Travels & Traditions: Mexico City - #504

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: Mexico City has been called a city of miracles and for good reason. Twenty million people live in a valley that is over 7,000 feet above sea level. It was built on top of an ancient Aztec capital, which was built on top of a lake, so the whole place is slowly sinking. Each year, thousands of new residents arrive, increasing the stress on every aspect of life in the city.

And yet, Mexico City has some of the world’s most interesting museums, excavations of

ancient temples, extraordinary Baroque churches, colonial palaces, magnificent parks, and great restaurants.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The fact that Mexico City functions as well as it does is a miracle. A complex urban miracle but never the less a miracle. Mexico City is also a center for religious miracles, miracles that date back for hundreds of years.


BURT WOLF: The epicenter for miracles in Mexico City is the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the hill of Tepeyac, at the edge of town. 

Her story goes back to 1531. In front of the shrine is a life-sized mechanical presentation of the story. An Indian named Juan Diego was passing the hill of Tepeyac, when the Virgin Mary appeared. She told him to go to the bishop of Mexico and instruct the bishop to build a church on the hill. Diego told the bishop what had happened but the bishop asked him for proof. When Diego returned, the Virgin Mary sent him to the top of the hill to fill his cloak with flowers and carry them to the bishop. When Diego opened his cloak in front of the bishop, the flowers fell to the ground and revealed an image of the Virgin Mary imprinted on the cloak. The bishop considered this to be the miraculous sign that he had asked for and the church was built.

Our Lady of Guadalupe is venerated throughout the Americas, but the events that take place each year on her feast day, December 12th, here in Mexico City, are remarkable. During a three-day period over five million people make a pilgrimage to this hill. They come to pray for help for themselves or for someone they love. They come on their knees, from miles away, to show their devotion. Young, old, sick, well, they all arrive asking for our lady of Guadalupe to enter their lives.


BURT WOLF: Mexico City may be the world’s epicenter for the festivities surrounding Our Lady of Guadalupe on her feast day, but The National Shrine in Washington D.C. is a close second.

The largest Catholic Church in the Western Hemisphere and one of the largest in the world is the Basilica of The National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception here in Washington. It stands as a tribute to the Virgin Mary. The Shrine’s architects chose a Byzantine-Romanesque design in order to reflect the traditions of church art and architecture. The cornerstone was laid in 1920 and the Great Upper Church was completed and dedicated in 1959.

Each year over seven hundred and fifty thousand people visit this magnificent sanctuary.

The Basilica honors The Virgin Mary under her title of the Immaculate Conception. The sacred art is also designed to show that the United States is an ethnic melting pot.

Reverend Monsignor Michael J. Bransfield is the Rector of the Basilica.

MONSIGNOR MICHAEL J. BRANSFIELD ON CAMERA: After Christ, the greatest saint in the history of the church is his mother, his Blessed mother. And the devotion to Mary, no one competes with, in a worldwide phenomenon for the Catholic Church. 

The devotion to Mary goes back millennium and to the early Church. So as a result, it is the greatest devotion.

She goes across cultures, she goes across nationalities, and she sort of penetrates the whole Catholic culture totally.

People are looking to her to cure them from their illnesses, to understand the suffering they’re going through, because she has the image of the mother. So mother as a protector and a healer, there are her to normal functions. 

Today it is the most popular chapel. If you go into Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel, there are always flowers there… and they’re always being brought in by somebody. It’s really a lively place of devotion that enriches that chapel. It was always a beautiful chapel, but it’s much more beautiful with the people in it, as is true of any chapel.

BURT WOLF: The building contains more than sixty chapels and oratories that reflect the religious heritage brought to America by generations of catholic immigrants.

Each year hundreds of Hispanic residents of the Washington D.C. area march to The National Shrine and attend a special mass dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe.


BURT WOLF: Because the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was impressed on a cloak that was made of a coarse and easily damaged fabric, and subjected to years of handling, it was eventually placed in a protective shrine.

If you want to see the Tilma of Our Lady of Guadalupe you go to Tepeyac, she no longer travels. One result of her continuing residence in one place has been a growing interest in copies of the image.

And the more exact the copy, the more it was thought to invite the assistance of the “real” Mary. In fact, several precise copies became pilgrimage sites on their own. The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the cloak is filled with elements that speak to both the native population of Mexico as well as those of Spanish decent.

Arturo Rocha Cortes is an expert on the subject.

ATURO ROCHA CORTÉS ON CAMERA: What we have here is a collection of symbols which were as meaningful to the Spaniards as they were to the native Indians. Our Lady of Guadalupe‘s appearance was important for both groups. 

The first element we see is her face. It is a mixed face of Spanish and Indian. A union between the two groups which had previously been separated by a wall of hate and misunderstanding. 

To an Indian in the 1550s, there were many interesting elements. The Spanish saw a flower, but the Indians saw the symbol of the mountain of Tepeyac. In the language of the Aztecs, Tepeyac means nose or mountain’s peak and if we look closer you can see the shape. It is a mountain with a nose. The Indians believed that the river of life came from this mountain. Our Lady of Guadalupe is also a source of life. A black ribbon was the Indian sign of a pregnant woman.

The Spanish saw Our Lady’s feet on an Angel or a Cherub, but the Indians saw a deity they recognized as part of their ancient religion. The Angel is a symbol of the union between the two religions. The Spanish saw Our Lady embracing the sun, a symbol of Jesus. But the natives saw a symbol from their calendar, which promised great change. Our Lady was bringing the Indians the message of Jesus. 

More than anything else the picture of Our Lady is the blending together of Spanish and Aztec images.

BURT WOLF: The importance of those copies has continued, but during 2003 and 2004 a piece of the actual Tilma traveled throughout the United States.

The piece of cloth from the cloak is small, only an inch square. But size is not the issue. This is about power. And for the faithful, any single piece of the cloak contains all the power of the image. A power that arrives from a supernatural place.

The Tilma Tour was made possible through the efforts of The Knights of Columbus, an organization I heard about but I never really knew what they did.


BURT WOLF: Most of the immigrants who came to the United States during the 1800s were single men. But when the Irish potato crop failed in 1845 and hundreds of thousands of Irish men and woman fled to America many came as families. And of the others who did not come as families, there were almost the same number of men as women, which allowed for the immediate formation

of more families. The Irish American community developed a strong identity from the moment they came ashore.

Patrick and Mary McGivney were typical of the Irish families that arrived during the mid-1800’s.

Patrick landed with very few skills and with almost no money, but like most of his fellow immigrants he showed up with the need and the willingness to work. The great infrastructure that allowed the American economy to dominate the 20th century—the railroads, the canals, amazing works like the Brooklyn Bridge, were all built with major contributions from Irish workers. 

The McGivneys settled in Waterbury Connecticut and Pat became a molder in a nearby brass mill.

They were not faced with the prospect of starvation which haunted them in Ireland but they did live in the grip of poverty.

Their oldest child Michael grew up in a community filled with the sorrow that comes along with scarcity.

When he was thirteen years old he went to work in a spoon-making factory so he could contribute a few dollars towards the family’s survival. At sixteen he left the mill and began his studies for the priesthood.

On Christmas Day, 1877, Father McGivney began his ministry as Curate of St. Mary’s Church in New Haven Connecticut.

It was a time when parish clubs were popular. For the most part, they were social organizations that gave the Irish community a chance to hangout. But Father McGivney saw them as an opportunity to build a fund that would provide for the financial needs of families that were overwhelmed by illness or death. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Father McGivney began working with a group of Civil War Veterans that had come to the United States from Ireland. They wanted to form an organization that would help protect their families during times of stress and they called their group The Knights of Columbus. They wanted to make the point that they themselves were still struggling for equality in our own country, but they were now in the new world.

BURT WOLF: Today, The Knights of Columbus combine fraternalism and an insurance program that meets Father McGivney’s vision of support for families in trouble. There are one million seven hundred thousand Knights and during the past ten years they have contributed over one billion dollars and four hundred million hours of volunteer service to charitable causes.

The head of the Knights of Columbus is Carl Anderson.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: What are the Knights doing these days?

CARL ANDERSON ON CAMERA: Well, we’re doing a lot. We’ve raised about 128 million dollars for charity, volunteer about 60 million hours a year. And we’ve got hundreds of different projects at the local level, helping the handicap, helping children, working in schools and communities. We want to get people opening their hearts more to charity and get men involved in doing very practical things that they can do to help people in their community.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: It’s tough to teach guys about love, huh?

CARL ANDERSON ON CAMERA: Well, sometimes, but sometimes it’s giving guys an opportunity to express it. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The Knights were part of the original USO.

CARL ANDERSON ON CAMERA: By the end of the First World War, we had over 200 facilities for the servicemen in the United States, in the western and eastern fronts in Europe. And our slogan was, “everyone welcome, everything free.” And we thought we would help those guys when they were serving the country. But also, make a statement about religious tolerance, and the fact that really we’re one country and we can serve together and actually enjoy things together as well.


BURT WOLF: For over 300 years, the faithful have been constructing churches on the hill of Tepeyac. Padre Gustavo Watson is an expert on the hill’s history.

PADRE GUSTAVO WATSON ON CAMERA: At the very top of the hill is the Old Basilica. It is on this spot where the first three apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe took place. During the 1600s a small church was put up to commemorate the site. And during the 1700s this great temple was built.

Just down the hill is one of the great examples of Mexican Baroque architecture. It was built in 1791 with an unusual plan around an ancient spring. The well’s waters were thought to have curative powers. The water has dried up but not the people’s love of this small church.

This is the Antigua Basilica. Its construction was started in 1695 and it soon became the most important place of devotion in New Spain. When a Viceroy was sent from Europe to take control of Spain’s possessions in the New World, this was the spot where he took power.


BURT WOLF: Like many old buildings in and around Mexico City the foundation of the Old Basilica is slowly sinking. When it became dangerous a new basilica was built nearby.

It was completed in 1976 and can hold over 10,000 people. It’s the most visited Catholic sanctuary in the World. It stands in the form of a tent, a reference to the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament. The circular plan allows the image of the Virgin to be seen from any point in the building.

A slow-moving pedestrian walkway carries you past the Virgin. 

The architects knew that every day thousands of people would want to stand in front of the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe and if they didn’t find a way of moving the people along they’d be in big trouble.

Services take place throughout the day, but tourists also wander in and out of the building to view the architecture and the image.


BURT WOLF: When I started this program I talked about the somewhat frantic pace of Mexico City. But while I was working here, we stayed at The Four Seasons, which is an oasis of quiet and seclusion. You enter into a marble lined lobby that feels like a Spanish colonial mansion. And the staff treats you like you were a colonial governor, a colonial governor before the revolution…that’s an important point.

One reason for the peacefulness is the architecture of the building. The structure wraps around a cloistered courtyard that is filled with flowers and a central fountain.

At one corner of the courtyard is the hotel’s bar, which has the feeling of a library in London.

But behind that reserved exterior is one of the world’s great collections of Mezcal and Tequila.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The Indians who lived near Guadalajara were known as “Tequilas” or “Tequilos” which means “hill of lava or hill of volcanic stone”. Then they cultivated the blue Agave plant, which they used to make a fermented beverage which they called mezcal. Today it’s the specialty of the Mexican area known as Oaxaca. And they believed that it had a mystical quality and I think it does too, because I just had a sip and now I know where all my cavities are.

BURT WOLF: When the Spanish arrived, they took the mezcal and distilled it into Tequila which can be as sophisticated and subtle as any Brandy. And this bar serves over a hundred different Tequilas.

Next to the bar is the hotels’ restaurant, which is called Reforma 500. Reforma has a general menu based on the classic dishes of the Mediterranean.

But it also has a tasting menu with dishes that go back to the foods of Mexico before the Spanish arrived.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The guacamole goes onto the tortilla. The sauce goes onto the guacamole. The ants go onto the the Ants, the Ants? The ants go onto the sauce and you roll it up and it’s ready to eat. Now if you can get past the fact that this is not your normal source of protein, you’re gonna love it. And it proves once again that anything that is deep fried and salted tastes great. Didn’t think I was gonna do it, did ya?

BURT WOLF: They also have some excellent post-conquistador Mexican specialties: tortilla soup, Vera Cruz red snapper on tomato caper sauce, glazed chicken with pepper sauce, and sautéed chicken fajitas with bell peppers and onions.

The hotel can take you on a gastronomic tour, but it also specializes in cultural tours. They have a hotel historian that will accompany quests on special tours of the city’s cultural attractions. Each runs for about five hours.

There’s one that introduces you to the amazing artistic works of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera; another just deals with the great Mexican Muralists; there’s one to the magnificent Aztec ruins; and one to the Palace of Fine Arts. There are over a dozen cultural tours including the one to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

You couldn’t describe The Four Seasons as a Sacred Place but it does have some impressive healing powers.


BURT WOLF: There are thousands of people who believe they have been cured by Our Lady of Guadalupe and it would be easy to write off their stories as unscientific fantasy. But in fact, there is a considerable amount of medical evidence to indicate that these miraculous recoveries take place.

Over thirty years ago, Dr. Herbert Benson, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, took a group of researchers to Tibet so they could study the relationship of spiritual beliefs to mind-body control. The ultimate question: could your mind heal your body?

DR. HERBERT BENSON ON CAMERA: I’m a cardiologist by training, and early in my career, I noticed that people were coming to me and I was finding disproportionately high blood pressures in my office, and I wondered what was going on here. I was consistently overmedicating them. So I went back to Harvard Medical School, from which I had recently graduated, to see whether or not I couldn’t set up an animal model for stress-induced high blood pressure. We were successful. And then some young people came to me and said, “Why are you fooling around with monkeys?” These were the animals I was studying. “Please, investigate us.”

And we found that when a person meditated, repeating his or her focus, there was decreased metabolism, decreased heart rate, decreased rate of breathing, a quietude in the muscles. They were less tense. And this was a state that had never really been described before.

Then we searched to see whether or not these two steps hadn’t been described before. Every single culture of humankind that had a written history had these two steps within them. The first is a repetition, and that repetition can be a prayer. The other is a disregard of other thoughts when they come to mind. That repetition of a prayer of course involves belief.

People choose a word, often a prayer that they believe in. And that belief is religious. And you see, you’re hooking right in, or tying in, to the power of belief, on the part of the individual. And people will believe that it’s not only my inherent healing powers, but God-given healing powers that will bring about my healing. 

Historically these powers are normally tied to religious belief.


BURT WOLF: Are there gaps in the history of Our Virgin of Guadalupe? Do twenty-first century scientists question certain aspects of the story? Of course. It’s the job of historical scholars to question everything. However, it’s also essential to remember the importance of tradition. Often a tradition will have a life of its own and will not be easily subjected to scientific study. But having a vision of the Holy has been essential to human history.

It was the vision of the Holy that produced many of our greatest masterpieces of art and music.

And it is a vision of the Holy that motivates the faithful to risk everything to relieve the world’s suffering; to care for plague victims; to defend the rights of children; to go into war zones to feed the poor.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: History seems to tell us that the people who did most for us in this world were the people who thought the most about the next world. And that when we lose sight of the next world, we become ineffective in this one. 

BURT WOLF: Tepeyac is a sacred place and has been so for centuries. If you believe in a life beyond the one you are living now, then this place is a natural home for you. But no matter what you accept as true, a visit to Tepeyac will remind you of the importance of faith. Someone once said to me, you can think about a sacred place or you can think with it. For TRAVELS & TRADITIONS, I’m Burt Wolf.