December 12th marks the celebration of Saint Guadalupe when millions of Catholics throughout the country go on a pilgrimage to the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City. The day of the Virgen de Guadalupe has been a national holiday in Mexico since 1859.
Tijuana, too, has its pilgrimage to the most prominent church of the city, the Cathedral of Our Lady Guadalupe. Located in the heart of downtown, the Church is considered a historic site. This was also likely Tijuana’s second church, built in 1902. The sanctuary burned during the 1911 Magonista insurrection and was only rebuilt in the 1920s. The church was remodeled and enlarged at least twice during the 1920s and 1930s. In 1948, the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe achieved Cathedral status. (in T.D. Proffitt III’ Tijuana: The History of a Mexican Metropolis p. 78)
The Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe
Outside the cathedral today, vendors sell candles and many other religious items. In years past, people have gathered in Miguel Hidalgo market and marched on foot or in decorated trucks toward the cathedral. Fireworks will fill the sky. A mass honors the Virgin. Often little boys dress like Juan Diego and girls wear traditional costumes.
At the head of the processions were several dozen women dressed in white and light blue, members of the Legion of Mary. “Always, when I have problems, she helps me,” said Rosario Buenrostro, 68, who has been praying to the Virgin of Guadalupe since she can remember.
A Mexican Tradition
The holiday not only holds importance for Catholics, but also for Mexicans in general. In 2002 Pope John Paul II canonized Juan Diego, making him the first indigenous American saint. He also declared Our Lady of Guadalupe the patroness of the Americas.
The story of Juan Diego and the Virgin of Guadalupe goes back to the colonial period when missionaries sought to convert the indios to Christianity. As T.R. Rehrenbach describes in Fire & Blood: A History of Mexico:
Late in the year 1531 the missionaries were provided with an enormous breakthrough to Amerindian hearts. According to the story, a poor indio who had been baptized as Juan Diego had a dazzling vision of the Virgin Mary at the northern terminal of the causeway from Mexico at Tepeyac. The Lady spoke to Diego in his native tongue:
“Beloved son, go you to the bishop and tell him to build a church to me on this spot, so that from it I may give help and protection to the Mexican people in their sorrows and calamities.”
Juan Diego rushed to the bishop, Juan de Zumarraga, but was turned away. Again the Virgin appeared to him, instructing him to climb the hill of Tepeyac, a blasted spot covered with snakes and cactus, but where he now found a profusion of Castilian roses. He gathered them in his native cape, and at last was ushered in to see the bishop. As he spread the roses, it was seen that the cape had become imprinted with the image of a radiant, dark-featured Amerindian maiden.
Zumarraga has been accused of inventing this useful miracle. The story, however, has the aura of Amerindian visions. In any case, the vision, which became accepted by the Church as the miracle of the Virgin of Guadalpue, had an explosive effect in Mexico. The Spanish Church admitted that the Mother of God could appear to a poor indio, speak to him in Nahuatl, and if she chose, show herself as a dark-faced Amerindian. The cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe was peculiarly appealing to all with native blood. From that time forward the Lady of Guadalupe was the patron of Mexico, venerated under many names: Our Mother, La Morenita, Our Lady of Sorrows; to this day indios approach the altar of her shrine on the hill of Tepeyac on their knees.
In the next fifteen years, nine million Amerindians were baptized.
Catholicism and Saints
How did Catholicism take root so effectively with indigenous peoples in Mexico, even as the Spanish colonists were brutal, warring invaders? The answer may actually go all the way back to Roman times on the European continent.
The Roman Empire–which at one time spanned throughout most of the European continent as well as the Middle East–was a pagan society. As the saying goes, there were as many gods as there were people. When Emperor Constantine demanded that his empires people convert to Christianity in the 4th century A.D., the founding fathers of the Catholic Church at first found it to be an extremely difficult task. For many generations pagan traditions of worship had existed. The people wanted to continue their worship of Mithras and Serapis, for example. They enjoyed their stories of miracles, their pilgrimages made to shrines and their offerings.
So the Christian priests came up with a brilliant compromise: they created saints, both male and female. These saints could be as numerous as people wanted. Worship of the saints could include the previous pagan traditions of pilgrimages and miracle stories. Nowhere was the blending of paganism and Catholicism more obvious than in the Roman Empire.
When the Spanish colonists came to the New World many centuries later, they too had Catholicism on their side. The religion already had a tradition of fusing indigenous traditions into the ‘mainstream’ form of Christianity. Indeed, following the Conquest in 1519–21, the Spanish destroyed a temple of the mother goddess Tonantzin at Tepeyac outside Mexico City, and built a chapel dedicated to the Virgin on the site. Newly converted natives continued to come from afar to worship there, often addressing the Virgin Mary as Tonantzin.
Outside the Cathedral, religious vendors have stands where you can buy all manner of religious items. These too are fascinating and significant.
Eileen Oktavec wrote a book called Answered Prayers: Miracles and Milagros Along the Border, which tracks the tradition of offering milagros to saints, a practice shared by Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, the Tohono O’odham and the Yaquis.
Oktavec spent two decades documenting the tradition along the Arizona-Mexico borderlands. She explains that a milagro, which means “miracle” in Spanish, is also an object for which a miracle is sought. So someone may buy a silver object that looks like a leg in order to hope that a crippled leg may be healed. She has described the many different kinds of milagros collected for Saints Days and described personal experiences of many pilgrims within her book.