The appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico more than 480 years ago was not an isolated event intended only for the natives, the Mexicans, or the Mexican-Americans but for all. She is just as important today as she was centuries ago, and she is important for everyone, for she has been designated the patroness of all the Americas. When she appeared to the Native Juan Diego in December 1531 there were no national boundaries as we know them today, in this Hemisphere. The Rio Grande River, for example, was not a boundary separating the United States and Mexico.
A New Era
When Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared on the hill of Tepeyac she heralded the beginning of a new era, a new civilization that would rise out of the ashes of the Indigenous civilization that had been destroyed by the Spanish conquerors. She gave birth to a new people - the Mexican people.
But her significance goes beyond that, because she is the patroness of all Americans. She also came to give birth to a renewed Christianity, through St. Juan Diego, the great lay apostle of Christianity in the Americas. She came to help us evangelize society.
Later, missionaries saw a relationship between Our lady of Guadalupe and the Immaculate Conception, which is symbolic of the dignity of women. Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared as a young maiden, a virgin, a woman not violated, who resembled the Natives and who had not been violated by the Spaniards.
She also stands as a symbol of unity for all those struggling to leave a state of oppression to enter the state of being free human beings.
She is a mother, as she told St. Juan Diego, who is here to right the wrongs of her children, a mother who has heard the cry of her children and comes to remedy what is wrong, a mother who is with us in our struggle to liberate ourselves from sin and oppression.
The significance and importance of the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe is derived especially from the period of time in which she appeared.
In the pre - Hispanic New World, the Natives had many gods, or "intermediary spirits," but there was one great spirit, or god beyond all the intermediary gods, named Omecihuatl. That god whose special color was turquoise, the predominant color of Our Lady of Guadalupe's mantle, was considered the one, powerful creating force.
That god sometimes was being represented by a male figure and sometimes by a female figure.
Those figures were often referred to by different names, as Catholics refer to the Blessed Mother under various titles: Mother of Perpetual Help, Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, etc.
The female figure of the supreme god was also known as the "snake woman", a symbol of wisdom because the snake was a symbol of wisdom among the Natives. That symbol was also called "Tonantzin", and represented a respected, loving mother.
The hill of Tepeyac, where Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to St. Juan Diego, was a sacred site, a place of pilgrimage even before the Spaniards and Christianity came. Tonantzin was venerated there as the mother of gods, the source of life, as a god who gave meaning, direction, and guidance to all life.
The relatively easy conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards was, in a sense, made possible for them by the Natives themselves.
Native prophets had long been predicting the end of their civilization, the end of their era. In addition, many other Natives disliked the Aztecs and felt that they had corrupted their religion, but that the god Quetzcoatl would return or send an emissary to bring them liberation and salvation.
So when the Spaniards arrived under Hernando Cortes many Natives accepted the conquerors as liberators or saviors and allied themselves with the conquistadors.
But most Natives soon saw that the Spaniards were not the expected liberators of Quetzacoatl. They had no scruples in killing people - either in battle or simply to gain gold (one Native chronicler said that the Spaniards went after gold like "hungry pigs").
In their conquest of the New World the Spaniards destroyed the temples of the Natives, killed many of the young men, and often violated the women.
At the time of the four apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe, between December 9 and December 12, 1531 memories of the conquest - the massacres, the destruction of the temples - were still very much alive in the minds of the Natives.
The site where the temple should be built also had great significance for the natives because it was the place where they had worshipped the mother of gods.
Also, when Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared she described herself as the Mother of the True God, of the one who created heaven and earth - a description that also applied to the Natives' great god Omecihuatl.
So the Virgin who appeared at Tepeyac was associated with motherhood, with birth, with new life.
Their old life, their old civilization, an era, had ended - their temples, their previous way of life destroyed - and Our Lady of Guadalupe was bringing forth new life, a new people, a new era and a new civilization.
At that time also, it should be remembered many early missionaries saw the discovery and exploration of the New World as an act of divine providence.
Many missionaries saw Europe as corrupt and they hoped for a new Christianity. They saw the New World as a place where they could start building a renewed Christianity and not simply continue the Church of Europe. They were looking for a new age of the Spirit.
Many of them felt the need for a radical return to the Gospel, for a renewal of Christianity. Missionaries with that feeling saw Our Lady of Guadalupe as a source of that new beginning and a renewal of Christianity in the New World.
Our Lady of Guadalupe, of course, is a title given by the Spaniards. It was thought to have been given through a misunderstanding of St. Juan Diego's message. Our Lady naturally had spoken a Native language to him, but the Spaniards believed he was using the word Guadalupe, the site of another shrine to the Blessed Mother in Spain. So probably a more accurate title for Our Lady of Guadalupe would be Our Lady of Tepeyac, where she had appeared - as is the case for example, at Lourdes and Fatima.
Source of Help
Today, Our Lady of Guadalupe can still be a source of help for everyone in the renewal of Christianity and of Society.
Father Virgilio Elizondo, founder of the Mexican American Cultural Center in San Antonio, Texas, has said that our Lady of Guadalupe has shown that "out of the chaos and suffering of past years can come a new creation". She is, he said, a living symbol of liberation, a mother to right wrongs and to "walk along with her children in their struggle for the fullness of human life".
For the Mexican-Americans, the Chicanos, - who have suffered greatly - Father Elizondo has added that she can also be a symbol of unity in their efforts to leave the state of oppression and enter the state of being free human beings.
But the Mexican-Americans, he stressed, cannot simply be satisfied to enter society as equals, because, with the help of Our Lady of Guadalupe, they should enter society also with a mission, as evangelizers. "The role of the powerless, " he pointed out, "is to evangelize the powerful".
2004 Reprinted From the Mexican American Cultural Center, an original publication of the Denver Catholic Register. Permission Pending.