Virgin of Guadalupe was being used as a symbol of Mexican identity, not just religious but politically," Young said. "People wore her image on their banners going into war."

Young said, "Our Lady of Guadalupe's story represents a kind of fusion of indigenous and Spanish Christian culture. It is one of the oldest venerations in the Americas."

As a reminder of her eternal love, Father Hoyos recalled the words that Our Lady of Guadalupe spoke to Juan Diego: "'Am I not here, I who have the honor of being your Holy Mother? Are you not standing in my shadow, under my protection? Am I not the source of your joy? Are you not at my bosom, in the crux of my arms? What greater joy might you seek?"

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2014