Our Lady of Guadalupe holds a special place in the religious life of Mexico. In Spanish, she is called, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. The faithful believe that she appeared before Juan Diego, an early indigenous convert to Catholicism, on December 9 and again on December 12, 1531. Juan Diego claimed that Mary was brown-skinned like him and that she was dressed in the same garments worn by the women he knew. Her eyes, he said, were full of compassion and love.
During her first apparition she requested that a shrine to her be built on the very spot where she showed herself, the Tepeyac Hill, a place that was consecrated to the Aztec female deity Tonanzin. When Juan Diego took her petition to the bishop, the Church leader demanded to see a sign or a miracle before he would even consider construction of a church. When Mary appeared a second time to Juan Diego, she presented him with out-of-season roses. Juan Diego was granted a second audience with the bishop, and the moment he opened his cloak, dozens of the blooms fell to the floor, revealing the image of Mary imprinted on the inside of his cloak. This image is considered as miraculous because it is still intact. Today this very same image imprinted on Juan Diego’s cloak can be seen in the Basilica de Guadalupe in Mexico City.
The validity of this story has been questioned by many scholars and ecclesiastics, who say there is not sufficient documentary evidence to validate the apparition and evidence. But defenders of the Virgin of Guadalupe accept the authenticity without question.
Veneration of Our Lady of Guadalupe is particularly strong among women in Mexico, and Our Lady of Guadalupe’s role in Mexican history is not limited to religious matters; she has an important role in Mexican identity.
Copy of the image of La Virgen de Guadalupe that the Insurgents carried during Mexico’s Independence campaign
In 1810 Miguel Hidaldo y Costilla (known as the father of the movement for Mexican Independence from Spain) named her as the patroness of the revolt he led. The image of the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared on the rebels’ banners, and the battle cry was, “Long Live Our Lady of Guadalupe.” And every year her continuing significance as a religious and national symbol is reaffirmed by the millions of pilgrims who visit her shrine in Mexico City. They also flock to churches dedicated to her, located every city, town and hamlet in the country.
The Basilica de Guadalupe in Mexico City
Even non-Catholic Mexicans acknowledge that La Virgen de Guadalupe is a constant source of peace and unity in their lives. It seems obvious that she is more than a Catholic icon. To the faithful, she is “the heart of Mexico.” This year in Mexico City, more than 5,000,000 people are expected to visit the Basilica de Guadalupe on December 11th and 12th. Next to the Vatican in Rome, this site receives the most annual visitors of any Catholic shrine in the world.
Inside Merida’s Church of San Cristobal
Children dressed in religious costumes for the feast day
Each year, here in Merida at the Church of San Cristobal (the corner of Calle 50 and Calle 69) tens of thousands of pilgrims from all over the state arrive to show their devotion and offer their thanks to the Virgin of Guadalupe. They bring their children and their grandparents… Many young people run in relay groups from towns and villages to see her on her special day. These devotees is called antorchistas.
Starting a week before the feast day on December 12th, along all the roads leading to Merida, it seems as though the entire population of the state is out with lit torches surging towards the Church of San Cristobal. If they can’t run… they walk, bicycle, or catch a ride on anything with wheels. When they finally arrive, they are exhausted but euphoric. They feel dutifully and emotionally-bound to reaffirm the basic faith that sustains them through many hardships.
Standards carried by Antorchistas to the Guaudalupe church in Merida
There are detractors who are not in favor of the religious fervor that December 11th and 12th bring out all over Mexico. But this country has so many challenges; and if the “Mother of all Mexicans” offers a warm embrace, a sense of peace, and some relief from the day to day worries… perhaps it is a good thing?
If you wish to watch or participate in the festivities of the Dia de Guadalupe, feel welcome to join in. You can bring flowers or candles to place at one of the many altars at the Church. The antorchistas will run, ride their bikes and roll their way into the Plaza surrounding Merida’s Church of San Cristobal, located on the corner of Calles 50 and 69. The singing, prayer and joyous smiles are infectious. There is food for sale, music and dancing, culminating at midnight with fireworks and the singing of Las Mañanitas. Celebrants camp along the sidewalks… some will sleep and others will stay up all night. Masses and other religious observance will continue all the next day, Monday December 12th.
The occasion also marks the beginning of the celebratory month in Mexico (running from the Day of Guadalupe through until the Day of the Three Kings on January 6th) colloquially known as, Guadalupe – Reyes.