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.