Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Viva Guadalupe!


We apparently have become members of a cult.  But don’t worry.  It’s not a real "culty" cult.  And we didn’t get lured into it but rather let ourselves get enfolded by it.  As do most Santa Feans.  
We learned of this not-so-secret sect in the “19th Century New Mexico History” Continuing Education Class given by Santa Fe Community College.  Although the school itself is less than one mile up the road from us, this lecture (lunch included) was held on the opposite side of town at Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado.  An even better location than those rare moments at UConn back in the ‘60s when on a warm spring day class was held outdoors under the flowering crab trees on the banks of Mirror Lake.
Our lecturer was enthusiastic, knowledgable and lucid.  But time limitations prevented more than a surface look at some of the topics – most notably for us, the “cult of Guadalupe.”  Now we’ve considered ourselves fans of the Virgin of Guadalupe since we first saw her story back in CT in the “Viva” episode of the 1990s PBS television program “Wishbone.”   And sure, we do have more than a few of her likenesses in our home.  But “cult”?  WTH!   So we did a little research.  
First, it turns out the word “cult” is used differently in Catholic theology versus everyday language.    In common parlance cult “refers to a person or group that uses psychological and emotional manipulation to control others.  But in Catholic theology  … any liturgical or prayer devotion centered around a particular saint is referred to as a cult.” (cathlic.com)  
So how did the Virgin of Guadalupe attract such a following?  
For starters she was a “Marian apparition” – one of the “appearances of the Blessed Virgin Mary, coming down from heaven to earth.”  (ascensionpress.com)  Sixteen such materializations have been recognized as “authentic” by the Vatican.  Nine more are “yet to be recognized” but likely to be certified.  

Guadalupe and Tonantzin (mexicolore)

The “Virgin Mary with an Indian face” (as she is sometimes known) appeared to Nahua Native Juan Diego four times in 1531 on the hill of Tepeyac in today’s Mexico City.  Speaking in the Aztec language, she instructed him to tell the Bishop of Mexico to build a church in her honor on that spot, also the site where Natives worshipped Aztec goddess of earth and fertility, Tonantzin.    The Bishop disregarded Juan Diego’s first three petitions.  At her fourth appearance the Virgin instructed her messenger to to pick flowers from the hill, wrap them in his cape (“tilma”), and bring them to the Bishop.  When Juan Diego unfurled his cloak the blossoms poured onto the floor revealing an imprint of the Virgin's image on the cloth. The visual worked and a small chapel was quickly built to house the tilma.  Today the image is preserved behind an impenetrable glass screen in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe at Mexico City.   

The original tilma of Juan Diego (wikipedia)

The origin of the “Guadalupe” name is unresolved.   Some believe it is a mispronunciation of a name given by Indigenous Mexicans.  Most historians however say it was cribbed straight from  “Our Lady of Guadalupe, Extremadura,” a 14th century Marian apparition in Guadalupe Spain.  Spanish settlers brought or re-created things from their homeland that they were familiar with (food, religious objects, etc.)  Extremadura would have been well known to them.  Some may have even been members of her cult – perhaps latching on to the new world apparition as their local equivalent.  
The Bishop created no written accounts of the event.  Nor did he promote the caped image in any way. “The Catholic clergy in 16th century Mexico were deeply divided as to the orthodoxy of the native beliefs springing up around the image of Guadalupe, with the Franciscan order [custodians of the chapel at Tepeyac] being strongly opposed … while the Dominicans supported it.” (wikipedia.com)  The subsequent Bishop, a Dominican, recommended popular devotion to “Our Lady of Guadalupe” and visitations to the chapel where he said miracles had occurred.  Franciscans countered that the Bishop was promoting “a superstitious regard for an indigenous image,” which they said was not in fact a self-portrait by the Virgin but rather created by “the Indian painter Marcos.”   
Meanwhile at the grass roots level “devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe among the Nahuas slowly but steadily spread, gaining in popularity so that by the middle of the seventeenth century it had firm support even among the clerical elite of Mexico” (nd.edu)  Interestingly the Natives seemed to only make pilgrimages to Tepeyac chapel and not the other churches built in her honor.  It likewise took hold among Spaniards in Mexico.  In 1666 the Catholic Church began investigating the apparitions and in 1754 approved Guadalupe as the patron saint of New Spain.  (248 years later Juan Diego was canonized a saint by Pope John Paul II.)
Before its colonization by Spain Mexico did not exist as a named geographic entity.   And “Mexican” was not yet a nationality.  The land instead was the domain of several major civilizations (Olmec, Maya, Teotihuacan, Toltec, and Aztec) resulting in a population of about 60 indigenous groups when it was conquered in 1521 and dubbed New Spain.   Spain filled its new colony with mostly male settlers from the mother country and other European nations, plus Moors from Africa.  Intermarriage created an ever-increasing mestizo population of mixed European, Amerindian and African heritage – plus “pure” Spanish.  This new demographic began to see itself as deserving of its own country.  
By the 19th century Guadalupe had become a symbol of that national pride and desire for independence.   In 1810 “father of Mexican independence” Padre Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, marching under the banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe captured several major cities west of Mexico City.  “Soon Hidalgo was at the gates of the capital, but he hesitated, and the opportunity was lost.  His followers melted away [and]  Hidalgo fled north, hoping to escape into the United States. He was caught, expelled from the priesthood, and executed by firing squad as a rebel.” (brittanica.com)  
In 1821 Mexico won its war of independence and also with it control of New Mexico.  As Mexicans migrated to the northern part of their new country they of course brought Guadalupe.  But New Mexico had been part of New Spain for 223 years and already had its own Marian cults – notably one devoted to a 30-inch-tall wooden statue of the Virgin know as “La Conquistadora” (Our Lady of Conquering Love.) 

La Conquistadora, ca. 2007 (wikipedia)

Hand-carved from the wood of willow and European olive trees, and ring-dated to between the mid 15th and 17th centuries she was brought to Santa Fe by Fray Alonso de Benavides in 1626 and placed in the adobe church that was then on the site of the current basilica.   During the 1680 Pueblo Revolt the sculpture was rescued from the burning church and brought by the expelled Spanish settlers to El Paso, TX where they sheltered until their 1692 “Reconquest” of New Mexico.   Don Diego de Vargas, leader of re-takeover, believed that she had answered his prayers to regain Santa Fe without too much bloodshed.  (Native Americans and most historians disagree.)   He rebuilt the church that had been destroyed during the revolt in honor of the figure he dubbed Nuestra SeƱora de la Conquista.   The statue is now housed in Santa Fe’s Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis Assisi.  Since 1650 she has been cared for by the Confraternity of Our Lady of the Rosary who are responsible for her safety as well as maintaining her extensive collection of gowns, robes, veils, wigs, and jewelry.   (Over 300 outfits.)  The annual Fiesta de Santa Fe was created to give thanks for her role in the reconquest. 
Spain never had enough priests in New Mexico.  Mexico even less.  This dearth of clergy prompted many unauthorized religious practices among Catholic New Mexicans desperate to practice their faith – local creation of and personal devotion to painted and sculpted religious images, formation of the lay brotherhood of the Penitentes and (not surprisingly) increased allegiance to cults, especially those of the Virgin Mary in her various manifestations.  

Fast forward to 1992 and our first visit to Santa Fe.  There was art everywhere – museums, gift shops, pricey galleries, public spaces, clothing, jewelry, low-rider cars and more.  Much, maybe most, Catholic themed – especially the Virgin of Guadalupe.  (We now know that such “folk art” is a continuation of the above mentioned 18th century painted and sculpted religious images.)

An ex-voto painting thanks a divine “helper”  who saved someone from a dangerous situation.
Historically they were painted on tin salvaged from packaging. 
Delia Cosentino who teaches a course on Guadalupe at DePaul University believes her to be the most widely circulated image in the Western Hemisphere.
“She is a Catholic symbol in association with a new tradition … At a certain level, she has become her own religion. Her Catholic origins are just a one part of her. They're significant, and I don't mean to underplay that. But I'm most comfortable suggesting she is her own religion ... the idea that you could embrace her and she could serve whatever needs you have, regardless of your ethnic or religious identity, is an important part of her as well.”
Or phrased less academically “The Guadalupe is just a cool image, more so than the rest. It's just pretty to look at. The light radiating, the bright blue cloak, the little angel – it's an appealing image.  While the image exhibits tenderness and accessibility it's also visually attractive, packing symbolism to a degree most icons of Western civilization don't … It's an experience in and of itself.”  (Seattle Times)
To which we say, “Viva Guadalupe!” – cult or no cult.