In 1531, Juan Diego, a 57-year-old peasant, was on his way to church in central Mexico. Suddenly, he heard birds singing and music playing. A woman’s voice called out to him. It was the apparition of the Virgin Mary, and she had a message for him.
“I will hear your pain and respond,” she said.
Thus began the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The story and its resulting image would become one of the most important religious symbols of Mexico and a powerful female icon of Mexican culture.
Jeanette Rodriguez, chair of the department of theology and religious studies at Seattle University, spent several years studying Our Lady of Guadalupe and the unifying role the image of the beautiful, brown-skinned woman has played in the lives of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans.
She delivered the annual Mazzuchelli Lecture Nov. 8 to a full house in Martin Recital Hall at Dominican University. Her talk, “Resistance, Faith and Social Change,” was in honor of the Rev. Samuel Mazzuchelli, who founded the Sinsinawa Dominicans in 1847.
“We are a culture of stories,” Rodriguez said, “and the stories are passed from one generation to the next to help provide strength and tie together families and neighbors.”
Rodriguez, who received a doctorate in religion from the University of California at Berkeley, began by defining cultural memory as “historical memories that are so overwhelmingly significant they become imperative for their [the people’s] survival.” This was the case with Our Lady of Guadalupe, she said.
She said the name Guadalupe means “the one who comes from the region of light on the wings of an eagle.”
According to the story, Rodriguez said, the apparition appeared to Juan Diego near Tepayac Hill not far from what is now Mexico City. Mary told Diego to go and tell the bishop what he had seen, but the bishop was skeptical.
Disappointed, Diego returned to the hill. The Virgin Mary appeared again and told him to climb higher and pick Castilian roses and place them into his tilma, a poncho-like cape commonly worn at the time. When Diego brought the roses to the bishop to prove his sighting of the apparition, the Virgin Mary’s image was printed on the tilma.
The painting has been displayed in the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City for nearly 500 years. Each day, hundreds come to view Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the basilica has become one of the most visited Catholic shrines in the world.
“If you examine the image closely,” Rodriguez said, “one of her eyes is lighter than the other. The “eye that is alive” has the reflected image of 22 people, upside down and reversed,” she said.
“One of her hands is long and light,” Rodriguez said, “and the other is short and dark. This represents a true mestizo, which is a person of Spanish and native American Indian blood,” she added.
The religious and cultural icon of Mexico has influence far beyond the nation’s borders. In Mexican-American neighborhoods in Chicago and throughout the U.S., statues or paintings of Our Lady of Guadalupe have a sacred place in many homes, and Rodriguez explained why.
Mexicans who come and assimilate into the American culture need not worry about the adjustment because, “no matter how hard they fall they will never hit the floor because Our Lady of Guadalupe will catch them,” Rodriguez said.
– Agata Kubinska, Contributing Writer