By Jean-Benoît Nadeau & Julie Barlow

Virgin of Guadalupe

I just love the celebrations surrounding the Queen of Mexico and Empress of the Americas, La Guadalupe. This year, it falls on a date some find ominous: 12-12-12. That’s a mere nine days before the infamous 12-21-12, the day the world is supposed to end according to some interpretations of the Mayan calendar.

Every time I go to Mexico City, I visit the basilica of Nuestra Señora de la Guadalupe (Our Lady of Guadalupe). Though considered one of Mexico’s most important architectural attractions, the circular basilica in Mexico City doesn’t hold a candle to other sites – the massive Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacán, the Temple of Palenque in the jungle of Chiapas or the massive murals painted by Diego de Rivera in Mexico’s National Palace are far more impressive.

Yet, as the site of an astonishing human spectacle, nothing else in Mexico compares.

One Big Happening

Every year, on December the 11th and 12th, millions of Latin Americans, mostly Mexicans, arrive at the basilica in camiónes (buses) or packed into two-ton trucks with dashboards, hoods, roofs and bumpers all decked out with garlands and statues of the Virgin. In the days leading up to this event, it’s not unusual to see peasants walking and cycling with five feet-tall images of the Guadalupe strapped to their backs – or even more shocking, pilgrims with blood streaming down their legs, not because of traffic accidents, but because they crawled along the gigantic boulevard leading to the basilica on their hands and knees.

This holiday is the peak season for the non-stop veneration of the Virgin Mary that carries on inside the basilica all year long. The building – which is more functional than inspirational – has 10 000 seats offering a view of the basilica’s pièce de résistance: a painting of the Virgin, roughly two square meters in size, that hangs a few feet above the altar.

Behind the altar, there is a large trench, hidden from view, where two moving walkways shuttle pilgrims along. Visitors are not allowed to hang around for too long. That’s because two centuries ago, someone threw bleach on the icon (after which the image allegedly restored itself miraculously), and then in 1921 it was bombed. Today, the image is protected by a bulletproof glass – in a vacuum, to boot (a low-oxygen atmosphere).


According to tradition, this image is actually painted on the original tilma (apron) of Chichimeca peasant Juan Diego, to whom the Virgin appeared in 1531. The image is a perfect illustration of the religious syncretism (the combining of different often contradictory beliefs) so typical of Latin American Catholicism.

The actual likeness of the Virgin is believed to have been inspired by an Aztec Goddess, Tonanzin, whose temple was on the same Tepeyac Hill where Diego saw the apparition, right behind the basilica.

At any rate, her features seem deliberately chosen to appeal to Native Americans. She is brown – she is often called la morenita (the little brown one) – and dressed in blue and green, colors associated with two Aztec divinities (for earth and heavenly bodies).

The rays of light framing her body are in the form of maguey (agave) cactus leaves, which was the main ingredient of the pulque, a sacred and ritual alcoholic drink of the Atzecs.

Although there was a Lady of Guadalupe from Extremadura in Spain who inspired a cult between the 14th and 16th century, the Mexican Guadalupe’s name comes from the Hispanicization of the Virgin’s own name for herself. To Juan Diego, she allegedly referred to herself as Coatlaxopeuh, which means “the one who crushes the snake” in Nahuatl.

And powerful she is.

Octavio Paz, the Mexican Nobel laureate in literature, went as far as saying that the only two things the Mexican people still had faith in were the Virgin of Guadalupe and the National Lottery. Veneration for the Guadalupe is believed to have prompted no less than five million Native Americans to convert to Christianity before 1536 – only five years after her appearance.

Auxiliary Languages

The fact that the Virgin allegedly spoke to Juan Diego in Nahuatl, rather than in Spanish, is important. During most of the Spanish empire, the Spanish language was actually in a fragile position in many parts of the continent.

In fact, nothing was certain when it came to the spread of Spanish on the continent. To consolidate their hold on the Americas, the Spanish built on what was already there – including languages. The dominant languages were Nahuatl in the Aztec empire, Quechua in Peru, Mayan in Central America and Guarani in the less populated Southern Cone. On the continent, the Aztec and Inca empires were so enormous that even after 70 to 95% of their populations were wiped out by epidemics, there were still between one and four million natives in Mexico alone.

Spanish missionaries, conquistadores, traders and administrators made the conscious decision to communicate with the natives and mestizos in these widely spoken languages, which the Spanish dubbed lenguas generales (auxiliary languages). While millions of Native Americans converted to Catholicism, they did so in their native tongues, not Spanish.

It was these native languages that allowed Spain to establish an empire quickly over a vast territory. These languages even progressed after the Spanish Conquest against all other native languages – most notably Quechua and Nahuatl.

The Virgen of Guadalupe helped, of course, by inspiring so many to convert.


The Story of SpanishMore information about the interaction between language and religion can be found in our new book, The Story of Spanish, (to be released in April 2013, St. Martin’s Press).