The Virgin of Guadalupe on a cliff face at the beginning of a particularly dangerous stretch of highway in Sonora. The text says 'Little Virgin, care for us.'

Jim Griffith

Her picture appears in every possible context: in churches, on t-shirts, on low rider cars, even sprayed on boarded-up windows. She is the Patroness of Mexico, the Virgin of Guadalupe. The philosopher Octavio Paz once wrote that she and the National Lottery are the only things that Mexicans believe in. And December 12 is her day.

Here’s a shortened version of the story:

It was the 9th of December, 1531, a scant 12 years after the Conquest of Mexico. A recently converted Christian Indian named Juan Diego was walking past a hill called Tepeyac, which had once been sacred to the Aztec goddess Tonantzin — “Our Mother.”

Near the hill, he heard a voice calling his name. He looked up and saw a beautiful woman, radiant as the sun. She identified herself as the Virgin Mary, and told Juan Diego to go to the Bishop and tell him that she wanted a church built on the spot where she stood. Juan did as he was asked, and failed to interest the Bishop. Juan returned to Tepeyac and reported his experience. The Virgin told him to try again. This time the Bishop told Juan to bring a token from the Virgin as proof.

Two days later, Juan saw the Virgin once again, and she told him to go to where he had first seen her, gather the roses he would find there, and take them to the Bishop. He did so, wrapping the December-blooming flowers in his tilma or cloak. Arriving in the Bishop’s presence, he spilled the roses to the floor, revealing a portrait of the Virgin on the tilma.

It is this portrait on the original tilma that hangs in the Basilica of Guadalupe at Tepeyac to this day, and this is the image that has been reproduced countless times in all possible media.

The fame of this dark-skinned Virgin, the “mother of all of those who dwell in this land,” grew slowly. By the 17th Century, she was looked upon as the protectress of Mexico-born Spaniards, and, later, of Indians. In the early 19th Century her image was carried by the armies seeking independence from Spain. Later still, she has become a unifying symbol of Mexico and Mexicans — “the mother of us all.” She has gone wherever Mexicans have gone, always with a particular interest in what bureaucrats might call “under-served populations.”

In the days to come, you may see special, miniature Tepeyac hills, complete with cactus and roses, erected outside Catholic churches on the southwest side. You might see houses decorated for her day. And inside those houses, you might well find elaborate home altars erected especially for her. For, after all, she is Mother of Mexicans and Queen of the Americas.