La Virgen de Guadalupe: A Mexican Icon

by Ekua on June 29, 2011 in Mexico,race/culture/identity

Images of noteworthy people are important in Mexico, especially religious and political figures. Here, it seems that people want to make certain people tangible and visible at all times, however accurate or inaccurate the image may be. On a daily basis I come across a circle or town square with a statue erected in honor of someone who fought for Mexico at some point in the country’s tumultuous history. In churches, people pray to statues of specific saints and light candles. In markets, miniature versions of the saints are available in abundance.

There’s one image in particular I’ve seen more than the rest. I’ve seen it in markets, in caves, at waterfalls, on restaurant walls, and stencil painted onto the streets: La Virgen de Guadalupe.

And I’ve not just seen her in Mexico, I’ve seen her in the States too, on murals and t-shirts. And I always though she was simply a Mexicanized version of the Virgin Mary. Which is somewhat correct, but there is a whole complex history behind the image. It’s about much more than Catholicism.

On a fantastic day tour in Mexico City that included Teotihuacan and other historical sites in and around the city, we stopped at Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. There, our guide told us of the history behind the image, and the significance of each part of the image.

I won’t launch into the alleged origin of Virgen de Guadalupe, but there are a few interesting ways in which the typical image of the Virgin Mary has been syncretized and modified to merge the Spanish culture with the indigenous culture and make her appealing to different types of people in Mexico. Her features appear to be more Mestizo than the typical more European depiction of the Virgin Mary. There is a sun burst behind her and the sun was the most important god to the Aztecs. She wears a robe that is covered flowers and it represents the earth, which was of course important for the Aztecs’ close to nature sensibilities. She is being held up by an angel with eagle’s wings. Eagles were considered to be the birds of the sun and were sacred to the Aztecs. These are just some aspects of the Virgen de Guadalupe; it seems that each detail of the image is dichotomous, a perfect blend of Catholicism and Aztec beliefs.

On one hand it’s a symbol that was able to further push the original people of Mexico away from their traditions and into an altered form of Catholicism. On the other hand it’s a symbol of defiance, a symbol of people continuing to do things the way they’ve always done. While the Aztecs appeared to acquiesce to the desires of those with the strong weapons and the power and the audacity to impose their beliefs on others, the image actually incorporated the sustained worship of their original beliefs.

Either way, it’s a symbol that represents a country of blending, of native and Spanish, of Christian and pagan. For better or worse, it’s a symbol that the whole country seems to venerate, a symbol of an irrevocable past and moving forward from that, and a symbol of pride that unifies Mexico.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Sunee June 29, 2011 at 11:57 pm

I’ve always found religious imagery, and the way Christian icons were adapted to fit in with a region’s pagan beliefts, very interesting. Most people probably won’t know that the well-known image of Mary with baby Jesus on her lap actually originates from the depiction of the Egyptian goddess Isis with her child Horus. It’s once again very interesting to see how the Aztec mythology was incorporated here. Fascinating, and it makes one wonder how many of the pagan rituals seeped into Christian practice as well…

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Ekua July 1, 2011 at 4:15 pm

I never knew that about Mary and Isis. Religion in Latin America is so interesting, it’s definitely not as straightforward as it might seem at first glance!

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Andi of My Beautiful Adventures June 30, 2011 at 1:01 pm

I LOVE her image! I have the coolest bag with her on it. She brings me good luck. ;-)

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Ekua July 1, 2011 at 4:18 pm

I couldn’t believe I didn’t know more about the image until now! Makes more sense to me why I see the image in so many places.

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Lauren Quinn July 4, 2011 at 9:28 am

Great photo! I love the imagery of the Virgin—and now I now more of the story!

Hope you’re having a blast!

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Ekua July 7, 2011 at 10:39 am

Thanks! It was really interesting to get an understanding of what it’s about when I’ve seen it so much. Love, love Mexico. My trip is winding down and I have a growing list of places I still need to see ;)

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