Americans may think that Independence Day, Cinco de Mayo or Día de los Muertos define Mexicans politically and culturally, but they may be surprised that the celebration of the Virgen de Guadalupe, held on December 12, is possibly the most important cultural factor that unites most Mexicans, regardless of where in the world they reside.
It is well-known that during December 9 through 12, 1531, la Virgen Morena appeared to San Juan Diego at Tepeyac, a hill the north of present-day Mexico City, and expressed her desire for a church to be built for her on that spot. Few are aware, however, that since then the power of this religious icon has carved the face of Mexico, that the Virgin has shaped and continues to shape our cultural and political identity in a profound manner.
After the conquest, the Spanish set about defining the social-political conditions of a colonial system that led to the division of the population into two political and social entities: La república de españoles y la república de indios. The relation of these republics to the Crown was never in question due to the royal laws that defined their existence. In matters of religion, it was another story. The Spanish and Creoles (sons and daughters of the former) strictly adhered to Roman Catholic dogma, especially after the Inquisition arrived. The indigenous people, on the other hand, created a hybrid form of Catholicism in which la Virgen de Guadalupe played the role of a goddess, with the silent consent of the clergy. Politically, then, the indigenous groups were subject to Spain, but in religious terms, they were guadalupanos, a distinct identity that separated them from the colonizers, the Spanish.
In the 18th century, the Creoles appropriated the Virgen de Guadalupe cult and used it to invent an early version or prototype of Mexican identity that served them well to differentiate themselves from their Spanish parents and thus make possible the War of Independence in 1810. Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, the leader of this movement, was well aware of the influence La Virgen had on the indigenous people, his main followers, and thus chose her image as the flag of the insurgents, turning her power against the colonizers. It is also telling that the first constitutional Mexican president changed his name from Félix Gutiérrez to Guadalupe Victoria, signaling the force underpinning the political and cultural identity of the new country that was México.
Ironically, the Virgen de Guadalupe didn’t play much of a role in the ideological battles between the Church and State that ensued after the founding of the nation. In fact, Benito Juárez and the reformists didn’t see the large indigenous population kindly because of their superstitious, religious beliefs. The reformist wanted to supplant these beliefs with the religion of nationalism through education, which didn’t turn out so well. In the 20th century, the revolutionary governments employed the same secularizing tactics and here we are today among its ruins.
It seems that after almost 200 years of independence, Mexican governments from the left and the right have failed to create a strong, secular, national identity. Thus, we may ask, if all the nation-building projects have been dismal failures, what has kept most of the country together after all the civil wars, foreign interventions, and revolutions? I would venture to say that it has been the Virgen of Guadalupe that has provided the glue necessary to maintain the nation intact. The Creoles and Hidalgo knew this in 1810 and so did the revolucionarios, such as Emiliano Zapata, in 1910. In moments of great turmoil and transition, to borrow a phrase, the force awakens, once more. That is, the power of the Virgen of Guadalupe.
Today, as we witness how the religion of revolutionary nationalism has crumbled and has left Mexico adrift in a globalized world, the Virgen de Guadalupe once again offers a safe harbor on which to anchor our communities. This is why national holidays, such as Cinco de Mayo, Día de la Revolución or Independence Day, are on the wane but the celebration of December 12th has grown by leaps and bounds throughout Mexico.
In my hometown, Copándaro, Michoacán, we honor La Virgen with a two-day fiesta with all the usual trimmings: danza de moros y cristianos, castillos, toritos, and other displays of fireworks. Of course, there are lots of migrants in attendance, cruising up and down the two main streets in their huge automobiles, dressed in every imaginable brand of clothes bought at outlets and malls in the United States. My town is hardly unique in this respect; celebrations of this type abound in towns and cities throughout Mexico, especially those with heavy migrant populations. During December the Virgin displays her magnetic power as people return from the USA, Canada, and Europe. For wherever Mexicans have established transnational roots her presence and her power are felt. Evidence can be found in all these places in the many churches and organizations bearing the name, Virgen de Guadalupe or guadalupano. In every Mexican community throughout the U.S., the fiestas in her honor replicate as much as they can those of the hometowns in Mexico, and it’s not unusual to participate in processions, hear masses with mariachis, enjoy conchero dances, ballet folklóricos, accompanied with Mexican food.
Yes, the Virgen de Guadalupe doesn’t need a stinking green card, she’s transnational and can be found not only in the miraculous image housed in the Basílica in Mexico City. Statues of her abound: she is in a lovely garden in El Cerrito del Tepeyac in Des Plaines, Illinois; as a fifty-foot wonder overlooking a green farm in Windsor, Ohio; and as a gold-painted statue amid the mountains in the town of El Ahuehuete in the state of Mexico, to name only a few.
So today, in what we can call México de Adentro y México de Afuera, people are celebrating the great fiesta de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. It’s not just a religious holiday but also a national day in the sense that she creates the cohesiveness that links our deterritorialized, exiled communities with our towns and cities of origin. The myths of the Revolution have lost the enchantment that produced 20th-century Mexican nationalism: it’s not Zapata, Villa, Carranza, the Constitution of 1917 or even the red, white, and green flag that gives us our sense of still belonging to something bigger than ourselves. It is la Virgen de Guadalupe that holds the center in the transitional period we’re going through. She’s the glue that bonds us together in our post-Mexican state.