He heard birds singing, and then a voice called his name. He saw a young woman surrounded by a bright light. Like him and the other people who lived around the hill of Tepeyac, she was brown-skinned, and spoke Nahuatl. She reminded him of Tonatzin, the Aztec goddess of sustenance, but the man thought of the teachings of the Franciscans and decided she must be the Virgin Mary, Mother of Christ.
She asked him to go to the Franciscan bishop, and tell him to build a church for her right there on the hill, but when he delivered this message, the bishop didn't believe him.
According to the story, Cuauhtlatoazin, whom the Franciscans had baptized by the name of Juan Diego, went back to the Lady to report his lack of success. "What did I tell you?" he probably said. "Those guys don't listen to people like me."
The Lady insisted that Juan Diego was the right person to deliver her request, but after trying again, he was discouraged. He had family troubles, his uncle was ill, dying. Juan Diego went for a priest to administer the last rights, taking the long way around to avoid running into her again.
But there she was, in front of him. "Don't worry. Your uncle will be OK," she said. She asked him to climb the hill of Tepeyac and pick her some flowers.
Although it was December, not the season for flowers, he sighed and figured he would humor her. He climbed the hill, and once there, he saw abundant roses in bloom, like the ones that were said to grow in Castile, Spain. The Lady told him to gather them up in his tilma, and show the Bishop.
Photo of original image, from the Basilica of Guadalupe
When Juan Diego went to the Bishop, he tumbled the roses from his cloak. But even more amazing, when he shook out his empty tilma, an image of the Lady was imprinted on the rough cloth.
One scholar muses that the Virgin's appearance, and some odd chemistry combining light, roses, morning dew, and the maguey fiber created the first photograph in history - chemically fixing the image of the Virgin onto the cloth.
The Bishop, convinced at last, agreed to build a shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe on the hill of Tepeyac. The shrine, replaced in the 1970s by a modern new building, contains the original tilma with the image.
The Virgin of Guadalupe is one of the most important symbols of Mexico. She synchretically represents both Mary and the Aztec Earth Mother goddess. This article by writer Judy King expands on this idea. Because native people could identify with the Virgin of Guadalupe,depicted as an indigenous woman, she helped the Spanish convert people to Christianity. As diverse ethnic groups within Mexico became converted, it was the Virgin of Guadalupe that bound them together, as they identified with her, Catholicism, and with the State of Mexico.
When Mexicans waged their war of Independence against the Spanish, and then against the French, and then again when Zapata's peasants rose up against Porfirio Diaz, they flew flags with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and wore badges with her picture on their uniforms.
The symbolism of the elements within her image is important. She stands with the light of the sun blazing behind her, and the moon beneath her feet. She wears a crown with twelve stars on her head. Her blue-green cloak is the traditional color for Mary, but also is the color worn by Aztec divinity. She wears a belt, which represents her pregnancy with the Christ child. Others interpret the rays that appear behind her as the spines of the maguey plant, and pulque, made from its fermented juice, is drunk on her feast day.
Even now, she is the predominant symbol of the Mexican people. She is the Queen of the Americas. You see her everywhere. Her decal appears on the back window of SUVs, and on taco trucks.
Some large Latino markets have shrines to her in their parking lots. This one, above, is located at El Mercado de Los Angeles, in East LA. Right after I took this photo, a couple of young men in their twenties went up to stand in front of it, and took pictures of the image with their cellphones.
Here, her image is glammed up a bit to appear on the back of a hooded sweatshirt. Many devotees are unhappy with the commercialization of her. A 2004 article in the L.A. Times reveals that products incorporating her image generate an estimated $1 billion in annual sales - air fresheners, belt buckles, hairspray cans, blankets, water bottles, tattoos and pre-paid phone cards.
She is even depicted as a Catrina figure or Dia de Los Muertos, and some folks have her image tattooed on their skins.
In 2001 a controversy erupted over Chicana artist Alma Lopez's depiction of Guadalupe as a modern woman, wearing a bikini made of roses. Lopez has descripted her interpretation of the Virgin by saying she is showing a strong woman "and not as the young, passive" more traditional image with head bowed and hands clasped commonly seen. An outcry arose, demanding that Lopez's work be removed from a museum exhibit. The Virgin, it seemed, could appear on belt buckles without offense, but could not be shown as a woman possessing strength and sexuality.
Her universal appeal to all Mexicans is part of the reason she can be so commercialized. And how she can be embraced by so many, from so many points of view. The Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes once said that "...one may no longer consider himself a Christian, but you cannot truly be considered a Mexican unless you believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe."
Because she healed Juan Diego's uncle, believers petition her to heal ills like cancer, or on behalf of their suffering loved ones. Because she is a mother, she has become a symbol of the anti-abortion movement in Catholicism. Because she appeared as an indigenous, brown-skinned woman, immigrants identify with her - and not just Mexican and Latino immigrants. She is also beloved of Asian immigrants, including Vietnamese, Korean, Filipino, and Tongan Catholics.
In the U.S., during the seventies, Cesar Chavez added her image to the signs and banners carried by the United Farm Workers Union during their struggles to improve working conditions.
Parents name both girl and boy babies in her honor, and shorten the name to Lupe or, with endearment, Lupita.
An article in the Los Angeles Times tells how merchants and property owners use her image to combat grafitti. Taggers will deface even the most artistic and beautiful murals, but leave walls with the Virgin of Guadalupe untouched, in respect to her, it's said.
December 12 is the day people celebrate the Virgin of Guadalupe. The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels' celebration begins with a 4:00 a.m. processional, and Mass is celebrated throughout the day in both Spanish and English. Another big celebration takes place at Olvera Street, the birthplace of the City of Los Angeles. A seven year theatrical tradition in Los Angeles is revived with a performance at the Los Angeles Theatre Center of "La Virgen de Guadalupe, Dios Inantzin." People celebrate her feast day with roses, and - of course - wonderful food.