by Sara Miles
Long before she arrived in the New World, the Virgin Mary was at the center of Christianity’s scandal: God becoming a human, Spirit mixing irrevocably with mortal flesh. The prophet Mary appears all over the world: pregnant, black-skinned, red-haired, white-robed, crowned, calm, bleeding, sleeping, weeping, rising out of the sea; head bent, hands raised, popping one perfectly round breast into an infant’s mouth. She is the Ark of the New Covenant; Our Lady of sorrows, mercies, solitude, comfort, miracles, light; or, simply, “Herself.” Mary is everywhere.
In San Francisco’s Mission District, where I live, it’s the Virgin of Guadalupe who animates the streets. Draped in a blue mantle sprinkled with stars, surrounded by rays of light, she faces the city from every direction. She’s painted on the front of the upscale raw-foods restaurant called “Gracias Madre,” perhaps the only words in Spanish its earnest owners know besides “guacamole.” She’s tattooed into the skin of a twenty-five year old Salvadoran killer, perhaps the only image of mercy he can accept. She dangles from rear-view mirrors and radiates from shopping bags and beach towels. Murals of her adorn at least four different vegetable markets named “Casa Guadalupe;” a pawnshop called “La Virgen” and a bakery named “La Reyna” write her nicknames in script. She’s printed on the cheap foil posters and ill-fitting t-shirts and blinking alarm clocks made in China and sold at the ghetto dollar stores by Korean shopkeepers who wearily roll up their gates on her feast day without knowing who she is, or how many different things she means to the immigrant moms who come looking for bargains. She’s cast in stone to be plunked down on front steps, or in back yards, or among the grubby rosebushes by a parochial school. She’s rendered in plastic and set on a shelf by my front door, so that I can put fresh flowers at her feet, and light a candle to her before my over-educated Anglo friends show up for dinner.
The story of Guadalupe goes like this. One early December morning in 1531, the Indian peasant and Christian convert Juan Diego is walking past the holy hill of Tepeyac. The brutal occupation of the Spaniards has destroyed the ancient temple there dedicated to the goddess Tonantzín, Mother of Corn and Bringer of Life. Suddenly he’s overcome by a vision of a dark-skinned, barefoot, pregnant girl, looking suspiciously like renderings of Tonantzín: she’s trampling down snakes, bearing codices, crowned with stars. The young woman addresses him in his own Nauhatl language, calling him “my son,” and then announces that she is actually Mary, the mother of God, and that he should build a church to her. Frightened and humble, Juan Diego demurs.
“I am a nobody, I am a small rope, a tiny ladder, the tail end, a leaf,” he tells her. But the vision insists, so Juan Diego rushes off to share the good news with the Spanish bishop. And the bishop, who is not at all pleased, says, in effect: you stupid Indian, are you crazy? The most Holy Virgin Mary is hardly some heathen brown-skinned girl, have you no respect?
Juan Diego returns to the hilltop, prays, and the brilliant vision, who will later be named Guadalupe, appears again. She asks the Indian to open his tilma, his cloak, and she fills it with Castilian roses—impossible, sweet-smelling roses in December. He brings it tremulously to the bishop, who falls to his knees when he sees her holy image imprinted on the rough cloth.
Devotions follow; centuries of miracles and arguments follow; legends and basilicas follow. Books are filled with conflicting versions of the story. Her name: does it come from the conquerors’ Spain, where the Arabic word wadi, river, mixed with the Spanish-Latin hybrid word lupe, wolf; or does it originate with the Aztecs, where coatlaxopeuh means “she who tramples down serpents?” Guadalupe’s identity: is she La Morena or Paloma Blanca––the dark one or the white dove–– or simply La Reyna, the Queen of Heaven? Is she syncretized with Tonantzín alone, or also with the mysterious pregnant snake-stomping woman from the Book of Revelation who’s clothed with the sun and crowned with twelve stars? Is the written Franciscan account or the Nauhatl one or the codex supposedly discovered by the Jesuits more accurate? And that tilma, which millions now visit every year: is it truly incorruptible, or has it been replaced by fakes?
What is going on here, really? Have the pagan Indians who venerated an Aztec goddess now turned to Our Lady of Guadalupe and finally become real Christians––or has the Mother of God lifted up the colonized to convert the European Church?
All of it. Guadalupe embodies mestizaje ––that blessed principle of intermingling which is God’s gift to Mexico, and Mexico’s gift to the nations. Herself mixed and impure, Guadalupe bears and reveals a God uncontainable by religious orthodoxy or national borders; a God who shows up everywhere, showering us with life as unexpected as roses in December, making all things new. Hail Mary. Hoy te vengo a saludar.
Sara Miles is the author of Take This Bread and Jesus Freak. This essay is adapted from her new book City of God (Jericho Books, forthcoming February 2014.)