One cold Saturday morning in the winter of 1531, a few miles from what is now Mexico City, a farmer called Juan Diego wrapped himself in his woven cloak and set off for church. He was now in his mid-fifties, and since the death of his wife two years earlier, he had lived alone. It was 10 years since Juan Diego had watched at first hand the coming of the Spanish conquistadors, with their strange tongue, their peculiar customs and their new god. In that time so much had changed: even his own name, since he had originally been called Cuauhtlatoatzin, which meant ‘Talking Eagle’ in his native tongue. Nothing, however, could have prepared him for what happened that morning.
As legend has it, Juan Diego was walking past Tepeyac Hill towards the little church when he heard somebody calling his name. Curious, he climbed the hill, and there he saw a beautiful young woman, no more than 16, dressed in the finery of an Aztec princess. Almost at once he knew he was looking at the Virgin Mary herself.
To his astonishment, she greeted him – “Little son!” – in his native Nahuatl, and told him to find the local Franciscan bishop and to build a shrine to her on the hill. “I am your merciful mother, the merciful mother of all of you who live united in this land, and of all mankind,” she said gravely. “Here I will hear their weeping, their sorrow and will remedy and alleviate all their multiple sufferings, necessities and misfortunes.”
Of course Juan Diego did as he had been told. But the bishop, perhaps not surprisingly, was sceptical; twice he sent the farmer away, insisting that he needed concrete proof. Three days later, the woman appeared to Juan Diego again, telling him to climb the hill and pick the flowers growing there. To his amazement, he found flowers from Castile – which were not native to Mexico – which the woman folded in his cloak. He took them to the bishop, and as they fell onto the floor, both the bishop and Juan Diego stared in astonishment at the image miraculously imprinted on the farmer’s cloak – a perfect icon of the blessed mother herself. When they built the Virgin’s shrine, they put the miraculous cloak above the altar – where the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe remains to this day.
So runs the story. As so often, though, there is more to it than meets the eye. At the time, no sources recorded the story of Juan Diego, and most secular historians believe he never existed. No surviving accounts mention the Guadalupe shrine until 1556, a quarter of a century later, when the head of the local Franciscans complained that “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”.
Who Marcos the Indian was, and whether he really painted the picture, remains a mystery. The rival Dominicans, however, insisted that the miracle was real, and moved the picture to an even bigger church. By the late 1640s, two ‘historical’ accounts had materialised telling the story of Juan Diego, and the Catholic church began collecting stories so that they could give him a feast day. But doubts still lingered. Even two centuries later, the great Mexican historian Joaquin Garcia Icazbalceta decided not to publish a chapter pouring scorn on the myth of Juan Diego, because he was reluctant to alienate local opinion.
By this stage Our Lady of Guadalupe had become one of the great symbols of Mexican identity. She was a mestiza icon – at once Catholic and Aztec, Spanish-influenced and Nahuatl-speaking, with her Castilian flowers and dark skin. The Nobel Prize-winning novelist Carlos Fuentes once remarked that “you cannot truly be considered a Mexican unless you believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe” – and everywhere you look in Mexican history, there she is.
When Miguel Hidalgo led the campaign for independence in 1810, his battle cry was “Death to the Spaniards and long live the Virgin of Guadalupe!” And a century later, when Emilio Zapata’s revolutionaries marched into Mexico City, they carried banners displaying the Virgin’s image. But it was the poet Octavio Paz who captured the enduring fascination with the lady: “After more than two centuries of experiments,” he said, “the Mexican people have faith only in the Virgin of Guadalupe and the National Lottery.”
Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and presenter.