Mexico is a deeply religious country with Catholic roots dating back almost 500 years; much of this devotion stems back to the Marian apparition of the Virgen de Guadalupe. According to legend, Mexico’s first saint, San Juan Diego, was a native peasant who was given orders by the Virgin Mary for the creation of a Basilica in her name on the hill of Tepeyac, ultimately leaving her image imprinted on Juan Diego’s clothing as proof for the Spaniards. In appearing to an indigenous person rather than the Spanish conquerors, symbolically it is interpreted that the Virgin Mary wished the natives to be treated as equals and be brought into the Catholic faith, thus kicked off the evangelization of the continent.
Interestingly studies conducted on the tilma (men’s outerwear) reveal that no brush strokes or sketches were used in its creation or in other words the entire thing was created at once; to add to this the fabric has endure 500 years of history wheres replicas only lasts 15 or so years and remains remarkably well preserved despite being bombed and having been exposed to acid. Another detail that perhaps points to an otherworldly origin is that reflected in the eyes of the image are 14 people in total, allegedly being those who were present when the image was first revealed.
Every year on December 12th, millions of people devoted to the Virgin Mary congregate to celebrate the anniversary of the apparition. Often devotees across Mexico, the United States and many other parts of the world (my family and I included) get up at 4 am to sing Las Mañanitas (Mexican birthday song) to all Marias and Guadalupes in honor of the Virgin Mary.
Today the tilma is housed in the monolith of the new basilica with a capacity of 10,000 people and a plaza that can hold hundreds of thousands more. With a circular layout and a diameter of 100 meters (330 feet) the new basilica is a work of art in itself and a testament to the faith of the country’s people. It sits opposite the old basilica finished in 1709 which has slowly began to sink, much like many of Mexico’s oldest buildings, due to the loose lake bed soil of Mexico City.
As years went by the first shrine of 1532 was replaced by a bigger temple, later once more by a church and now by the massive Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe at the foot of Tepeyac hill. The image of maria is culturally one of the most important icons in Mexico. It has been used by independence armies, revolutionaries and indigenous rights advocates as well as by Catholics. With millions of visitors per year, it has become one of the most important pilgrimage sites not just for Catholicism but also those interested in this strange tale.