Four hills in the Valley of Mexico were considered sacred by its prehispanic inhabitants and, by many, still are today. Tepeyac, to the north, Chapultepec to the west, Cerro de los Baños on the east, and the Hill of the Stars to the south. The Basilica of Guadalupe is at the base of Tepeyac. Chapultepec Castle is at the top of the sacred hill of the west. The airport radar is on top of the Hill of Los Baños. The Cerro de las Estrellas is in Iztapalapa in southern Mexico City.
Tepeyac, located at the northern terminus of the causeway connecting Tlatelolco with the north shore of the Lake of Mexico, is where the Aztec goddess of fertility, Tonantzin, was worshiped. In 1531, it was also where the Virgin Mary, in her manifestation as Guadalupe, appeared to Juan Diego, a recently converted Indigenous merchant. In the minds of people of the time, María Guadalupe was very much a Spanish manifestation of the Virgin. In fact, before setting off on the dangerous trip across the Atlantic, many Spaniards had entrusted themselves to Guadalupe de Extremadura, a dark Mary, legended to have been carved by St. Luke. Yet here, at Tepeyac, she appeared as a living, beautiful woman, to an Indian, asking him to serve as her messenger to Bishop Zumarraga requesting that a church, dedicated to her, be built on that spot where she would be able to heal and care for her people.
Unlike most portraits of Mary, on Juan Diego’s cape she is dark skinned and stands alone, though visibly pregnant. Believers can find all kinds of symbolism in her clothing, the stars on her cape, the crescent moon she stands on, even the reflections in her pupils. And they can find a syncretism between her and Tonantzin.
Within very little time, Guadalupe became the dominant religious figure throughout New Spain, and areas it influenced. As the centuries passed her importance in the Church grew; to the point that now her shrine is more visited than St. Peter's in Rome.
Guadalupe is portrayed on Miguel Hidalgo's Insurgent Army's banner (see your new 200 peso note) and again carried into battle by Zapata's army during the Revolution; in the 20th Century right-wing Catholic groups began to rally around the Virgin of Guadalupe. In the 1970's Theologians of Liberation realized that she is the example to be followed: she appeared to an Indian, not a Spaniard, she met him on the outskirts of the center of power, she spoke to him in his language, Nahuatl; not Spanish, the language of the conquerors; she offered to help and to heal. Now both extremes of the political spectrum within the Church hold up the banner of Guadalupe. She permeates Mexican thought and culture. I've even met a Mexican Presbyterian minister who told me he is a Presbiteriano Guadalupano!
Guadalupe is becoming a strengthening link between North American nations. Last week I told you about the torch-running that goes on throughout Mexico with communities each getting their returning light and statue of Guadalupe home in time for December 12th’s morning mass. In recent years the torch-running has become an annual event from Mexico City to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NYC.
This year the International Antorcha Guadalupana departed the Basilica on October 3rd. It crossed the U.S. Mexican border on November 2 and will reach St. Patrick’s on December 12th. Along the way the torch will have been carried by thousands of runners and the flame will have been shared with hundreds of churches along the way. Each year the relay draws attention to the plight of immigrants in the U.S.
Families of migrants, documented and undocumented, are invited to participate in relaying the torch on the Mexican side of the border; their migrant brethren are among those who carry the torch in the U.S.
In 1945, Pius XII designated Guadalupe, Empress of the Americas, hence the flags of the American nations, and the silver crown above her image, in the Basilica. Her feast day, December 12, was officially recognized by all Catholic dioceses in the United States in 1988. In 1991, John Paul II declared it a Liturgical Holy Day throughout the continents, subsequently proclaiming her patroness of this hemisphere.