Mexican Religion and the Virgin of Guadalupe: There

The Catholicism practiced in Mexico is unique to that of other countries. Mexican Catholics possess unique values and practices, best exemplified by their devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe. This page is an effort to convey the nature and causes of this distinctiveness, with a focus on the Virgin of Guadalupe.

==The Task of Religious Conquest==
To understand Mexican Catholicism’s departure with the traditional Catholicism that accompanied the conquistadors from Spain, it is necessary to understand the religious conquest that ensued upon the conquistador’s arrival.

Diego Velazquez, the governor of Cuba at the time, instructed Hernando Cortez that he must:

“Bear in mind from the beginning that the first aim of your expedition is to serve God and spread the Christian Faith. You must not, therefore, permit any blasphemy or lewdness of any kind, and all who violate this injunction should be publicly admonished and punished”((R Ricard, This Spiritual Conquest of Mexico (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1966) p. 16.))

Montezuma Greeting Cortez in Mexico City

Emperor Montezuma greets Hernando Cortez

At the time of Cortez’s arrival, the Aztecs were the prevailing power in Mexico, and it was their “lewdness and blasphemy” that was to be contended with.  This came in the form of a vast collection of deities whose relevance extended to every facet of the native’s lives.  There were Gods for fertility, feelings, activities, and virtually all parts of nature.  Wherever the natives turned and in whatever they did, there was some sort of deity close at hand.

Besides for the objects of their worship, the manner itself in which the Aztecs worshipped was an obstacle for the Spanish missionaries.  Aztec religion revolved around human sacrifices. Deities themselves were believed to be the cause of human sacrifice and as a result those deities demanded sacrifice constantly. Additionally, they had many shrines and idols and believed the Gods themselves were present in them.  Their eligious holidays were numerous and long and entailed distinct customs and practices.

However, one of the greatest obstacles faced was cultural.  Polygamy was widespread among the nobility and was clung to adamantly. Missionary strategy often involved converting the chiefs and leaders before working on the masses and this was a significant hurdle in converting them to monogamist Catholicism. Thus, the Spanish missionaries faced many difficulties in converting the natives.

==Approaches Taken==
The approach first implemented by the clergy upon their arrival exacerbated the difficulty of the task. This was the approach of totally eradicating all traces of the natives’ religion and customs. While many of the religious customs and practices possessed by the natives are distinct from Catholicism, many, such as confession, belief in an almighty God (Ometeuctli), and implementation of a cross, had existed even before the Spanish arrival.((Ricard, pp. 31-33.)) As a result, even if natives were offcially converted and baptized, it was possible for them to still perform their old rituals in essence. When confessing they may have done so according to their old Aztec religion. When proclaiming the greatness of the Almighty they may have been thinking of Ometeuctli. When marking the cross they may have instead been thinking of the four cardinal points and what they represent in the Aztec religion, not in Christianity. Thus, it was believed that to use these superficial similarities would confuse the natives and cause them to worship Catholicism in a pagan way. They surmised that the natives would simply be adding Christianity to their laundry list of deities and beliefs.

It is for this reason that the missionaries adopted an attitude of tabula rasa towards the natives.((Ricard, p. 284.))  Whatever practices and beliefs they had were to be completely wiped out. No similarities were to be drawn between the Catholic and pagan customs. Whatever dances, feasts, and temples were found were completely eradicated.

This proved difficult and tedious. And while the missionaries did not think the natives capable of distinguishing between the two religions in practice, they were also very protective of them and wanted them to keep part of their culture and their native identity. It is for this reason that the missionaries protected and isolated them from the Europeans in general, so they would not be exploited and lose their customs and culture. As a result of this nurturing feeling, they eventually adapted their methods to a less heavy-handed approach.

This second approach was to let the natives keep their cultural rituals and customs such as the various dances and feasts, and instead replace the meaning behind them. They theorized that it is not the dancing itself that is wrong but rather the fact that that it is being done to a pagan deity. If the natives could instead channel their dancing to the worship of a single almighty God, then why shouldn’t they? This is not a new approach, but rather one that had been implemented for centuries. For example, it is through use of this approach that the customs of Christmas, such as the Christmas tree (a pagan custom originating in northern Europe), became Catholic. It has been adopted to convert the natives in places as far apart as Africa and Britain, and now it was being brought to Mexico. Whichever customs and practices were even somewhat similar to Catholicism were emptied of their original meanings and adapted towards Catholic worship.

Sometimes, the missionaries went even farther, and substituted their own meaning even where it seemed the Catholic religion bore no similarity whatsoever.  For example, every year a festival called Altepe-ilhuitl is celebrated at Morelos and was originally introduced by Fray Domingo de la a Anunciacion to take the place of an Aztec seasonal festival.((Ricard, p. 185)) The key was always to find ways of converting the hearts and minds of the natives while allowing them to keep their identity.

==The Virgin of Guadalupe==
This “baptism” of native customs is especially apparent and explains a great deal with regard to the Virgin of Guadalupe and the festivals connected to her alleged apparition.((J. Friedlander, Being Indian in Hueyapan (St. Martin’s Press New York 1975) p. 103.))

A photo of the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe

According to legend, in 1531, a recently converted Aztec names Juan Diego, was traveling to a fiesta dedicated to the Virgin Mary. While traveling he passed Tepeyac, the site the Aztecs believed to belong to the goddess Tonantzin- it was at this site he saw the Virgin Mary appear. Speaking in Nahuatl (the indigenous language of the area), she asked for a church to be built for her on that spot. When Juan Diego arrived at his destination he went to see a bishop named Zumarraga. The bishop asked for proof of the Virgin’s appearance and so Juan Diego returned to the shrine of Tonantzin and asked the Virgin for a sign. She told him to gather flowers from Tepeyac and wrap them in his cape. When he returned to Zumarraga and opened his cape, there were no flowers, but rather an image of the Virgin painted on the fibers of the cape. This image of the Virgin Marry subsequently became known as “the Virgin of Guadalupe,” with variations such as “Our Lady of Guadalupe,” “The Dark Virgin,” and eventually “Queen of the Americas,” being used.

The legend has faced great scrutiny and over the centuries, both the religious and irreligious have doubted whether even Juan Diego himself actually existed.  Nonetheless, the apparition of the Virgin became indoctrinated into Mexican Catholicism and eventually even gained papal approval. Legitimate or not, what is important is the reaction that occurred after the apparition, for it is a microcosm of the two approaches of the missionaries outlined above.

Initially, natives began to worship the image itself. They believed the image had performed the miracles by Juan Diego and that the image itself had supernatural powers. This of course was a result of their pagan origins in which they routinely attributed powers to stone figures and shrines. Many in the clergy found this to be especially egregious and members of the clergy who encouraged worship of the Virgin were condemned and sometimes tried in court for their hand in the native’s sacrilege.  The clergy deemed the tale false and considered worship of the Virgin of Guadalupe to be idolatry. This is an example of the first approach- they attempted to eradicate all traces of the Virgin rather than risk the natives confusing Catholic and pagan practices

However, eventually the second approach prevailed. The clergy saw the effect the image had on the natives and how enthusiastically they venerated her. While at first they might worship the image, perhaps even confusing the image with aspects of their own religion, those traces would be fought and defeated and the greater good of bringing thousands to Christianity would remain.

The account of the apparition spread like wild fire and filled a religious void created in the lives of the natives while validating their Catholicism at the same time.  The image is filled with characteristics that can be interpreted as having Aztec religious origins. The apparation was said to have occurred at Tepayac, at the shrine of the deity Tonantzin. The blue-green color of the Virgin of Guadalupes’ coat was a color reserved for describing the union between the god of creation (Ometecuhtli) and the god of life (Omecihuati) in Aztec lore. Furthermore, the coat has a moon and stars and there are 12 stars above the Virgin’s head. Additionally the image of the Virgin is placed inside what may be deemed a sun- a chief deity to the Aztecs. She has even been said to be “goddess of the maguey (agave)” since some say the rays around her are actually agave plants. The dark skin of the Virgin is certainly enough to draw the conclusion that the image was specialized for the natives.

There are three popular beliefs as to the origins of the image. The first is that God or the Virgin Marry created the image as a sign to the natives that they had been accepted as worshippers of the Catholic faith. The second is that the natives themselves created the image so they could worship both Catholicism and their pagan deities at the same time. The third is that the clergy created it in an effort to ease the transition for the natives to Catholicism and convert more of them.

Even if the second belief is true, that the image and its legend are both a product of the natives’ effort to covertly worship their old deities, it still served the clergy in the end. It catalyzed the conversion of the people and gave the natives a significant outlet for the remnants their old habits. The original natives might remember their old religion in the image of the Virgin, but their children would not.

One of the most stubborn pre-Hispanic practices was the celebration of festivals through mitotes– a form of ritualistic dance. At first the mitotes were restricted in practice due to the ties they had with pagan worship. However, the Indians eventually performed these dances in veneration of Christianity.

The natives adapted the dancing and chanting of these mitotes to the worship of the Virgin of Guadalupe.  They are often practiced in a dance-drama known as Morisma, in which Charlemagne leads the Catholics to defeat the Moors who eventually convert to Catholicism. Though originally the Spanish created the performance for their fellow Spaniards, The Missionaries brought the play to the natives to teach and inspire them.

The parading of the image during Virgin of Guadalupe festivities

These plays, along with their mitotes, survive to this day. Every year from December 1-12 there is great celebrating throughout Mexico in honor of the Virgin. And the Morisma is performed. The climax of the celebrations is the carrying of an image of the Virgin through the town square and into church where it rests all year and can take hours due to the excessive singing and dancing.

==The Virgin and Her Legacy==
There is no festival anywhere in the world like the Virgin of Guadalupe festival. Its customs truly are native to the indigenous people. The meaning behind it however, is Catholic. This is what is meant by the “baptism” of the natives’ traditions. Their nature has been turned Catholic, but their practice has retained its Native American identity.

One cannot overestimate the importance of the Virgin of Guadalupe to the Mexican people. The fact that the Virgin is dark skinned is interpreted as her coming specifically to the natives.  To the natives it represented God coming to America and accepting them as Catholics. Perhaps most importantly, it gave the Indians a heritage of their own- their own stake in Catholicism. Now, if they converted to Catholicism they were not just converting to a religion of foreign lore, but of native lore as well. They were converting to a religion who’s God touched one of their own. By believing God had come to the Americas, Catholicism became at least in this facet, a native religion, since this element of the religion took place in their native country.

The modern Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Tepeyac hill, where it is believed the Virgin appeared.

Besides for acting as a catalyst to Catholicism’s spread in Mexico, the Virgin of Guadalupe became a national symbol. She has become the banner of numerous Mexican armies and political parties, and many Mexicans pray to an image of the Virgin every night. In 1754, Pope Benedict XIV declared Our Lady of Guadalupe patron of what was then called New Spain and Pope John Paul II canonized Juan Diego in 2002.

We say that natives’ customs were “baptized” because they gained a new meaning and the overall doctrine behind their dances and practices changed. But I believe we may also suggest that the natives “Mezzo-Americanized” Catholicism. A part of certified Catholic cannon- the Virgin Marry, has formally adopted a Native American identity, even if only for the Americas. If you believe those who suggest the connections between the Aztec religion and sections of the image of the Virgin, it is even possible to suggest the “Aztec-ization” of the Catholic religion.Though perhaps only an invention of a member of the Catholic church, the image and its legend have only reached their status in the church because of the tremendous dedication Mexicans have had towards it. By making it a part of Catholicism, they may have had “the last laugh,” for in the end, the church’s effort to allow the Indians to keep their identity has resulted in the Indian’s identity being canonized, and this is no small legacy.

Next: Mexican Religion and the Virgin of Guadalupe: Here

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