La Virgen de Guadalupe: Why is a symbol of colonization a national symbol of pride?

The truth will set you free… – John 8:32

First of all, before we begin an exploration on the truth and fiction behind the image of La Virgen de Guadalupe, it is important to note that the history, whether true or false, is irrelevant at this point.

La Virgen de Guadalupe

La Virgen de Guadalupe

Guadalupe is part of our culture now, a meme that is much bigger than the historical events. Guadalupe is a source of pride and of strength for the downtrodden, used everywhere from Miguel Hidalgo to Cesar Chavez to the current day.

Just as with most things religious, the facts and evidence are hidden away in a distant time. No cellphone cameras to capture new apparitions or the original Book of Mormon on golden tablets, the Ten Commandments on stone tablets, no burning bushes with God speaking from it, nor satellite images to view Jesus’ ascension into the heavens and breaking through our upper atmosphere or passing through the Van Allen radiation belt.

More than a religious relic, La Virgen de Guadalupe is now a firmly engrained cultural symbol for millions. Catholics adore her as the Mother of Jesus while Native Americans may view the image as that of Tonantzin. Some may simply find beauty in the art, as an important symbol that transcends any coherent understanding of how the image came to be.

Symbol or reality?

In 1990, Pope John Paul II beatified Juan Diego, the first step before his eventual canonization as Saint Juan Diego a decade later. The actions also coincided with the pope’s visits to Mexico and it was hugely popular. The basilica housing the image of Guadalupe is the second most visited Catholic site in the world, second only to St. Peter’s basilica in Vatican City.

The abbot of the famous basilica in Mexico City for many years was Rev. Guillermo Schulenburg. He, and many scholars and priests wrote a letter to the pope urging him not to canonize Juan Diego as a saint because he more than likely did not exist but existed mostly as a symbol.

A vocal minority of priests and church historians, including the former head priest of the Basilica of Guadalupe, has opened an emotional national debate here by publicly stating what some scholars have long believed: that there is no convincing historical record that Juan Diego ever existed.
They say he was probably fabricated by Spanish conquerors as a means of converting the country’s native tribes to Catholicism.

“It’s a story, like Cinderella was a story,” said the Rev. Manuel Olimon Nolasco, one of seven men who signed four letters sent to the Vatican recently, asking John Paul to reconsider the decision to grant sainthood.

Olimon and the others argue that adding Juan Diego’s name to the church’s hallowed roster of saints might make millions of Catholics feel good, but that his candidacy does not meet the church’s rigorous standard of documentation for those it canonizes.

Olimon, a church history specialist who teaches at the Pontifical University of Mexico, which trains priests, said he went to Rome in October to make his case to top church officials. But he believes the Vatican has already made up its mind to canonize Juan Diego.

In the letters, the critics write that they could have enlisted the support of many other church and lay scholars who agree with them. However, they write, “we don’t want to provoke a useless scandal; we only want to avoid the diminishment of the credibility of our church.”

via Washington Post.

The very priest who was in charge of the basilica believed that it was just a story, an important story perhaps, but not based in reality.

Needless to say, this caused a huge scandal, Rev. Schulenburg resigned, and Juan Diego was made into a saint.

On a historical side-note, the Catholic church has other saints that never existed.

How does the Church choose saints?

Canonization, the process the Church uses to name a saint, has only been used since the tenth century. For hundreds of years, starting with the first martyrs of the early Church, saints were chosen by public acclaim. Though this was a more democratic way to recognize saints, some saints’ stories were distorted by legend and some never existed. Gradually, the bishops and finally the Vatican took over authority for approving saints.


It is generally accepted that some popular saints never even existed, such as the saint which my own church of baptism, first communion and confirmation is named after, St. Christopher, who supposedly carried little baby Jesus across a river and ended up carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders without crushing his spine.

More fictional is the story of St. George the dragon-slayer. Or maybe dragons did exist and St. George killed them all?

Either way, St. Christopher medallions will continue to be sold honoring the Patron Saint of Travelers and my home church in Marana will continue with the name it has always known.

Did Juan Diego exist?

St. Juan Diego

There was no person born Juan Diego that existed, and if this person did exist, they were born before European contact and would have had an Aztec name, and indeed Saint Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin was who John Paul II canonized on July 31, 2002.

But before exploring the question of whether Juan Diego existed, let us first recall the story of La Virgen de Guadalupe. Wikipedia has a concise version of the story which sums it up nice and short:

According to Catholic tradition, on December 9, 1531, Juan Diego, a recently converted Aztec indigenous peasant, had a vision of a young woman while he was on a hill in the Tepeyac desert, near Mexico City. The lady asked him to build a church exactly on the spot where they were standing. He told the local Bishop Juan de Zumarraga, who asked for proof in exchange.

Juan Diego went back later and saw the lady again. He told her that the bishop wanted proof, and she instructed Juan Diego to go to the mountain top, where he found Castillian roses, which were native to Bishop Juan de Zumarraga’s hometown and could not possibly bloom during wintertime. Juan Diego cut the roses, placed them in his apron-like tilma and returned to the bishop; an imprint of the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared on the tilma from the residue of the soil and roses.

Today, the icon is displayed in the nearby Basilica of Guadalupe, now one of the most visited Catholic shrines in the world.

via Wikipedia.

Now enters the critical thinking on this historical event.

Guadalupe is an important symbol for many reasons. This apparition took place in 1531 at the hill of Tepeyac in northern Mexico City, just one decade after Hernan Cortes came to Tenochtitlan and took it over. Suffice it to say there was a lot of conflict taking place, and this being the more religious times of the Spanish Inquisition, the primary goal was to convert souls to the Christian God.

Gold… err, I mean God, was the priority.

Amid all this conflict arises a pregnant Mexican (mestiza) teenager. Rather than put two and two together, logic is suspended and the Church’s impossible imposition on women crosses the ocean.

The perfect woman, the woman that all women should be like must be both a virgin and a mother at the same time.

The Virgin of Guadalupe was the ever-virgin Mother of God. Nevermind that these virgin mother apparitions never occur anymore since a simple DNA test on the Y-chromosome would put to rest many unrealistic claims (who wants to bet St. Joseph and Jesus had the same Y-chromosome?).

This woman at the top of the Hill of Tepeyac for some reason waited until 1531, never appearing before Christianity crossed the ocean in 3 boats, never sharing with the Aztecs the Truth until the Europeans came. She should have appeared earlier, centuries or millennia earlier so that these pagan “Indians” wouldn’t have been down the wrong path for so long, but this is how God wanted it to be, perhaps.

Rather than make a proclamation of being Tonantzin, the woman is the ever-virgin Mother of God, and she has only one request.

Guadalupe’s only request, ignored

The holy mother of God that was appearing to Juan Diego only had one request.

Not over there… I just had one request!

To build her a temple where they stood on the Hill of Tepeyac.

To convince the European Catholic hierarchy of this plan, the bishop also has just one request which he does not make known to Juan Diego. He wants freshly cut Castilian roses, which are impossible to get in Mexico in the winter.

So rather than the Virgin Mary make herself known to the world, or at least the surrounding village, she decides to be obedient to the patriarch of the local church. Juan Diego goes and to his surprise finds roses growing on the hill and then he takes them back to the Virgin. She then rearranges them in his tilma and he carries them back to the bishop.

Now keep in mind these are flowers that the Mother of God held in her hand, and probably the only thing she ever really touched in this whole episode. No records of giving Juan Diego even a hug are recorded, she just wanted a temple built to her, true goddess-style.

When Juan Diego gets to the bishop he finally gives him what he wants, but the bishop ignores this hand-picked gift that was held in the Virgin Mother’s hands and they are left to fall on the floor. Instead he gets distracted by an image on the tilma, or so the story goes.

So the miraculous answer to his prayers, the roses in winter got ignored.

But why was this image so important?

This is where even more mythology enters in which we will return to later.

This image was used to convert about 8-9 million Aztecs in the next few years, and was used as a sign from God that the Native Americans should abandon their way of life and convert to the European way and accept their Judeo-Christian beliefs instead.

Oh yeah, and give them all their gold and silver in the name of God.

But here’s the strangest thing. Think about how important someone like Juan Diego would have been. Think of similar figures today, such as Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, even Martin Luther King. We want to know about them, and people brag about how they knew them, how they marched with them, talked with them, etc.

What the heck happened to Juan Diego? He kinda just fades away into the background, so much so that the bishop never once writes about him. Not once, in all his writings is Juan Diego ever mentioned.

Nothing is written about Juan Diego during his life.

The temple at Tepeyac

Remember that La Virgen de Guadalupe asked for only one thing, and to this day her request has been ignored.

At the base of the hill, which is not where the apparitions took place, a shrine was built to the Virgin. The Franciscans at the time (mid-1500s) got into an argument with the Dominicans over the use of a painting by Marcos Cipac de Aquino.

 “The devotion that has been growing in a chapel dedicated to Our Lady, called of Guadalupe, in this city is greatly harmful for the natives, because it makes them believe that the image painted by Marcos the Indian is in any way miraculous.”

The Franciscans thought that this was idolatry, to be venerating an image of known origin, painted by a human being, but the chapel was becoming very popular, and these were tough times in missionary work. To remedy this problem, the Archbishop took the chapel away from Franciscan control, and the tilma was available for perpetual adoration.

Just recently, a new more modern basilica has been built for La Virgen de Guadalupe since the original one was sinking since it was built upon a lake. This too, is not where the Virgen wanted the temple built for her at the top of the hill.

The natives were converting and that’s all that mattered. No need for the bishop to ever write about the great Saint of the time, Juan Diego.

Look into my eyes

Any exploration into the “scientific” research that has been done quickly reveals the power of suggestion.

None of us knows what Jesus looks like as there were no drawings or portraits of him ever taken, but somehow we have come to accept the non-black person, usually a frail man with pale skin, as Jesus.

But even more bizarre is that anytime a person sees a “face” in the clouds or a piece of toast, it must always be an image of Jesus for some reason.

Our brains will fill in the gaps. We want to believe, and we will.

It’s actually not too hard to see Jesus in a dog’s butt, if you really want to see “Him” (image to the right).

What is interesting about the image of La Virgen de Guadalupe are all the “scientific” claims surrounding it, such as the ophtamologist that uses “mathematical algorithms” to zoom in 2500x on the eyes and is able to see reflections, as if the image is really a smooth glossy image or photograph.

The conclusion to make from this is that the image was drawn by the Virgin, but even more so it almost is the Virgin in the sense that the image is seeing what she saw at that moment, like a real snapshot that captures reflections in eyes.

Once again the power of suggestion is strongly at work here.

I have my own debunking of this phenomenon that I have not read anywhere else, and it comes from having a background in computers.

Unaltered image of the eye.

Unaltered image of the eye.

If you look at the image to the left you will see a square grid that is made by the agave fibers in the tilma.

One can think of the image as a monitor with a certain amount of pixels known as a resolution.

In the movies a computer “hacker” can take a grainy image, taken from perhaps a satellite or surveillance camera, and after typing really fast on the keyboard a nice clear image appears.

In real-life, if you keep zooming in on an image, there comes a point where you start seeing the square pixels, and if you keep zooming in you will end up with one monotone color, a zoomed-in pixel in front of you.

This is similar to what is going on in the image on the tilma. You can see the grains produced by the fabric, and they make white and dark spots which are not reflections of any kind.

You can also see a rectangle in the eye on the image. This is supposed to be a reflection of a person that was present in 1531.

Look around some more. Do you see anything else?

No, because there is nothing else, and even the “person” in the eye is an artifact of the fabric. But look what happens when a really devout person zooms in 2500x using “mathematics” to reveal what else lies (no pun intended) in the eye.

There’s a whole room in the eye!

There's a party and you're not invited.

There’s a party and you’re not invited.


Draw some outlines, add some color, and your brain will fill in the rest.

Actually, outside of the circle to the left are more people, even closer up, but you cannot see them until they are outlined and colored, right?

There was some real scientific work conducted by a person at the prestigious Jet Propulsion Lab, but he found nothing interesting and never wrote about it.

But somehow these stories live on.

What I find interesting is how a religion that is used to justify oppression can be used by the oppressed. Consider the slaves, many of them Christian who used the Bible as a source of inspiration and hope, hoping that God would free them as He did the Israelis from Egypt, yet the same Holy Book was used to justify slavery.

In Mexico, the Catholic Church was able to use a mythical Aztec, Juan Diego, and a human-drawn image, create a mythology to go with it, and centuries later, voila! It is beyond the reach of investigation, safely in the past where you have to rely on faith to believe in it.

Joseph Smith’s golden tablets, Moses’ 10 Commandments and parting of the Red Sea, fiery chariots into the heavens, all safely beyond our examination and conveniently, such “miracles” do not occur anymore lest they be subject to immediate scrutiny, even with a basic tool of a cellphone camera and YouTube.

La Virgen de Guadalupe means more than the original story though. It is now a part of our culture, part of mythology, and thus who really cares about the origins of the image? Recreations of the image exist in murals and tattoos, on necklaces, in churches, on candles, even on lowriders.

There is nothing wrong with symbols, and the image is now our own. It means whatever you want it to mean.

Even if the story really was true, all Mary wanted was a chapel on top of the hill, and instead she got a huge basilica with millions of visitors each year but somehow claims to make only $3 million a year in donations.

There’s Gold in them thar hills of Tepeyac… I mean God to be found… whatever, it’s just another story that gets repeated throughout history, and somehow a symbol of our inferior culture and way of life has been turned around into a symbol of pride in indigenous ways.

In the end, it is a story that captures a bit of humanity, and the story is not 500 years old but rather continues to evolve to this very day.