Today, December 12, altars to Guadalupe grace thousands of home throughout the Americas. Originally manifesting Mexico, her presence has spread south and North through both continents and today, while continuing as patron saint to Mexico, she is also the patroness of North and South America.
One of Guadalupe’s distinguishing features is her beautiful brown skin, leaving no doubt that the Mother of God was bestowing her particular blessing on the indigenous populations of the Americas and placing these daughters and sons under her special care.
Mothers tend to show up when and where they are most needed and Guadalupe appeared n a very time dark time indeed. Waves of pestilence, rivaling Europe’s Black Death, had decimated native populations with smallpox and measles, sweeping ahead of the conquistadorian forces bent on domination, rapine and riches until few warriors were left to resist them. The conquerors, led by a misogynist, racist priesthood intent on forcing conversion and well-equipped with the plans and implements to carry it out, were destroying temples and sacred sites in order to eradicate the old gods.
Into this time of suffering and sorrow, the spirt of divine femininity chose to appear on the hill called Tepeyac sacred to Tonantzin (a word meaning Sacred Mother in her native language Nahuatl).
According to the accepted story, Tonantzin appeared to a Nahua man, Juan Diego, and asked him to approach the reigning Bishop of the new Spanish order and tell him to build her a church on Tepeyac hill. Juan Diego demurred, but she reappeared twice again insisting that he do her bidding. Finally, she gave him proof of her legitimacy in a way the Spaniards would accept. Filling his poncho with Spanish roses, she sent him to the Bishop. When Juan Diego opened his poncho to display the flowers they dropped to the floor reveling an image of the goddess ingrained in the woven fibers of the cloth. The Bishop immediately Christened her the Virgin of Guadalupe after the Spanish Black Madonna revered by Cortez. Thus she entered the annals of Catholic sainthood.
Tepeyac became a pilgrimage site almost immediately. Hundreds of people began flocking to the site as news of her appearances spread. The bishop built a basilica there and within ten years the population had peacefully followed their goddess into Catholicism where they amalgamated old practices with the new while priests turned a blind eye to their persistent rituals and beliefs out of expediency and to boost the number of converts.
In this way, Tonantzin became Guadalupe and saved her people from the scourge of Inquisition, cutting short their suffering and allowing peace to be restored. Her ability to shapeshift resembles the shamanic practices common to indigenous peoples around the globe. In like manner, the goddess Brigid became Ireland’s patron Saint, helping a her people make a safer transition into the culture of an enemy they could not defeat and allowing them to maintain their association with nature and the land to which they belonged.
As devotion to Guadalupe continues to persist and increase, she has appeared in many guises, entering the healing work of curanderas and the political agendas of revolutionaries. She is rapidly becoming a symbol of empowered womanhood as young women take her as an ally into their fight for recognition in traditionally machismo cultures. Above all Guadalupe continues to comfort those who suffer. Like those other goddesses of compassion- Brigid, the Virgin Mary and Kwan Yin she understands loss, mourns and shares the sorrows of her people.
In my own spiritual practice, Guadalupe has blessed me with her presence. She led me into a collaboration with fellow poet Kathryn Smith, which grew into a powerfully rewarding friendship. Together we wrote, produced and acted in the two-woman play, A Rose in Winter, which unfolds the history behind Guadalupe’s appearance, tells Juan Diego’s story and explores the many guises Guadalupe wears. We feel blessed to have honored her with our work and richly rewarded for the effort and time we put into it.
Our dearest wish is to see it produced by young Chicana women who understand the power of story and the necessity to recreate the myths that sustain and nourish the spirits of Lupe’s daughters. May she continue to bless us all on this her beautiful feast day.