Travels & Traditions: The Shrine at Guadalupe, Mexico - #502

BURT WOLF: Every culture, from the most primitive hunter-gatherers to the most sophisticated societies, have land that they consider sacred. Holy places charged with a divine energy. These sites remain important locations in the history of religion and they continue to inspire spiritual feelings.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: I wanted to know “why”? Why do certain places become sacred sites, and others don’t? What were they before? Why do millions of people visit them each year? I started out as a journalist researching a story, and I ended up as a pilgrim.


BURT WOLF: People have been living in Mexico for over 20,000 years. The ancient people of the region; the Olmecs, the Maya, and the Aztecs developed some of the most sophisticated cultures in history. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1519, the Aztecs controlled most of what we now call Mexico.

And the center of their civilization was what we now call Mexico City. Today, Mexico City is one of the largest and most populated cities in the world…twenty million people live and work in a maze of Indian, Spanish, French and modern buildings. It’s the nation’s center for politics, business, culture and religion.

From the moment the Spanish came ashore they began converting the natives to Catholicism. Today ninety percent of Mexicans are Roman Catholic. The Church plays an important part in Mexican life, and the country is filled with religious sites.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The most important religious site in Mexico is the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. It sits on a hill about six miles from the center of Mexico City and each year millions of people come here. Some are pilgrims looking for salvation, some are people asking for help for themselves or someone they love, and some are people who are coming just to see what happens here, because they’re curious.

BURT WOLF: Who are these people? Why do they worship Our Lady of Guadalupe? And have their prayers been answered?


BURT WOLF: When Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World there were no Christian saints to meet him—no Christian relics were carried to his ship to celebrate the success of his voyage. As a matter of fact, there weren’t any Christians at all.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: During the 16th century, thousands of Christians began to show up in the New World, but the place was still pretty short on certified saints and relics. During the middle of the century, however, things began to change, miraculous images began to appear -- and most often they were images of Jesus or the Virgin Mary.

BURT WOLF: Our Lady of Guadalupe on the hill at Tepeyac, at the edge of Mexico City, was the first apparition of Mary in the New World that was officially recognized by the Catholic Church. She is the patron saint of Mexico and all Hispanic nations in America, as well as the patron saint of Canada and the United States. 

Today, the shrine attracts more than 20 million pilgrims each year. Of all the sacred places in the entire world dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe is the most popular. 

Eventually she became the national symbol of Mexico and her story is an essential part of the history and culture of the nation. Her image is found throughout the country.

In 1737, Guadalupe was chosen as the patroness of the city of Mexico. But her significance was not confined to Mexico. Her patronage was soon extended to all of New Spain, then to Guatemala and finally to all Spanish colonies throughout the world. 


BURT WOLF: The devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe is based on the story of Juan Diego.

REV. STAFFORD POOLE ON CAMERA: The story is set in the year 1531, which was just ten years after the Spanish conquest of Mexico.

Juan Diego was an Indian, a newly converted Indian who, in 1531, had a vision of the Virgin Mary at a place north of Mexico City called Tepeyak, or Tepeyak. It was a mountain. He was walking by there one Saturday on his way to receive religious instruction when he heard his name called and together with it these beautiful heavenly sounds, the sounds of birds singing, of sublime music; and the voice called him to go up this hill of Tepeyak; and there he saw this splendid vision of the Virgin Mary who identified herself as the Mother of God. And she told him that she wanted him to go to the bishop of Mexico, a Franciscan friar named Juan de Samarruga. And it struck him that she wanted a church built on that particular site, and there, all of her people could come, and she would hear their pleas, their prayers, their entreaties, and their sorrows.

So Juan Diego went to the bishop who received him kindly but initially was skeptical. So Juan Diego went back to Tepeyac, and informed the Virgin of what happened. He told her about the bishop’s request for a sign. 

She told him to go up the hill and to gather all the flowers that he would see there. It was December at a time when there was nothing there but frost and cactus and rocks and mesquite, but he found all kinds of flowers which he cut and put into his cloak, which in the Aztec language was called a Tilmatlee.

Juan Diego took the flowers back to the Virgin, gave them to her, she blessed them, and then he went back to Mexico City to present them to the bishop. 

He opened up the cloak; the flowers cascaded to the floor. And imprinted on the cloak was the image which is venerated today at Guadalupe. 

BURT WOLF: Some historians see the story as an essential element connecting the Indian past to the Spanish future. The Virgin Mary appears to a lowly Indian at the hill at Tepeyac, which had once been the sacred home of a pre-Columbian mother goddess. Indians came to the site of the miracle and accepted her as the incarnation of the Aztec mother goddess of life, health and happiness.

To the Indians, Our Lady of Guadalupe became the new image of their mother who could restore order to their devastated world. She was able to bring continuity to their lives—connecting the past to the present and the future.

Dr. William Taylor at the University of California has been studying Our Lady of Guadalupe and what she has come to represent to different people.

DR. WILLIAM B. TAYLOR ON CAMERA: She has always meant many things to many kinds of Mexicans. She wasn't just the Indian Virgin, she wasn't just the Masteesa Virgin, and she wasn't just the Spanish Virgin. She's appealed to all of these groups and over a very long period of time. Today, she has a remarkable appeal for any number of people in this country, especially Mexicans who have come to this country. Not only Mexicans, though, New Age questors are interested in Guadalupe; Protestant theologians are interested in Guadalupe. But above all, she has an appeal to Mexican-Americans, who think of her in many different ways. Think of her perhaps as the Masteesa Virgin. A symbol of patriotism. A symbol of their ethnic solidarity. A symbol of home here in the United States. She comes with them. She never leaves. She has the appeal of independence to Chicana feminists. She can be a symbol of resistance…

But she has equal appeal to an older woman in East Los Angeles who came here 50 years ago, has a home altar with a cheap print of Our Lady of Guadalupe. There, she's a symbol of consolation, of a kind of presence, a kind of healing power that's very important to her.


BURT WOLF: There is a passage in the Bible that says: I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. And thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The Old Testament is pretty clear on the subject: man-made images are off limits. Don’t make any pictures. Don’t make any sculptures. If you’ve got something to say, say it directly. But during the sixth century things began to change. The Christian Church started to accept praying to pictures.

REVEREND STAFFORD POOLE ON CAMERA: It was the separation of Christianity from Judaism. And in the process, Christianity either dropped or rejected many Judaic practices. This starts with St. Paul. And the first one that was not imposed upon Christian converts was circumcision. Then, sometime in the first century, they changed the day of worship from Saturday to Sunday. They gave up the idea of ritual purification, or ritual and cleanness. They stopped observing the dietary laws. Christians would eat pork, and Jews don’t eat pork. So it was all part of that divergence, and the use of images was just one part.

BURT WOLF: People began to promote the idea that when you prayed to a picture, your prayer passed through the picture and reached the model.

Pope Gregory loved the idea and added the thought that “the picture is for the simple man what writing is for those who can read.”

It was clear that the souls of the great martyrs were in heaven, but their remains on earth were filled with extraordinary powers. They could protect worshipers from the devil and heal the sick. Some relics were powerful enough to protect an entire city. Thousands of pilgrims would visit the sacred sites where these relics were kept. And the miracles that took place were carefully documented.


BURT WOLF: In order to understand the religious environment of New Spain, it’s helpful to take a look at what was happening in Old Spain, particularly in the city of Seville. 

It was from Seville that Christopher Columbus set sail, and it was right back here that he returned with his treasures. For decades, Seville had a monopoly on the commercial and religious activity between Europe and the new world. 

To understand the church in Seville it helps to understand Holy week, which is a symbolic conflict between the forces of good and the forces of evil. During the 1300’s, the people of Seville began to group themselves into brotherhoods. Each brotherhood agreed to produce an image from the passion of Christ or a sorrowing Virgin, and to honor that image throughout the year. The members who actually walk in the procession wear long robes in the colors of the brotherhood. The pointed headgear, which looks rather terrifying, was originally designed to hide the identity of the person inside. There’s a theory that being disguised in this costume gave men the opportunity to get in touch with their feelings and their love of God. Showing religious emotion in public was not easy in a culture that has often seen religious behavior in public as not “macho”. Under the hood, your emotions remain private. Some of the members have taken the cones out of their hoods. They want the peak to hang down, to look humble. These are people doing penance. The visual symbol is like that of the cock that has become crestfallen, and is therefore no longer cocky.

Today, a brotherhood might have up to 3000 members, including both men and women. Each brotherhood owns from one to three floats with scenes showing Christ’s passion or the weeping Virgin. 

Each float weighs two to three tons, and is carried through the streets of Seville by groups of young men. For years the floats were carried by professional stevedores. Eventually, the fees for the stevedores became too expensive for the brotherhoods. People thought that carrying the floats through Seville would come to an end. But the young men of each brotherhood came through and the general opinion is that the young men do a better job than the stevedores did. There is considerable art to carrying the floats - the objective is to make the figures sway so they seem alive and moving. 

As the Passion of Christ is played out along the streets of the city, Seville becomes Jerusalem. It’s an ancient way for a festival to teach a story. The town where the festival is going on is turned into the town where the original events took place. 

The floats that pass through the streets of Seville express suffering and pain in two different forms. There are the images of Christ - images of direct physical pain - and there are the images of the weeping Madonnas: images of the pain of looking on, knowing that you are helpless to prevent the suffering of someone you love. The Madonna’s pain is the pain of the parent.

There are magic moments during the festival that are called Sietas, which is the Spanish word for arrow. In this case it is an arrow of emotion, of passion, of sentiment, and it passes between one of the statues being carried through the streets and one of the people watching the procession. The viewer has been overwhelmed with feeling for Christ or the Virgin Mary, and she expresses herself by singing the story of her love and her sadness.

Writing and singing Sietas is an art form, and one of the most amazing aspects of the entire celebration. But they are also very personal moments. Often it is only the singer who knows when and where a Sieta will take place. And sometimes, a singer only finds out because he or she is suddenly singing.

The processions go on day and night for seven days. Each float must pass through a series of specific streets, and every float must stop at the cathedral. 

This public commitment to Christ, this show of love, is a central part of the church of Seville, and it became an essential aspect of the church of Mexico.


BURT WOLF: During the middle of the 1500s the Roman Catholic Church decided to introduce a new form of religious architecture designed to oppose the almost barren approach of the reformation. The new style came to be known as Baroque. It was adopted throughout Spain and soon began appearing throughout Mexico. It was rich, grand sensuous and dramatic. Its object was to evoke an emotional response. In essence, it said this was the appropriate level of splendor for the Lord. It was a way to extend and encourage the public’s faith in the Church. The ceilings of Baroque churches are always painted with vivid images of the divine world above. They invite the viewer to contemplate the rewards of heaven.

But the Baroque was not limited to art and architecture it also became one of the greatest periods in classical music…Bach, Handel and Vivaldi were all masters of the Baroque.


BURT WOLF: In 1979, Dr. Hose Aste Tonsmann, a graduate of Cornell University, while working at IBM, scanned a photo of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and filtered the image in order to produce the highest quality picture.

When he did so, he discovered that there was other people reflected in her eyes…in fact an entire family, as they would have appeared in the 1500s. 

Tonsmann concluded that the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe contains any number of messages and each will be revealed at the appropriate moment in history. He feels that the modern technology needed to see the family reflects the reality that these days more than ever the idea of family is being challenged. Her eyes remind us of our present need to address this problem.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Not everybody agrees on the images in the eyes of Our Lady of Guadalupe. One noted authority told me that in order to see those images you needed computer enhancement and a great imagination. Well, fortunately we have computer enhancement and if Jesus could imagine a world filled with love and peace, I’m all for imagination. 


BURT WOLF: In almost every religion there were men and women who were able to make contact with the spirit world and use the power of that unseen place to work wonders in our world. When the bible says, “The Spirit of the Lord is Upon Me,” it is a reference to the unseen universe. It is also a reference to the idea that our well being is the result of having a proper relationship with that spiritual world.

Jesus was in the tradition of men who stood between our world and the spiritual world and used the power of the spiritual to influence events. These men and women were always dramatic personalities and dynamic speakers and they always attracted lots of attention.

One of the major differences between Jesus and the mediators that preceded him was that instead of just using his power to heal individual people Jesus set out to heal the entire world.

Jesus asked his listeners to believe in his message not because he said it was true, or because the message came from God, but because if they looked in their own hearts they would feel the truth of his words. And His message was very simple: God’s love is unyielding; we need to accept it and we need to let it pass through us to others. Love is the ultimate power.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Jesus taught that everyone was equal in the eyes of God – and that the poor were as important as the rich. He opposed the corruption of the ruling class, and that challenged the status quo, and so they had him executed. Details around the crucifixion and the days after are somewhat limited but what is clear is that his followers felt his presence more than ever.

BURT WOLF: They had experienced his resurrection, and that produced the Christian Church, which swept across the Roman world.


BURT WOLF: Experts on Mexican history and culture have said that their nation was born at Tepeyac with the appearance of the Virgin Mary. And that’s because in addition to her religious significance, she is the symbol of Mexican culture.

In 1810, Miguel Hidalgo, a parish priest urged the rural population to rebel against Spain. He gave them a copy of the Virgin of Guadalupe from Tepeyac and told them that their battle cry should be “Long Live Our Lady of Guadalupe”.

Once Mexico won its independence, Guadalupe became the symbol of the new nation. She represented not only the Spanish born in Mexico and the native Indians but everyone associated with the country.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Octavio Paz, Mexico’s Nobel prize-winning poet once said that, after two centuries of experimentation, the people of Mexico have come to believe in only two things, Our Lady of Guadalupe and the National Lottery. For TRAVELS & TRADITIONS, I’m Burt Wolf.