Our Lady in the Old World and New
Our Lady of Guadalupe in Spain
The Sierra de Guadalupe, southwest of Madrid, rises out of the Extremadura, the “High Plains” of Spain. This hard region, famed for its “Big Sky,” would be the birthplace of many conquistadores, including Hernán Cortéz, Hernando de Soto, and Francisco Pizarro. In the thirteenth century, Castilian, Portuguese and Muslim armies fought here.
According to local legends, the Virgin Mary appeared one day to a humble cowboy named Gil Cordero who was searching for a missing animal in the mountains. She told him that a statue of her had been hidden there from the Muslims, centuries before, and she ordered him to bring the local bishop (the bishop of Cáceres) to recover her image and to build a church. She prophesied that a great town would be founded at Guadalupe.
The bishop was skeptical. But Mary offered wonders. The missing cow, which Cordero had found and begun to butcher, was revived with a cross-shaped scar on its chest. The herdsman’s own son was resurrected through her intercession. So the bishop and his men came back with him to the site of the vision, unearthed a marvelous statue that was an image of Mary, and built a shrine in the mountains. Gil Cordero and his family guarded it for the rest of their lives. It ultimately became a major pilgrimage center in Spain, especially for the people of the Extremadura.
In its historical details this wondrous foundation legend is not without problems. But it expresses a fervent belief in the importance of Mary as the Mother of God, as a living channel between human beings and the divine, a compassionate sharer of the pain of Christ and of the pain of God’s humble servants. And it includes a slightly subversive message: a poor man helped by Mary may know more than a powerful bishop does.
Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico
[left] Depiction of the Mexican version of Our Lady of Guadalupe. From the Mathes Collection.
It is claimed that on December 9, 1531, on the hill of Tepeyac outside of modern-day Mexico City, the Lady of Guadalupe arrived in the New World. An Indian named Juan Diego, on his way to mass, heard the sound of music. A voice called out, and at the top of the hill, he saw a beautiful lady who identified herself as the Mother of God, the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe. She asked him to have the bishop build a shrine. He rushed to the episcopal palace, but was quickly turned away. He reported his failure to the Virgin. On December 12, 1531, she gave him Castilian roses to present. Now the excited attendants summoned the bishop. But when Juan Diego opened his white tilma (or cloak) to present them, it miraculously bore an image of the most Holy Virgin. A shrine was built, which attracts more pilgrims today than any other Christian shrine except St. Peter’s in Rome.
Our Lady of Guadalupe has become a symbol of the Mexican people. Her image has the dark skin of the original Guadalupe statue, but otherwise she displays unique local traits. Her face is said to be the face of a Nahuatl Indian. She wears a cinta or maternity band that ends with a small flower called a nagvioli that had Nahuatl religious associations. Her mantle and robe feature the color of turquoise, usually reserved for Omecihuatl (the great God). The blood red color of her robe may have represented the color for the spilled blood sacrifices and is said to have been the color of Huitzilopochtli, the sun god who had been nourished with the precious liquid of life blood.
Why “of Guadalupe”? Marian apparitions had increased in late medieval and early modern Catholic Europe, but geographical labels for them were normally added later. Some devotees have argued that the name must result from Spanish misunderstanding of some similar-sounding Nahuatl word. Yet the message of the “Virgin of Guadalupe” does actually translate from the Old World to the New. Mary speaks to the poor, understands their suffering, and somehow manages to empower them.
Our Lady of Guadalupe in Lubbock
Every year on the Sunday nearest to December 12th, Roman Catholic churches across Lubbock celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. To Lubbock’s Mexican American Catholic community, the Guadalupe devotion celebrates not only a manifestation of the Blessed Virgin Mary but also a culture. This relationship between the Lady of Guadalupe and Mexican American Catholics in Lubbock is at least as complex and diverse as her relationship with those in her native Mexico. Here she offers cultural and religious connections to a people whose homeland is still being defined. Her status as a cultural icon is evident in representations throughout the Lubbock community. Her image graces Cinco de Mayo banners, automotive decals, even tattoos.
[above] Close up of a parade float in the annual Lubbock celebration. Image by John Howe.