that's Nuestra Señora to you
The Virgin, obviously, is neither obscure nor technically a saint, but she’s pretty much my favorite Catholic thing ever. Partly because she’s so pretty, partly because she’s all over everything in Los Angeles, but mostly because her saint day–today–is my birthday. I didn’t even know that until I moved to L.A. and got carded buying booze, but now I’ve had no less than three cashiers tell me about it
Her story really starts in 1523, when the Spanish finally conquered the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan. Yeah, I always forget that the Aztecs were around so late, too–in my mind I’ve got them classified as “ancient,” so I think they went away around 476CE or thereabouts. Not true.
Being fervent Catholics, the Spanish started right away with the converting. Among the first to convert was Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, who had possibly the sweetest last name ever. This was 1524; his wife died in 1529, and then one day in 1531, he took a little walk across a hill to get to mass.
On top of Tepyac hill the Virgin Mary was waiting for him, dressed like an Aztec princess and speaking Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs, and according to Wikipedia still spoken by about 1.5 million people in mostly rural areas. The English words “chili,” “coyote” and “avocado” all come from Nahuatl, which I find strangely exciting.
Anyway, Mary had a fairly simple request: tell the bishop of Mexico, Juan de Zumárraga, that she wanted a church to be built on the hill for her. Okay, said Juan Diego, and he went to the bishop with the request. Other Juan was skeptical, and asked that Juan D. bring him back a sign. In an exciting game of divine Telephone, Juan D. relayed this to Mary, who told him she would give a sign the next day.
Meanwhile, Juan D’s uncle had become gravely ill, and on the morning of December 12, he decided that he would go find a priest to administer the Last Rites rather than wait around on a hilltop for some floaty lady. As he went around the hill, however, to his surprise, the Virgin showed up. She told him that his uncle would be fine, and that he should climb Tepeyac hill and pick the flowers there.
That was totally crazy, of course, because we all know flowers don’t bloom in December, but nonetheless there were some lovely Castilian roses waiting up there for him. He picks the roses, stashes them in his tilma (a clock-like outergarment), and brings them back down to the Lady. She rearranges them, tells him not to peek until he gets to the bishop’s, and sends him on his way.
When Juan D. gets to Other Juan’s house and opens the tilma, the flowers are gone but there’s a picture of the Virgin Mary imprinted on the tilma. Church gets built, Juan D. is its caretaker, eight million native Mexicans convert to Catholicism in the next seven years. These days, Guadalupe is as much a symbol of Mexico as she is a religious figure–both Miguel Hildago and Emilio Zapata flew flags with the Virgin on them.
Guadalupe probably served more than anything else as a bridge between the native Aztec religions and the newer and, uh, more forceful Catholicism. The same way that they yoinked Easter for Jesus’ resurrection or Saturnalia / the winter solstice for his birth, they Christianized either Tonantzin, Coatlicue, or both, and built a church on what may have been an Aztec worship site.
There’s also some question about why she wanted to be called Guadalupe. Most Marian apparitions are named after the places they occur, like Fatima and Lourdes. Guadalupe obviously isn’t Nahuatl since there are letters besides x, t and l–it’s somewhere in Spain, which has a less famous vision of Mary. From Sancta.org:
Some believe that Our Lady used the Aztec Nahuatl word of coatlaxopeuh which is pronounced “quatlasupe” and sounds remarkably like the Spanish word Guadalupe. Coa meaning serpent, tla being the noun ending which can be interpreted as “the“, while xopeuh means to crush or stamp out. So Our Lady must have called herself the one “who crushes the serpent.”
I can get behind sharing a birthday with the modern version of a goddess who wore human hearts as a necklace and crushed serpents in her spare time. As saint days go, I think mine kicks ass.
I’m off to go spend my birthday at Mission San Juan Capistrano, a lovely place where I hear there has never been any oppression, ever.
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