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Dec. 12 marks the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico and the rest of Latin America. It’s perhaps the most important figure of Catholicism in the continent and also a key element of syncretism for the indigenous peoples.
Millions of faithful peregrinate every year to Mexico City in honor of Guadalupe, carrying life-size figures of her or walking on their knees all the way to the Basilica, asking her for favor or thanking her for it.
Historians say the cult was brought by conquistador Hernan Cortes, who used to carry a banner with her image. Being from Extremadura, Spain, Cortes was faithful of Guadalupe (A Moro word that mixes Arabic and Latin, meaning ‘Valley of Wolves’) and decided to bring it to the continent.
The cult was imposed by the Catholic Church to the natives, who identified with her due their skin color, and it came up with a story to convince them.
The virgin appeared to Juan Diego, an Indigenous person, at the Tepeyac hill in Mexico City-Tenochtitlan, giving him the task to convince Archbishop Juan de Zumarraga of building a temple in her honor at that same place. As evidence, Guadalupe gave Juan Diego a number of flowers that he brought to Zumarraga in his clothing. When he was about to show them to him they turned into a painted figure of her that remains up to this day at the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, at the heart of Mexico City.
The story is narrated at a Nahuatl manuscript called “Nican Mopohua” and according to some historians, it’s the invention of an evangelized Indigenous called Antonio Valeriano.
But that doesn’t mean the whole thing is an invention of the conquerors to trick the Indigenous. In fact, the story makes sense because Tepeyac was a common place of peregrination and devotion for the local Indigenous, who said that Tonantzin, Our Lady, used to appear there to the faithful.
Missioners were having a hard time trying to change the beliefs of the Indigenous, and while Guadalupe was of great use for this, it also allowed for a syncretic system that prevails and in which many people keep their ancient believes.
The figure of Tonantzin had many names in the Nahuatl believes. ‘Coatlicue’ (that with a serpents skirt) or ‘Cihuacoatl’ (Snake Woman) are other names that prevail today and are often added to Guadalupe at the end.
The new basilica is right next to Tepeyac and is visited by all sort of faithful. Some of them carry out dances inspired by long-time lost rituals and others prefer to climb the hill and carry their prayers there. Influenced by a more modern Mexican tradition, people sing ‘Las Mañanitas’ at 12 a.m. and bring Mariachi bands with them.
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