The simple, craggy hill seemed an unlikely spot for a miracle. And Juan Diego, an indigenous Mexican and recent Catholic convert, certainly wasn’t expecting one on that December 9th morning in 1531. The hill was just an obstacle on his six-mile journey to Mass that morning. He was climbing the hill when he heard heavenly singing, and a voice calling his name. Climbing farther, Juan Diego saw a beautiful shining lady — an Indian woman — beckoning to him. Speaking in Náhuatl, Juan Diego’s native language, the woman revealed that she was the Blessed Mother — Our Lady of Guadalupe — and she wished for a church in her honor to be erected on the hill.
|Completed in 1709, the structure commonly referred to as the Old Basilica, is still standing — just a few dozen feet from the new shrine — but because Mexico City was built on a waterway, the city, along with many of its buildings including the basilica, is sinking. Within the Old Basilica stands a statue of Juan Diego and, behind it, a board adorned with charms and images representing petitions to the saint who was canonized in 2002 by Pope John Paul II.
But even older than the Old Basilica is the Chapel of the Indians. The first major chapel built at the site, it includes the remains of the small structure in which Juan Diego lived after the apparitions, and in which the tilma was once housed. Behind the chapel is Tepeyac Hill, covered with flowers of fuchsia, red, and purple; and at the top, the Chapel of Tepeyac.
Built in 1976, the New Basilica’s green, tent-shaped roof flows out from a gray, stone cross atop an M, symbolizing Mary. The roof is meant to represent the tilma unfolding from where it hung around the neck of Juan Diego when the image was first revealed to the bishop.
Juan Diego dutifully headed to see Bishop Juan de Zumárraga, who listened but was unsure of the veracity of his story and needed time to think. Discouraged, Juan Diego returned to the hill and told the Blessed Mother that he was not noble enough for the task. Mary insisted, however, that — despite his poverty and simplicity — she had chosen him and he should not lose heart. The next day, Juan Diego retuned to Bishop de Zumárraga and again relayed his message, in detail. The bishop, still doubtful, asked for a sign.
Because he needed to care for a sick uncle, Juan Diego did not leave his house for two days, and then left only to fetch a priest. On his way into town he purposely journeyed around Tepeyac Hill, in hopes of avoiding a delay caused by meeting the Lady. She appeared to him anyway, saying, “Do not fear that sickness, nor any other sickness or anguish. Am I not here, who is your Mother? Are you not under my protection?” Though it was winter, she told him he would find roses atop the hill, and that he should gather them and take them to the bishop as a sign. Comforted, Juan Diego left to fulfill his promise.
Tightly clutching the miraculous roses in his robe, or tilma, Juan Diego returned to the bishop once more. After a long wait and much harassment from the bishop’s servants, Juan Diego released the cloth in the presence of the bishop. The roses scattered, and an image of the Lady remained on the cloth. Amazed, all who were present dropped to their knees. Later, Juan Diego returned home to find his uncle had been miraculously healed.
Four hundred and seventy five years later, that craggy little hill is now surrounded by one of the world’s largest cities. Our tightly-packed tour van inches its way through its congested city streets and past merchants greeting shoppers hoping to do a bit of one-stop shopping for Mexican wrestling posters, bicycles, piñatas, and Christmas trees, among other things. We crawl forward and — eventually — pass through the zocalo, or city center, today filled with people listening to lively guitar music.
Farther up the road, to the right of an intersection, a man stands facing three lanes of traffic, all of which are stopped at a red light. Then, as though on stage, he begins to juggle three burning sticks. I catch a glimpse of his act before the light turns green, and lines of traffic lurch past him once more. This is Mexico City, a city of 22 million people that has worked for centuries at perfecting its own juggling act; balancing an indigenous, pre-Hispanic culture, the Spanish colonial influence, and the contemporary customs and technology of the 21st century. And at the center of it all is Our Lady of Guadalupe.
It is a bright Tuesday morning, November 29, when our van pulls up to the curb beside the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. A narrow entrance faces the street, and the building’s gray exterior gives no indication of the tremendous space and beauty within. Our eager group files inside. Just beyond the doorway to the right, three rows of moving sidewalks roll in alternating directions. Lining up, looking upward, we move back and forth on the rolling walk, captivated by the image above. High on the wooden wall hangs Juan Diego’s tilma — a 61/2 foot by 31/2 foot poncho made of cactus fiber — which would look rather dull were it not imprinted with the crisp, warm image of the Virgin Mary known as Our Lady of Guadalupe. In a frame of silver and gold, glowing rays of burnt orange surround the tan-skinned woman wearing a blue-green veil covered in bright stars. The lady — Our Lady — is clearly depicted and looks down upon us benevolently. Though I am certain that Juan Diego never set foot on a moving sidewalk, it’s impossible not to feel a connection to him, or marvel at how magnificent the actual apparition must have been, and how humbled and honored Juan Diego must have felt standing on Tepeyac Hill.
Moments later, at just before 9 a.m., we join our fellow pilgrims for daily Mass, quietly plodding across the floors to the angular, shining wooden pews. We are standing at the spiritual heart of Mexico. “In Mexico, the basilica is the Church,” tour guide Raul Gonzales-Cadena tells us, stressing the importance, to the Mexican people, of the apparition and the structure in which it is housed. He adds that altars honoring Mary can be found in many homes and it is not unusual for a child — either male or female — to be named Guadalupe. “Most of the people here are poor, so [faith] is very important — sometimes it’s all they have,” says Julia Molina, liaison for the Mexico Tourism Board. “People work all through the year and they live in a very humble way,” she says, adding that the money that people save throughout the year often will be spent on a set of clothes to wear to visit the basilica. Molina adds that devotion to Our Lady isn’t confined to the boundaries of a single country. Of the approximately 3 million international visitors to Mexico, 50 percent come from the United States.
Crowded together near the rear of the basilica, Isaac Martinez and dozens of his friends have come, by bus, from Córdoba, Veracruz. During Mass they, along with many others, prop paintings and sequined banners bearing images of the Virgin near their pews and wear images of her on their shirts. The whole congregation seems to reflect the image on the tilma that hangs behind the altar, issuing an appropriate challenge to those of us present: How do we reflect Mary’s love, her cry for justice, in our own lives?
Outside, the bright sun beats down on the Plaza of the Americas over which the basilica looks. I wander about the wide open square, watching as groups of pilgrims stream in, some playing mariachi music, some beating drums, some walking quietly on their knees. They carry images of the Virgin decorated with fresh flowers as they walk and pray and sing.
Later, we drive out of Mexico City toward the city of Tlxacala, and head southeast through the tree-lined hills. Hundreds of houses made of grey brick and cement climb the hillsides. As we approach Tlxacala, the van winding through narrow streets, I spot the occasional familiar ad for Pepsi, Blockbuster video, or an Internet café.
We arrive in a courtyard adjacent to the golden-gray structure known as the Church of our Lady of the Assumption. It is there that I meet Ismael Correa. Correa sports a patterned bandana, a warm smile, and a T-shirt with an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. With a great deal of patience on his part, and a bit of broken Spanish on mine, I learn of the promise Corea once made to the Virgin, to bike the 150 kilometers from the city of Tlxacala to Mexico City for the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. “We’d grow tired,” Correa recalls. “But it’s a very beautiful voyage on the highway — looking at the mountain volcanoes, to feel the Holy Spirit, the tranquillity — because you are fulfilling your promise.”
Our own ride back to Mexico City, despite the occasional bump in the road, is quiet and relaxed. I gaze out the window as we pass the hazy, snow-capped mountains, Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl. Popocatépetl remains an active volcano, thin trails of steam floating from its point, and the people of Mexico say Iztaccíhuatl’s various peaks create the silhouette of a woman peacefully sleeping. Together, the mountains seem to keep an eye on the cities below. Their serenity and power is striking and almost holy, reminding me somehow, of another woman — loving and strong — watching over her people from above.