La Virgen de Guadalupe Among Us

They say that if you tell a mejicano there is no God, he may shrug his shoulders and go about his way. God forbid you tell him that the Virgen de Guadalupe was merely a Spanish story made-up by los conquistadores to speed-up Catholicism in the New World. Ah, good luck with that….The Virgin of Guadalupe is the symbolic mother of mejicanos and their descendants. Everywhere. She personifies a peoples identity, history, culture and language. Andy Porras, La Prensa 12/7/2012

Reposted from Dec 12, 2012

“La Virgen” Mario Torero 1978 Chicano Park

La Virgen de Guadalupe, the Catholic patron saint of Mexico, is without doubt the most deeply loved and revered religious presence there and among Mexicans everywhere.  La Morenita-the Beloved Brown Skinned One– is also inextricably intertwined with Mexican national identity.  She is a fusion of Mexico’s indigenous peoples with those of the European conquest,  testimony to what writer Richard Rodriguez describes as  the “absorbent strength of Indian spirituality.”

Her brownness, her constancy and her accessibility to those who suffer are her hallmarks. Yet those alone do not explain her ubiquitous presence and devoted following.  It is not difficult to find images of the Virgen de Guadalupe at any time of the year in City Heights.  Small stores on University Avenue sell blankets, key chains, candles, clocks, clothing and jewelry with her image. In the past it was not uncommon to see guys walk by on my block with a tattoo of the Virgen on their arms or shoulders.  I was told that they were inked in prison. My own front porch has a now badly broken ancient plaster Virgen watching over the house.

Guadalupe- Pabel 1992

La Guadalupana is a remarkably rich and complex cultural symbol.  She not only understands the suffering of the poor, she is perceived as an active agent of the poor.  The Chicano movement of the 70’s turned her into a symbol of resistance–  the Undocumented Virgin, the Warrior Queen, the Proletariat Virgin.  She is present in soup kitchens, jails and the poorest barrios. She has resonance with people who are not necessarily religious or Mexican–which is to say people like myself–an east coast eastern European transplant.

December 12th is the Virgen’s feast day. Here in San Diego, there will be church services starting on the 11th.  The midnight service is particularly popular- it is when the traditional Las Mañanitas is sung.   The churches will be packed.

Las Mañanitas A La Virgen De Guadalupe 2011  Basilica D.F.

The celebration in Mexico is something else.  Thousands of pilgrims, carrying torches and images of La Guadalupana, make their way to the Basilica in Mexico City for the church service.  Some of los peregrinos have walked for many days, joining an ever larger crowd as they approach the capitol.  They will gather and sleep in the plaza around the church.

Closer to home, pilgrims in Baja Mexico walk north to the church, Catedral de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in Tijuana, which is specially decorated every year for the occasion. Open air stalls line the blocks around the church selling all of the components necessary to complete a nativity as well as images and statues of the Virgin.  Further away there are stalls filled with talismans and charms that exist outside of the official church doctrine.  Children are dressed as Juan Diego or as diminutive Guadalupanas.  There is a parade and pilgrims arriving from throughout Baja Mexico, and there are mariachis in the church heralding their arrival.

 Catedral de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, Tijuana, MX

Over the past decade or so I have made the annual journey to Tijuana to celebrate.  A number of those journeys have been particularly memorable. Although I have never gotten the hang of when the parade would start and the church service would begin, every so often we have gotten it just right.  Getting it just right is a thrilling experience. The Catedral is the fixed point of activities, with the constant press of thousands of people entering the church, shopping in the stalls along the perimeter or entering the combination mercado/restaurants/entertainment area  in the blocked off streets in front of the church.

The other point of activities is along Calle Revolución.  In the evening a parade of floats and dancers slowly makes its way along Revolución before turning toward the Catedral.  The floats are sponsored by religious, social and union organizations. They are a bright visual feast.  Many of the floats present some aspect of the Virgen’s appearance to Juan Diego.  The children who portray these personages attempt to remain appropriately reverent and immobile as the float lurches along.  One year a young Guadalupana was perched at the top of a very high “hill.”  The height required careful maneuvering beneath the high tension wires suspended mere inches from the top of her head.  The float would stop as men with long forked wooden poles lifted the wires an extra few inches above the child’s head, and the float would continue.

Rockets are set off from within the crowd, which adds an additional  frisson to the experience.  They are launched from what looks like five gallon plastic pails.  I have no idea what is contained within the pail, but suddenly there is a whizzing sound and an explosion of falling stars above the crowd and we all applaud and are happy.

Celebración-Virgen de Guadalupe (Tijuana B.C. Mexico) 11 de diciembre 2011

There are dancers–feathered Azteca dancers.  Once we saw the traditional dance of the Old Men- Los Viejos.  The very best  parade occurred  the year when a line of commercial truck cabs passed before us.  The cabs were spit shined and glowed in the lights.  The drivers leaned upon the horns and the most wonderful joyful cacophony erupted from those beautiful  machines. How could La Virgencita not smile down upon us?

At the intersection of the major streets in front of the Catedral, artisans have built dramatic “sets” enclosed on all sides but the front.  They are large enough and high enough to accommodate a couple of seated adults.  These nichos are decorated with plastic flowers, twinkle lights, fountains and large statues or images of La Guadalupana. Someone snaps a polaroid picture for a few pesos.  Minutes later the photograph is presented  in a makeshift cardboard frame, often with an image of the Virgen stamped upon it.

La Emperatriz de las Américas with eastern European transplant. Tijuana 1997

Each of these nichos is a unique interpretation of an old well known story that dates from the sixteenth century and at the same time they reflect current tastes and events.  One year all of the nichos used sunflowers as well as roses.  The year that Pope John visited Mexico was reflected in the number of his portraits displayed close to the Virgen.  Always, there are the children, dressed up for the occasion,  posed on a bench or sometimes on a fabricated donkey. The little boys have a dark mustache drawn above their lips, and the little girls have bright ribbons holding their hair.  Qué lindo! Qué precioso!

The last block or so back to the Catedral is almost impossible to navigate.  Churros vendors stand on the sidewalks with enormous vats of bubbling oil.  The press of human beings is not for the faint of heart.  Once I walked alone along this route.  My friend had decided to stay in the hotel and I was determined not to miss the activity at the church.   I had almost reached the steps in front of the church and I could feel something inside of me begin to waver.  Instead of being swept into the church with the crowd, I stood there, rooted with the crowd swirling around me.

Then an old man came up to me.  I couldn’t understand a word of his mumbled Spanish.  I could smell alcohol on his breath.  He took my hand. For a split second I wavered between “O shit” and “Why not….”  Then he was pulling me along with him up  into the church.  He crossed quickly to one side and we ascended the steps into the upper gallery and sat looking down down down upon the people below.  The old man and I smiled at each other.

The inside of the catedral was a beehive of activity.  People walked through the long alcove on the first floor to light candles and stand before portraits of various saints.  People continued to enter and leave.  Then a group of men came through the entrance with a large  tableaux of sorts on their shoulders.  It was decorated with  flowers around a statue of the the Virgen.  The pilgrims had finally arrived and they had entered too, led by a mariachi band.  This was the moment everyone had waited for.

The congregants sang and applauded.  The priest, dressed in a robe with the image of the Virgen extending from his chin to his feet, had only a minor role, moving mutely back and forth in front of the altar.  La Guadalupana, La Morenita had entered and she and she alone belonged totally to the people.  The people belonged solely and totally to her. Faces shined with joy.  People wept.  The mariachis filled the cavernous catedral with the sound of their heralding trumpets, the caress of the violins. We continued to sing.  A few penitents moved painfully on their knees across the floor below.

We laid down our burdens, our suffering. Put aside exhaustion.  We opened our souls to the Virgen of Guadalupe among us.

 Inside the Catedral  Tijuana 2011

I asked a number of the SanDiegoFreePress contributors to send me their own thoughts about La Guadalupana.

“Even though I was raised Catholic, for the longest time I thought each of the Virgins, whether of Guadalupe or Lourdes or Santiago de Compostela, was… ANOTHER VIRGIN!  I didn’t know which one was more important and after a while, when I got into my late teens I didn’t care.  I decided to stay away from them… Ohhh…just thought of this:  We have a great painting we bought a couple decades ago from a Baja artist named Pabel,  of the Virgin surrounded by Navy parachutists, Charger fans and decadent angels whom she views with disapproval.  When Pabel entered it in a major show on images of the Virgin in TJ so many people objected it was pulled from the show. ”  Bob Dorn


“The Virgin was a distant presence for me. As a Jew growing up in Mexico, in a Catholic country, December 12 was an important, but distant celebration. It was in the Calendar, Día de la Virgén. But as a kid, it could very well happen on another planet. Years later, as a student of Mexican History, at San Diego State no less, the Virgencita took more of not just a religious meaning, but the syncretism of the two cultures.

It was no longer distant. The Virgin Mother became the Mother Goddess at the bottom of the great pyramid at the Templo Mayor in Mexico City, Coyoxualqui. The Great mother, creator of the fifth world and destroyer of it, as it emerged in this new post conquest world of the men of the cosmic race.

Do most people in Mexico see these nuances? No. It has also become something many in the chattering classes will give lip service to, but go to the Capilla on Dec 12 with those crowds? Are you kidding me? It is over a million followers of the Marian cult, coming to thank her for miracles, on bended knee. So no, the very wealthy and upper classes will not come to mix with the rabble.”  Nadin Abbott

All images below by Richard Kacmar.




Anna Daniels

I left a moribund Western Pennsylvania mill town the year that Richard M. Nixon was not impeached for crimes against the American people, and set off in search of truth, beauty, justice and a beat I could dance to. Here I am.


  1. avatarL.A. Moore says

    Thanks for sharing a comprehensive view of activities surrounding the Virgen de Guadalupe’s Day. Controversy surrounds the visitation of the Virgen to Juan Diego in 1531 as no record of it exists in the journals of the bishop at the time. A written record first appears over 100 years later and limited technical analysis of the painting has not settled the debate.
    Some say the “miracle” was a contrivance to draw the Indian population into the fold of the Catholic-dominated Spanish empire. If true, it seems a bit of dark irony that she is a symbol as you write of the “suffering of the poor”– poverty which has its roots in former and continued domination of the wealthy over the powerless. What do you think?

    Perhaps it’s all beside the point. You write convincingly that the Virgin has been appropriated by the latino world well beyond it’s beginning in Tepeyac.

    • avatarAnna Daniels says

      I think the most resonant symbols- religious, national and cultural–exist because they can accommodate all manner of internal contradictions. They are complex prisms of our collective and individual desires.
      Performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña was particularly sensitive to the irony you pointed out and wrote that interpretation through a specific cultural lens (Chicano movement of the ’70s) reactivated and recontextualized the Virgen.
      Thanks for commenting!

  2. avatarBrent Beltran says

    Though I’m an atheist I decided to share your piece with my Facebook friends. Many of whom, including my wife, revere her. I’m not a fan due to her use in the European colonization of Mexico but I respect what she means to most Mexicanos.

    • avatarAnna Daniels says

      Brent- thank you for your generosity of spirit, particularly given your own position on the topic. I hope I made it clear in my post that I am an “outsider” in a very specific, important way. L.A. Moore raised a similar position to yours. Your comments are valued because there is no “homogeneous” perception. Thank you for providing readers with a deeper perspective.

  3. avatarJack says

    On my first trip to Paris many years ago, I of course visited the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris. Far away from Southern California and my mixed Anglo-Latino roots, I found one of the small chapels within the cathedral was the Chapel of the Virgin de Guadalupe. I found it to heartwarming to find something so Mexico/California in a faraway place. Judging by the number of candles burning, her little chapel was the most visited of all.

  4. avatarNadin says

    You know Brent, given the work I did in Colonial History, there is an aspect of superseding the older religions with the new. This is part of the mestizo culture that came out. According to Bernardo García Martínes in the Historia General de México , “the Spaniards wanted to impose, and largely did new paradigms.” In some ways what emerged was a syncretism that is breath taking, and one where if you know how to read the churches of Colonial Mexico, Ehecatl, the wind god, for example, is still present.

    Coyoxualqui, the mother goddess, is also present. Do you see this in the modern large urban centers? No. You find this in the pueblos of rural Mexico and in the indigenous communities. I hope I am not going too far afield here, but years later, when I was invited to witness a few sacrifices by local indigenous people, I got it. The old faiths of Mesoamerica are still with us, just under the surface…and in some ways the land of the Fifth Sun is still alive and well…

  5. avatar says

    Loved your story, Anna, and also that snappy word “syncretism.” Love all Mexican pre-Columbian and uber-superstitious customs, and the saturated color of their traditional folkways and handcrafts. Mexico is a heartbreakingly beautiful and exotic country on our doorstep. We don’t need a miracle to experience it, either, just a Sentri Pass.

    • avatarAnna Daniels says

      Thanks Fran! I’m surprised at the number of people who have lived in SD for decades and never ventured to Tijuana. When we took our first Spanish class at City College thirty some years ago, our teacher Julieta gave us a map and list of places to visit in Tijuana. The places included the glass blowing factory–long gone, and the Jai Lai Palace, the cathedral and Casa de Cultura. We were encouraged to get our shoes repaired in Tijuana. I remain grateful to Julieta for introducing us to Tijuana and Spanish. The rest as they say is history…

  6. avatar says

    Anna, beautiful writing! Although I’m not a Catholic, I truly admired the last pope, John Paul. I even got to see him on a trip to Italy in 2000. I also admire some of Catholic history including the “preferential option for the poor.” I couldn’t give you chapter and verse as to which cyclical it was in etc., but I know there is a tradition among some branches of Catholicism, I think the Franciscans in particular, to truly manifest Jesus’ teaching “inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these my brethren, it’s as if you’ve done it unto me.”

  7. avatarSergio Asunción says

    Thank you for your article, Anna. I was doing some research about devotion to this Virgin in San Diego and TJ during 2011 and 2012, but did not have the chance to see the celebration of her Feast Day in the later city.

    I am still compiling material to write my dissertation about this subject, so I would be delighted to know more about your perspective and experiences related to la Morenita. By the way, I think your analysis about “the most resonant symbols” is very accurate, and in tuned with current Anthropological consensus!

    • avatarAnna Daniels says

      Hi Sergio- I’ll get in touch with you so that we can talk more on the subject. I’m interested in hearing what you are doing. Thank you for the reading the article!

  8. avatarGonzalo Ramos Aranda says

    Les comparto a mi . . .


    Posada sobre la luna,
    cuidas mi nopal, . . . mi tuna,
    tornas suaves las espinas
    del mundo, en que me encaminas.

    Benditos siempre tus pies,
    nunca tocarán el suelo,
    tú te elevas, . . . así es,
    curando mi desconsuelo.

    Virgencita Guadalupe,
    hoy, rezándote, ya supe,
    de tu gran misericordia,
    al mexicano . . . la gloria.

    Madrecita de Juan Diego,
    a tus designios me pliego,
    manos de la imploración,
    de súplica, del perdón.

    Tu tez, de color morena,
    es calma que me serena,
    fe, esperanza, caridad,
    aullentando la maldad.

    Quiero que me hagas milagro,
    quites penas, trago amargo,
    que nunca nos desampares,
    que cuides nuestros hogares.

    Manto con el que nos cubres,
    bondad, la que tú descubres,
    mes diciembre, tu día doce,
    que de ti . . . mi alma goce.

    Autor: Lic. Gonzalo Ramos Aranda
    México, D. F., a 12 de diciembre del 2012.
    Dedicado al Sr. Ing. José Guillermo Romero Aguilar.
    Reg. SEP. Indautor No. 03-2013-051712171201-14