Monday, December 13, 2010

La Guadalupana

The Virgin of Guadalupe is probably the most enduring totem of Mexican national identity. According to legend, not long after the Spanish conquest the dark-skinned Mary appeared to Juan Diego on the Cerro del Tepeyac on the outskirts of Mexico City, and, speaking to him in his indigenous language, enjoined him to tell the Bishop that she desired a church to be built on that spot so that the indians could worship her. To convince a skeptical bishop, the Virgin commanded Juan Diego to gather flowers in his cape which, when unfurled before the prelate, revealed a resplendent image of the Virgin and converted Tepeyac into sacred ground. The image, enshrined in the church that was eventually built there, would be reproduced and replicated as the cult of the Virgin became a powerful tool for evangelizing friars during the early colonial years, allowing church officials to sanction a high degree of religious syncretism with indigenous practice.

Over the years, the cult has remained a powerful hold on Mexico's faithful.  For this reason, on the 12th of December--the anniversary of the apparition--pilgrims from across the country converge on the Basilica of Guadalupe at the base of the Cerro del Tepeyac.

Carrying mass-produced statues adorned in garlands, elegant painted standards, small votives and elaborate altars, the pilgrims often arrive in Mexico City several days before the Guadalupana.  They travel on foot, in trucks, and often, on bicycles, clogging the highways into the city.  These throngs fill the plaza beneath the Cerro, and, like the Mexican Mecca that it is, they circle the huge round Basilica that was constructed in 1976 to house the miraculous image.  Amid this atmosphere of festive devotion, Aztec dancers pound on drums and twirl feathered headdresses while inside the churches white-robed priests deliver solemn masses.

But syncretism is a poor explanation for the cult's lingering centrality in Mexican life. If San Judas Tadeo has come to reflect the psychology of marginality, Mexican Marianism seems to combine the images of a suffering, devout, nurturing mother in a way that is profoundly resonant.  The Virgin is often credited with performing miracles--a popular tradition of ex-voto paintings attests to this--and on the 12th, many pilgrims placed candles in various niches around the Basilica and prayed for health and happiness.

Among the most remarkable features of the Cult of Guadalupe is its cross-class appeal.  As with most of Mexico's popular religious traditions, from the Virgin to the Narco-saints, veneration of the Virgin probably has its strongest roots in lower class groups.  Yet, in part because she is has been incorporated into Mexican Catholic orthodoxy, her image can be found in nearly every social setting.

Ultimately, the importance of the Virgin of Guadalupe does not rest in her ability to command the devotion of millions of believers, but in her salience as a symbol of national identity.  It was underneath the banner of the Virgin that Miguel Hidalgo and other Independence-era insurgents gathered their forces to challenge Spanish colonialism, and her image has continued to resonate through the centuries as a marker of the country's unity.

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