First, the image. The Virgin is always shown in the same posture, a standing figure, turned partly to the right with eyes downcast and hands clasped in prayer. She wears a blue cloak studded with stars and is entirely surrounded by a golden halo. She wears a simple shift, and she stands on a crescent moon supported by a cherub. There are occasionally other details added, but these are the main elements. This image can be found all over Mexico, within churches, on the outside walls and doors of houses as well as in small shrines inside. She appears also in street corner shrines, and adorning innumerable trinkets and knicknacks of every imaginable type.
The meaning of the image is very complex because it is a blend of both Catholic and pagan symbols. For example, the halo references a bible citation about a "woman clothed with the sun." However, the halo also refers to the Aztec sun god still revered by the indigenous people when the Virgin first appeared. Ironically, Huitzilopochtli, the sun god, was also the war god to whom countless victims were sacrificed. The crescent moon comes from the same bible reference, but also refers to the Aztec moon god who was a rival of the sun god. That the Virgin stands on the moon indicates the triumph of the sun god. The blue cloak she wears (sometimes it is blue-green or turquoise) symbolized eternity and immortality to Catholics, while the Aztecs saw it as the color of gods, royalty, life, and fecundity. The cherub supporting the moon is seen by Catholics as an angel. However, the meaning to Aztecs was different. It indicated royalty, or at least nobility, since only people of that rank could be carried on someone's shoulders. For a detailed description of all the overlapping Catholic and pagan meanings, click here.
The Altars to the Virgin and the story of Juan Diego.
Tepayac originally contained the ruins of a temple to the Aztec mother-goddess Tonantzin. The temple had been destroyed by the conquistadores and the Catholic authorities to suppress native religion and culture so as to better control the indigenous people.
Juan Diego was a Chichimeca whose original Nahuatl name was Cuauhtlatoatzin. Although he was sainted by Pope John Paul II in 2002, there is some dispute among some senior Catholic clergy about whether he actually existed. According to the story, he was born before the Conquest in 1474. Cuauhtlatoatzin was baptized as Juan Diego in 1524, three years after the fall of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. This was a time of great turmoil as the empire of the Aztecs suddenly collapsed and the new Spanish overlords found themselves with vast possessions, but also in desperate need to find a way to subjugate millions of natives. While many of the Spanish at the time were no doubt sincere in their Christian faith (at least as it was practiced in Medieval Spain), Christianity was also viewed an a vital ideological weapon. Conversion would be the key to the conquistators' plans for enslaving the population. They knew they couldn't rule by the naked sword alone.
Ajijic's Virgen de Guadalupe Fiesta Parade
Spanish Bishop Juan de Zumárraga, who initially disbelieved the indigenous man. After all, who was he to be encountering the Blessed Virgin? Juan Diego began shuttling back and forth between the Virgin and the Bishop in order to bring convincing proof of his experience. It being winter, Tepayac would normally have been barren, but the Virgin instructed Juan Diego to gather into his tilma (peasant cloak) the flowers that were miraculously blooming. In Some versions the flowers were roses, and that flower is placed on many altars to the Virgin to this day. When Juan Diego opened his cloak before the Bishop, the clergyman was astonished at the unseasonable blooms. Even more miraculously, the image of the Virgin appeared imprinted on the cloak. The original cloak is still on display at the Basilica of Guadalupe on Tepayac hill, and the location has become one of the most important Catholic pilgrimage sites in the world, rivaling the Vatican.
Muslim Moors. The Moors had invaded in 711 AD and conquered most of the Spanish Iberian Peninsula over a period of 300 years. It took the Spanish Christians another 400 years to drive them out. On January 2, 1492, the forces of Ferdinand and Isabella marched into Granada, the last Spanish stronghold of the Moors. Shortly afterward, the two monarchs funded the first voyage of Christopher Columbus. The discovery of the New World provided a handy outlet for the energies of all those battle-hardened Spanish soldiers, who were much too dangerous to keep unoccupied at home. So Columbus' discoveries and the availability of experienced troops and adventurous captains like Hernán Cortés led to the Conquest of Mexico. Notice that some of the masks are dark skinned, representing Moors and some are pinkish, representing the Christians.
The Kids of the Fiesta
Hidalgo y Castillo raised the banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe as his battle flag when he issued his cry for freedom from Spain and the emancipation of the Indians. Whether this was shrewd politics, given the reverence of the poor and the indigenous people for the Virgin, or because he had to act quickly to find a flag and simply made a lucky choice, the Virgin of Guadalupe became the symbol for the War for Independence from Spain. The oppressed people of Mexico rallied ferociously to this standard, and the Spanish decision to encourage the cult of the Virgin finally came back to haunt them.
Emiliano Zapata's Army of the South marched under the banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe, just as their predecessors did 100 years before.
Food, fun, and fireworks
castillo (castle). The complex structure of fireworks is mounted upon a tall pole, about the size of a telephone pole but two stories tall, set into a hole dug in the cobblestone street. Mounted on the pole is a series of wicker wheels shaped like the spirals seen above. Fastened at regular intervals on the spiral are skyrockets, connected in series. When the rockets ignite, the wheel spins, shooting off showers of sparks into the cheering, laughing crowd below. There is usually one wheel on each of the four sides, with several levels of wheels mounted up the pole. All the wheels don't spin at once, but usually one at a time, or one level at a time. The whole thing is quite dramatic and entertaining. Unfortunately, castillos are usually set off fairly late in the evening, and I couldn't stay to see this one. By clicking on the link above, you can see some castillos in action.
ponche, which smelled wonderful and was the reason I paused and then decided to take the shot. At this point the church service was breaking up and people were streaming out into Hidalgo street. The coheteros were busy constructing their castillo, and the food vendors were furiously cooking their specialties in preparation for the huge party about to break out in all directions.
This completes my posting on Ajijic's Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe. I hope you enjoyed it and now know a bit more about this extremely important Mexican religious and political symbol. If you have a comment, you can leave it in the Comments section below, or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.
Hasta luego, Jim