In Mexico, December 12 is one of the most important days of the year, the day when thousands of Catholics make the pilgrimage to Mexico City to celebrate the Lady of Guadalupe, a national symbol of Mexico and the country's patron saint. At the Basilica of Guadalupe, they honor the miracle that took place nearby more than 450 years ago when Mary, the mother of Jesus, is believed to have appeared to Juan Diego, an indigenous man. So many pilgrims arrive each year that the Basilica of Guadalupe is one of the most visited Catholic shrines in the world.
According to the story, on December 9, 1531, Diego, an early Mexican convert to Christianity, was walking on a hillside near Mexico City when he heard music and saw a young woman outlined by a radiant glow. She had indigenous features and clothes and spoke to him in his own language, Nahuatl, the pre-Columbian language of the Mexica. She told him that she was the mother of the one great God, and asked him to tell the bishop of Mexico, Juan de Zumarraga, to build a chapel to her on the site where she appeared.
Diego relayed the message to the bishop, but Zumarraga asked him for evidence of his apparition. When Diego saw the woman again several days later, she gave him roses, which he carried in his cape to the bishop. Opening his cape in the bishop's presence, the roses fell to the ground, revealing an image of the woman exactly as she had appeared on the hillside. That day was December 12.
At the time of these events, only one decade after the empire of the Mexicas fell to Hernán Cortés, the Spanish had destroyed the Mexicas' temples and icons and had begun efforts to convert the people to Christianity. But during the first years of Spanish rule, missionaries who arrived in Mexico were having little success convincing the people to abandon their old gods and convert.
Diego's story soon changed the missionaries' fortunes. As the story of his vision spread, the woman called the Lady of Guadalupe grew to be revered by the indigenous population. That the mother of God would appear wearing traditional indigenous dress and speaking the native language had great impact on the local population, leading to a flood of Christian converts.
These conversions possibly were aided by the fact that Diego's description of the mother of God with dark skin and indigenous dress was strikingly similar to the way the Mexica portrayed their goddess Tonantzin. A small chapel was built to honor the Lady of Guadalupe in the 1550s on the spot where she appeared and on the site some believe was previously occupied by a temple to Tonantzin.
Early in the 17th century, some clergymen in Mexico City saw in the Lady of Guadalupe an opportunity to combine indigenous religious elements with traditional Christianity to bring their community together—Indians, Africans, Spaniards, and Creoles. In the following decades, her reputation was strengthened by the credit she received for a number of miracles, including saving the city from floods in 1629-1634. Her original shrine was rebuilt in 1622, and again between 1695 and 1704 in a grand Baroque style. In 1736, after an outbreak of disease that she purportedly helped to end, the Lady of Guadalupe was named the spiritual protectress of Mexico City. In 1745, the Vatican recognized Diego's vision as a miracle. Two new basilicas were later built, one in 1904 and the latest in 1976.
By the end of the 17th century, the Shrine of Guadalupe became Mexico City's signature building as evidenced by the number of paintings that used it to symbolize the city. It also became the most widely renowned of the many shrines devoted to incarnations of Mary throughout the Americas.
To some people, the Lady of Guadalupe represents a synthesis of Christian and indigenous beliefs created to encourage the local people to convert to Christianity. To others, she signifies a successful attempt by the clergy and Creole population to forge a local identity and sense of community out of Mexico City's widely diverse populations. But to many of the faithful in Mexico, the Lady of Guadalupe serves as a symbol of national pride, as well as a revered religious figure.