Before the much-publicized uproar over the Amazon Synod, and before white Catholics were scandalized about perceived pagan imagery and idolatrous devotion creeping into the faith, there was another controversial figure in European Catholic circles – Our Lady of Guadalupe, the apparition of the Blessed Virgin who made herself known to St. Juan Diego. Despite the fact that now she’s almost universally accepted, including by self-described traditionalists (she has a shrine to her in Wisconsin built under the direction of none other than the former Bishop of LaCrosse, Cardinal Raymond Burke), for a time she was almost as divisive as the so-called Pachamama. It’s difficult to believe that it’s been over two years since the “Pachamama” dispute reared its ugly head; unfortunately, as we will see, the issues surrounding Our Lady of Guadalupe took more than two centuries to fully resolve.

Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to a Mexica man and spoke to him in Nahuatl, the language of the Mexica people and the Aztec Empire of which they were the (wildly unpopular) rulers. She appeared at a site formerly associated with the worship of the goddess Tonantzin, in colors–teal and brown–associated with Mexica rather than Castilian concepts of royalty and divinity. The Franciscan missionaries present in Mexico, as might be expected, were initially highly skeptical of the perceived survival of pagan, even demonic, elements in the Guadalupe apparitions.

Despite this skepticism, they could not deny the reality for long. According to Nican Mopohua, a 17th-century account written in Nahuatl that described the apparitions and their outcomes, the missionaries were at last convinced when Castilian roses were found on the hill of Tepeyac where she appeared and an image of her was miraculously found on the cloak of the man she’d spoken to, known to us today as St. Juan Diego. This was corroborated by the account of Juan Bernadino, Juan Diego’s uncle, who said she appeared to him while he was sick and instructed him to inform the archbishop of her apparition and of his miraculous recovery.

Even so, it took hundreds of years for the devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe to attain the exalted status within New World Catholicism that it currently enjoys. Juan de Zumárraga, the Archbishop of Mexico named in the traditional version of the story, says nothing about the apparitions in his own writings, and his successor, Alfonso de Montúfar, encountered continued opposition from the Franciscan order when he tried to promote the devotion. As late as the 1570s the Franciscan historian Bernardino de Sahagún was still denouncing Our Lady of Guadalupe in terms that will be hauntingly familiar to anybody who followed the ”Pachamama” Sturm und Drang of 2019:

It appears to be a Satanic invention to cloak idolatry under the confusion of this name, Tonantzin. And they now come to visit from very far away, as far away as before, which is also suspicious, because everywhere there are many churches of Our Lady and they do not go to them. They come from distant lands to this Tonantzin as in olden times.[1]

The Sacred Congregation of Rites–the pre-Vatican II dicastery that has today been divided into the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and the Congregation for Divine Worship–did not formally approve the apparition until 1754, two hundred and twenty-three years after Our Lady’s initial appearance to Juan Diego. Our Lady of Guadalupe was not canonically crowned and proclaimed Patroness of the Americas and Queen of Mexico until 1895. It seems likely that continued apprehension about the indigenous symbolism of the image among European prelates contributed to this (by today’s standards) very slow process.[2]

Our Lady of Guadalupe’s nonwhite features are emphasized in Spanish-language devotions to her to this day. The popular hymn “Mi Virgencita Americana” extolls her ojos neros, piel morena (black eyes and brown skin), and Mexico’s current ruling political party, the left-wing populist MORENA, is named in reference to the mestiza appearance of the country’s patroness.

This mestiza appearance is a fundamental – perhaps the fundamental – reason for her widespread appeal in Mexican Catholic and greater Latin American Catholic devotion. Unlike many depictions of the Virgin, Our Lady of Guadalupe is unmistakably brown, and in a country where pale skin and Spanish blood meant social prestige, her darker complexion made her relatable and understandable to both the Mexica who were first devoted to her and later to the population at large. Famously, in the traditional version of this story, she asks St. Juan Diego “¿No estoy yo aquí que soy tu madre?” – “Am I not here, I who am your mother?” – and in doing so with nonwhite features, she places herself in a position of mother to the entire Church, including its Mexican and indigenous branches.

Suggestively, at the time of her appearance in 1531, the oldest mestizos in the New World were still only  preteens; Cortes had landed on the Mesoamerican mainland a mere twelve years before. Our Lady chose to appear to Juan Diego at a time before adult women of her (apparent) ethnicity even existed. Her appearance was thus prophetic of an interracial New World, as opposed to one in which Europeans would rule over other ethnic and racial groups plain and simple, the way the British and the French later did during the era of New Imperialism in Africa and Asia.

Of course, Catholicism is, as Pope Pius XI pointed out in Mit brennender Sorge, not a religion whose adherents are supposed to value or prioritize racial issues beyond a certain point, no matter what their–or our–specific stances on racial politics are. However, it is difficult to deny that Our Lady’s appearance at Tepeyac was a challenge to the European missionaries’ racial oppression of New Spain’s indigenous population as well as a theological challenge. (It was also, of course, a racial and theological challenge to those indigenous Mexicans who wanted to simply expel the Spanish and continue worshiping Tonantzin and other pre-contact deities.)

The delay in recognizing Our Lady of Guadalupe and the controversy surrounding “Pachamama” are symptoms of the same root problem: a persistent hesitancy in white Catholicism to accept that the Church is truly global, and not merely an outgrowth of the familiar aspects of one’s own culture. There is a pernicious double standard in many white Catholic circles to accept European aesthetics and traditions as compatible with the faith while distrusting non-Western and particularly indigenous versions of the same; it is sad but not surprising that Marian apparitions aimed at speaking to non-Western and indigenous people would be subject to intense scrutiny as a result.

[1] From the Florentine Codex as translated by Arthur J.O. Anderson and Charles Dibble (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1982), p. 90. Miguel León-Portilla describes Sahagún as “the pioneer of anthropology” (pionero de la antropología, in his 1987 Sahagún biography of that title); despite his personal dislike for the Aztec religion and for the devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe, Sahagún was committed to describing Aztec culture as objectively as he could, and his methods prefigure modern social sciences research.

[2]Feminist scholar Rosemary Radford Ruether and Knights of Columbus leader Carl A. Anderson both treat the delay as significant, for different reasons, in their respective books Goddesses and the Divine Feminine (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006) and Our Lady of Guadalupe: Mother of the Civilization of Love (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2009; coauthored with Eduardo Chávez). Rafaela Castro’s Chicano Folklore (Oxford, England; Oxford University Press, 2001) and the Encyclopedia of Latino Popular Culture edited by Cordelia Chávez Candelaria (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2004) also stress this.

Image: Statue in the Shrine of Our Lady of the Americas in Albany, New York, photographed by coauthor Nathan Turowsky on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, December 12, 2021.

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Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.

Meredith Dawson is a Catholic convert living in the Midwestern United States. She is a Cherokee Native American and an independent Tolkien scholar.

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