Our Lady of Guadalupe holds a special place in the religious life of Mexico’s faithful.
According to the Roman Catholic Church, in 1531, she appeared before Juan Diego, an early indigenous convert to Catholicism. As well, her image has played an important role as a national symbol of the country. In Spanish, she is called Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe.
Tradition claims that Mary appeared to Juan Diego on Dec. 9 and again on Dec. 12, 1531. During her first apparition, she requested that a shrine to her be built on the very spot where she appeared, the Tepeyac Hill, a place that was also sacred to the Aztec female deity Tonanzin. When Juan Diego took her petition to the bishop, he demanded to see a sign or a miracle before he would even consider the construction of a church. Mary then appeared a second time to Juan Diego and presented him with out-of-season roses. Juan Diego was granted a second audience with the bishop, and when he opened his cloak, dozens of the blooms fell to the floor, revealing the image of Mary imprinted on the inside of his cloak. This is the image that is now venerated in the Basilica de Guadalupe in Mexico City.
Many scholars and ecclesiastics have questioned the validity of this story and say there is insufficient documentary evidence for the apparition. But the faithful accept her authenticity.
Veneration of Our Lady of Guadalupe has been particularly strong among women in Mexico, and Our Lady of Guadalupe’s role in Mexican history is not limited to religious matters; she has played an important role in Mexican identity.
In 1810 Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla — known as the father of Independence from Spain —named her as the patroness of the revolt he led. The image of the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared on the rebels’ banners, and the battle cry was “Long Live Our Lady of Guadalupe.” Every year her continuing significance as a religious and national symbol is reaffirmed by the millions of pilgrims who visit her shrine in Mexico City and those located in every city, town, and hamlet in the country.
Even some non-Catholic Mexicans call La Virgen de Guadalupe a source of peace and unity in their lives. It seems obvious that she is more than a Catholic icon. To the faithful, she is “the heart of Mexico.”
This year in Mexico City, more than 5,000,000 people are expected to visit the Basilica de Guadalupe on Dec. 11 and 12. Next to the Vatican, this site receives the most annual visitors of any Catholic shrine in the world.
Each year, here in Mérida at the Church of San Cristóbal at Calle 50 and Calle 69, tens of thousands of pilgrims — from children to the elderly — from all over the state arrive to show their devotion and offer their thanks to the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Starting a week before the feast day along all the roads leading to Mérida, Antorchistas run in relay groups from towns and villages to San Cristóbal’s church. If they can’t run, they walk, bicycle, or catch a ride on anything with wheels. When they finally arrive, they are exhausted but euphoric having affirmed their devotion to the faith that sustains them through hardship.
There are detractors who are not in favor of religious fervor. But this country has so many challenges, and if the “Mother of all Mexicans” offers a warm embrace, a sense of peace, and some relief from the day-to-day worries… perhaps it is a good thing?
To watch or participate in the festivities of the Dia de Guadalupe, bring flowers or candles to one of the many altars. On Sunday, the antorchistas will run, ride their bikes and roll their way into the Plaza surrounding Mérida’s Church of San Cristobal. The singing, prayer, and joyous smiles are infectious. There is food for sale, music, and dancing, culminating at midnight with fireworks and the singing of Las Mañanitas. Celebrants camp along the sidewalks. Some will sleep, and others will stay up all night. Masses and other religious observances will continue all the next day. This day also marks the beginning of the celebratory month in Mexico running through Three Kings Day on Jan. 6, colloquially known as Guadalupe – Reyes.