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From inside and outside the Guadalupe story

By: Joe Barrera
December 12, 2017 Updated: December 12, 2017 at 4:05 am
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If I can accomplish anything worthwhile, it would be to increase communication among groups in our diverse society. As an ethnic studies teacher, I present two approaches to understanding "social groups." The first is the "emic" approach, the perspective from inside a group, what people believe about themselves. The second is the "etic," the perspective from outside a group, what the observer sees. The religious and cultural feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, celebrated today, Dec. 12, is a good opportunity to see both "emic" and "etic" in practice. The story of Guadalupe, a Spanish name from the medieval Mozarabic term, "Wadi al Loup," "River of the Wolf," goes back to the conquest of central Mexico, carried out by the military and political genius, the captain from Castile, Hernan Cortez, in 1519-1521. Ten years later, the indigenous people were terribly oppressed by the Spaniards. The memory of this is still powerful in Mexico. This is an insider view. Mexicans today believe that to relieve the suffering of their ancestors the Virgin Mary appeared in 1531 to a Chichimeca Indian. The man was known by the Spanish baptismal name the Franciscan priests had given him, Juan Diego. The Chichimecas were nomadic Indians considered barbarous by the Nahuas in the Valley of Mexico. Juan Diego may have been a Chichimec, but some historians claim that he was an Aztec noble named Cuauhtlatoatzin (Cwat-la-to-at-zin), "Speaking Eagle," a name denoting high status. Noble or barbarian, Juan Diego's story is wonderful even if some think that he never existed.

Juan Diego had a religious fervor common to new converts. On his way to Mass on Dec. 9 he was confronted by the beautiful maiden whose image appeared three days later on his tilma, a cloak made of ayate fiber, from the maguey cactus. The young woman identified herself as the Virgin Mary, "mother of the very true deity," and said that she wanted a church built in her honor on Tepeyac Hill, the site of her visitation. A temple to the Aztec goddess Tonantzin Coatlalopeuh had once stood on Tepeyac, which led to the inevitable syncretic union of Catholic beliefs and Aztec religion. The lady sent Juan Diego to the Spanish bishop in Mexico City, a hard-headed Basque named Juan de Zumarraga, who of course did not believe him. But doubt turned to faith. According to the Nican Mopohua, meaning "Here is Recounted," the famous portrait of the Virgin Mary imprinted on the Indian's cloak and venerated by millions, is a miraculous depiction. It has been declared a genuine miracle by the Vatican for good reason, because most of the figure is painted with a nonfading, nonflaking paint, which has inexplicably defied the toll that 450-years should have exacted.

The emic approach presents la Virgen de Guadalupe as a religious and secular manifestation. We see that Mexican culture generally makes little distinction between the natural and the supernatural. La Virgen Morena, the dark virgin, is therefore both a genuine Marian apparition, an intervention in human affairs by the Mother of God, while at the same time she is a secular warrior woman leading oppressed Indians and mestizos, people of mixed blood, against the hated Spaniards and other oppressors. Padre Hidalgo, the George Washington of Mexico, charged into battle against the Spanish Royalist Army under the banner of Guadalupe. When the United States invaded Mexico in 1846, the Mexican Army fought under her banner. When Cesar Chavez led the Chicano farmworkers on strike for fair wages, they marched under the same banner.

The etic approach, on the other hand, sees Guadalupe in the light of science. Scientific analysis of the image shows many human touches, for instance, a crown which appeared at one time but has been removed. Some see the image as conventional Catholic iconography, even if mixed with Aztec symbolism, such as the black sash that pregnant native women wore. There is a Virgin of Guadalupe in Spain, another dark-skinned image, and when the Spaniards who venerated her heard the Indians pronounce the name of their goddess, Coatlalopeuh, "She Who Has Dominion over Serpents," it sounded too much like Guadalupe to be overlooked and the two quickly became one, to the satisfaction of Indians and Spaniards.

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Joe Barrera, Ph.D, is the former director of the ethnic studies program at UCCS and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

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